Posted in two parts due to length. This is 1/2. Part 2 is here: http://gisho.livejournal.com/97407.html
It was raining; he remembers that most distinctly. It was raining inside, but as soon as he stepped through the door it was cloudy above but dry at street level, and he felt the chill breeze against his skin like a hundred tiny knives. It took him a few moments to realize that the chi was - not missing, not entirely, but lessened, a faint tang in the air that bore as much relation to the familiar glow of power from inside as a fog would to the ocean.
Well, that was alright. His powers came from within himself. He wouldn't need it. There were many things he would no longer need.
The sunset was glowing dimly to the west, hidden behind buildings. He wandered aimlessly through the streets, brushing against people - so many people, so violently alive, a stark contrast to the empty air around them. So many lights.
After a while he passed by a playground, surrounded by warm green bushes. He sat down on a swing set and watched a gaggle of children, none older than seven, playing on the merry-go-round. There was no grown-up in sight. He hadn't smiled like that when he was seven. He hadn't looked at the world so easily, so happily, without a thought of danger. How long ago had that been?
He couldn't remember.
One of the children, a little girl in a red dress, came over to him and solemnly asked, "Are you lost, mister?"
He blinked a few times. "I suppose so," he said. His throat felt dry and scratchy, and getting the words out was a challenge.
The girl nodded seriously. "You look lost. What are you looking for?"
" ... I don't know."
"You need a friend to help you look, then," the girl declared, and handed him a small stuffed dog.
Toshiki stared at it. It fit easily on his palm, and gazed up at him with tiny plastic eyes. "Thank you," he said automatically, to cover his confusion. The girl giggled. The dog was silent.
"I have to go home," the girl confided. "G'night." And without taking the dog back, she ran off, yelling to the other children. Without a visible signal or goal they scattered down the street, leaving Toshiki staring after them into the gathering dark and still clutching the dog helplessly.
After a while, for lack of anything better to do, he got up and wandered off, in a direction he thought was toward the sea. He stuffed the dog in his pocket to keep it safe.
His lips are wet with blood and he does not remember how they became so. Self-consciously he licks them clean, shivering at the salt taste. "I don't understand."
"It isn't necessary that you understand, only that you believe."
He nods, and takes another sip. "Of course."
"You're more powerful than you believe. In the other world, it will no longer be hidden."
There are too many shadows in the room; he cannot count them all. If he were to try he could be caught here for years, putting a number to something that flows and ebbs like the tide as the candle flickers and sways in the breezes of their breath, except that the candle would die long before he counted that many. Is it really that simple? Of course not; all magic has its price. But he is done with counting.
"I don't doubt that."
"Then you will not be wrong." There is a soft silken noise, and Toshiki adjusts the collar of his shirt. It feels wrong; too soft, too well-made. The sort of thing Kazuki might wear. This is not even ritual wear. The ritual will come later. He accepts the card and slips it into his pocket.
His wineglass is blood-warm in his hands. Is that where the memory comes from?
He takes a bite of his meat, chewing it carefully. Too much to think on, when he no longer needs to. Something is wrong which he cannot quite identify; there are hissing noises in the dark. Surely not? There are no serpents here, except the one who sits across the table from him, unsmiling, inviting. The meat needs salt, he decides. That was wrong.
This world is wrong. He doesn't belong here, comfortable though the pain has become. He touches the card and opens his eyes to brilliant light.
The newscasters described it as a freak snowstorm, and Tokyo was blanketed in greyish slush. If Sakura had been with him, she would have given him something warm to wear. She wasn't. Toshiki had a little money, although he didn't recall where he had found it. He went to a train station, feeling the cold soaking through his shoes, and stared at the schedules of arrivals and departures for a while before selecting a train bound for Fukuoka.
It was barely afternoon, and his stomach hurt. He couldn't remember the last time he had eaten. It had been a few days, he was sure. After a while he slept fitfully, leaning against the window.
From time to time he would open his eyes and watch the landscape floating past. He was not sure how much he saw and how much he dreamed. The moon was a glowing crescent above the hills, and at one point he though he saw the rabbit twitching its ears in the shadow. Then it pushed off and lept down to the arms of a little girl in the seat next to him, who caught it and scolded it gently. She was dressed in white lace. When he looked again she had vanished.
After a while he came more fully awake and realized that the seat beside him had been empty all along, although someone had left a book there. Picking it up, he discovered it was a copy of the Christian Bible, bookmarked with scraps of old newspaper. It was in English. Toshiki knew only a few words of English, and he set it down again, feeling vaguely dissatisfied.
The seat beside him was cold when he put his hand on it.
He dreamed later of Kazuki as he always did, and in his dream the girl in white lace watched them thoughtfully from across the aisle as he cradled Kazuki in his arms and fed him pomegranate seeds. Kazuki seemed half-asleep, gazing up at him with absent, exhausted adoration. The girl's eyes were keen and calculating. He found himself kissing Kazuki, begging him to wake up, but Kazuki just kept smiling and didn't move. His skin was going cold. The girl was speaking to him, her voice low and stern, but although he knew her words were desperately important he could not hear them properly over the pounding of his own heart. Don't look back, she said, and it was all he could hear. Whatever you do, don't look back.
Sometime a little after dawn the train pulled through the Kanmon Straights and he watched the reflections of the glittering sunrise.
When the train arrived in Fukuoka, Toshiki departed on foot, without a destination in mind. He didn't know the city, and he didn't know what he was going to do here. He wondered how he would get back to Tokyo. Then he found himself wondering whether he should bother.
She tugs at her skirt as if trying to hide behind it. It doesn't cover half her thighs. Toshiki politely looks away, staring across the park into the busy streets opposite. It had seemed best, all things considered, to meet in a public place. He does not know this girl, but he recognizes her. Her perfume is too thick and her skirt too short and the way she wraps her arms around herself tells him all sort of things, and he knows why Lucifer wanted her. He can smell blood over the exhaust haze.
"You can stop looking nervous," he tells her. "I don't even like women." She blushes and mumbles something inaudible. "This is business," he says, as reassuringly as he can. There are plenty of children who can use the cards; what Lucifer wants are the broken ones. Those, he said, with something to fight for.
Rena looks sideways at him. "Something to do with the school? I've seen you around. You work for Tower Arts, don't you?" She fingers her pocket, and Toshiki doesn't have to look down to know that there is where she keeps her deck of cards, and that she keeps them close always, deals them obsessively to herself late at night, when only her dolls are there to see. He nods. "You don't look like their type. How old are you, anyway?"
He has to think before he answers, "Nineteen," and even then he is not sure of the answer. He lost track of time. There are more winters in his memory than there should be.
"Then you remember what it's like. That's not too old. What do they want from me? It has to be a secret, or you wouldn't have brought me out here."
He inhales, tries not to be distracted. She unnerves him, with her little-girl eyes on the face of a grown woman, the body, when he is too used to the opposite. "You knew the cards were magical, didn't you?"
They look up at the trees, which are flowering madly. Rena smiles. "Of course I did. I'm not so old I don't believe in fairy-tales." He voice had gone sing-song. Toshiki looks over at her, really looks, and he sees nothing at all on her face that he would not expect from a porcelain doll, and he knows they're the same, deep down. He takes the Archangel Remiel from his pocket and deals it onto the bench between them. For a moment their fingers touch, and a breeze picks up the falling petals and swirls them around, leaving them the only ones in the world, surrounded by flowers. A world of eternal spring.
"I want you to help us create a new world."
He cannot hear her answer. The breeze is too strong and she is drawing away from him, spinning about with gawky grace and willfully ignorant of the hound lurking in the grass, knowing it will not bite her, not her.
It took him a few weeks of wandering, eating from trashbins and picking lost coins from the street for admission to the public baths, to get tired of Fukuoka. There was nothing for him there, either. He went to Kobe because it was the next train to leave.
He walked back and forth across the Akashi Bridge a few times, admiring it. The smell of the ocean was the strongest he'd ever known it, and there were few enough cars that it was easy to forget the bridge went from somewhere to somewhere, and imagine that it stretched out across the world, and if he just kept walking he would end in China, or going the other way, America.
Toshiki knew two things about his mother: she was American, and she had not loved him or his father. He did not care to know more. It didn't matter.
After a while he grew tired of the ocean, and hungry. He wandered along the shore until he came to a tall skeleton of iron, already half-encased in its glass shell. The workers at the top looked like ants. He pressed himself against the fence and watched them as the clouds rolled in from the ocean.
Sometime the next day the foreman came up to him and asked what he was doing there. Didn't he have anything better to do?
He shook his head, feeling inexplicably embarrassed.
The foreman sighed and wiped his forehead, taking a second look at his dirty clothing. "You're not a gaijin, are you." Toshiki shook his head again. "Lost your job? Got evicted? Or ... you're not a runaway kid, are you?"
"Something like that. Lost my job, that is." He leaned against the fence, glancing around. There were buildings all around, but the buildings were silent and the people were alive. People moving, working, going about their lives. He didn't belong here.
The foreman sighed. "Look, do you want to help us pound rivets? You look strong. I can pay cash."
A few days later Toshiki bought new boots. They were big and heavy and steel-toed, and he could feel the weight of them with every step he took. He liked the feeling, even if he sacrificed a bit of grace.
From here he cannot see Mugenjou at all, although he thinks he knows where it should be. It's often like that, Lucifer had told him. Mugenjou is visible only when it wishes.
But the air is clear and the sun so bright it leaves him half-blind, and he sits against the fence and deals himself a full hand. He will not join the games, but he has no objection to fortunetelling. These are the cheap replicas, of course. Still, they suffice.
Across from him the boy, the Archangel, crouches alertly and looks at his spread. He is silent, oddly; most of the time he will make odd remarks, small and sarcastic, the sharp wit of someone who has felt too much bluntness. Toshiki glances up and meets his eyes for a moment.
"Get on with it," the boy Gabriel tells him. "It's not like you're going to mess this up."
"I could." He looks aside; he is weak still, and ashamed. "I'm not as good with this as I should be."
"Good enough. You're his favourite, you know," the boy adds, and Toshiki looks back but now it is Gabriel's turn to look aside, eyes hidden beneath his bangs. "Lucifer's. He tells us how dedicated you are. How strong."
Toshiki does not realize for a long second that he has almost dropped the deck, and when he does he grabs at it almost desperately. "I thought you were. He smiles at you. All the time, you know. Even when you're not there, he smiles when someone mentions you."
The boy shuffles his feet, shakes his head. "Smiles are cheap. Get on with it; you'll do fine."
The air is suffocatingly hot. He absently wipes the sweat off his forehead and tried to take a deep breath, but he feels as if he's choking and he cannot finish it; he coughs involuntarily. The edges of the cards bite into his palm and he grips them tighter for support.
Toshiki closes his eyes for a moment before he looks. He has done this before,and he knows exactly what he will see, so well that he no longer bothers to see it with his eyes; it doesn't matter. He's not playing. Whatever he does will not change the outcome. He is no more than a card in Lucifer's hand.
They are none of them more.
"See?" asks Gabriel.
He drops the cards and they fall into the roof, retreating from his vision like stars streaming past backwards. This isn't his world. He should be waiting behind the gates of Hell.
Once, Kakei had been injured in battle defending Kazuki - of course he had been defending Kazuki; he would never have allowed himself to be injured otherwise. Kazuki's face had gone white and drawn and he had finished the battle with harsh determination, the kind of attacks that had earned him his title. Toshiki had been terrified enough, even knowing that Kazuki would never hurt him. Not with his threads, at least.
When it was over Sakura had tended to them, calm and graceful as always. Toshiki had not needed to look to see the expression of desperate relief on Kazuki's face when she said it was alright, Juubei was fine, he'd be on his feet in an hour or two. He had known it would be there; of course it would be there, Kazuki loved Kakei beyond all reason.
Toshiki had known that, and the knowledge had taken hold of his heart and frozen it silent and brittle.
He had spent the night standing watch outside their door, and Sakura had given him a sad look before vanishing, as she often did. He had listened as they whispered each other's names, gentle, reassuring, winding into each other until they could not be told apart. He had known that Kazuki had made his choice long ago, and Toshiki would never be worth more than a second glance. He had not permitted himself to cry; it would not have been right, when he had lost nothing, nothing that had ever been his to begin with.
When the buildings were finished, early the next spring, the foreman took a bunch of them out for steak dinners. It was Kobe beef, rich and marbled, and Toshiki couldn't remember the last time he'd eaten anything quite so flavorful. For a while now he had lived on all-you-can-eat ramen and the odd candy bar. It sufficed, but there was no joy in it.
There was joy here; the other workers were laughing and slapping each other on the backs, and clinking their bottles of beer together. The atmosphere of the whole restaurant was one of revelry. He watched through half-lidded eyes; the beer had left his head buzzing, and the atmosphere was close and oppressive. Too warm; he was sweating and he hadn't even been moving around. He wiped his forehead with the back of his hand and took another sip.
Tower cranes. He had looked up at Babylon Tower and seen the strange metal frames outlined against the sky. At evening when the clouds had swirled red their lights had become visible; they weren't far enough to be stars and not close enough to be streetlights, and somehow he had imagined them as the glowing yellow eyes of malevolent creatures, winged creatures perched on the frames and waiting their chance to swoop down and carry someone away. He had wondered what the things were called. Now he knew: they were abandoned tower cranes. He knew how to lift a tower crane to the next story as a tall building grew. He knew how to operate a cutting torch, and how to weld two massive iron beams so they would move in unison even when an earthquake hit. He would never have expected to know more than he needed to fight.
He still did not like to see lights above him in the evening sky.
"Hey," the foreman said to him when they wandered outside, later, for a breath of fresh air. "We're got another job lined up. Other side of the city."
Toshiki made a noncommittal noise and leaned against the side of the restaurant.
"You want to come along? You do real good work. I might be able to fake some papers, put you on the crew officially." The foreman gave him a friendly smile, and it was disconcerting how easily he had fit in here. Toshiki could see it quite easily. He could say yes, and he'd keep working here, make friends - real friends, not the friendly respect of co-workers who never talked except over lunch - make a career of it. In ten years he'd be a foreman. He'd find a nice little apartment and maybe meet a nice young man, and the memory of Fuuga would fade like a bad dream, and he'd even come to like the lights of tower cranes against the sky.
But he had already said, "No." He half-smiled and tried to follow it up with some sort of explanation. "No. I'm leaving Kobe."
The foreman looked a little disappointed. "Where to?"
"Dunno. North, I think." He shrugged. "Maybe west. Some little town. I'm tired of the city."
"Well, you find another crew, you can call me and I'll vouch for you."
Three train stations outside of Kobe, he discovered that he had stuck the foreman's number in a magazine he had picked up to keep from staring out the window, and given to a man who left with it at the last station. Secretly he was a little relieved. He settled in for a nap, clutching the stuffed dog, and dreamed of sparkling wheels on dark roads.
Sakura had always been kinder to him than he deserved. He had had no notion why. She had smiled at him and welcomed him to Fuuga, and when he scuffled with her brother, as was more or less inevitable, she had stood aside rather than taking her brother's side; afterwards she was ready with comfort for whoever had been more hurt. He had not understood her. But then, Toshiki had never understood women. They were distant and strange and soft, and he had not even had the hard-edged hunger of a normal man to drive him close to them, try to scry out their hidden corners. He had known for a long time he was not a normal man.
He had been astonished at Sakura's strength the first time they stood together in battle, but the astonishment had faded quickly; of course she had been strong, she was Kazuki's follower and he would not have allowed someone weak to stay so close. She had smiled at him and she had struck down her enemies with that same soft smile. She was protecting the ones she loved; he had realized that soon enough.
She had been graceful and elegant and she had never hesitated, and she had not minded the sight of blood, although she never drew it. Her methods had, of course, been gentler. Her enemies had fallen for simple lack of air.
She had worn the very same smile when she invited him to lay with her, and he had almost been embarrassed to refuse. It would have been neat and balanced, and Toshiki had not thought there was much balance left in his life, however steady on his feet he was - had to be - in the dance of battle. But she had nodded as if she had expected nothing else, and touched his cheek. He does love you in his own way, she had said, but Juubei was there first.
Toshiki had tried to be kind to her, although he barely knew how. But soon enough he had given up the attempt. He was a warrior and kindness was not in his nature.
Sakura had never tried to make him into anything else, and for that he had been able to gather a few scraps of gratitude.
"God, you've got a stick up your ass," the boy says, and leans against the stone wall. "What do you do around here anyway?"
Toshiki can't quite fathom. He is not accustomed to giving orders. Having subordinates annoys him, and although they call him "Chief" he cannot shake the notion that they resent him, or obey out of whimsy instead of true devotion. It is a relief in a twisted way to be insulted so frankly, and he sits down heavily and tugs at his uncomfortable necktie. "I serve Lucifer," he finally says. "I'm his knight. You're one of the Archangels, aren't you?"
The boy raises an eyebrow. "How many of us are there?"
"Two, so far."
The sun casts red shadows over the pews, and glints off the boy's glasses. Toshiki follows him with his eyes as he wanders up to the altar, gazing dispassionately. Toshiki had not recruited him, and does not know his secret. "What's your name?" he asks abruptly.
"Weren't you listening? Uriel."
"No. I mean your real name."
The boy's smile is quite odd as he pulls a lighter out of his pocket and begins, one by one, to light the candles on the altar. The shadows are already dancing around the corners of the room, although they do not quite touch him yet. "I know what you mean, Uryuu-san. To you, I'm Uriel." Toshiki does not know how many candles there are on the altar. He looks up at the dark windows and thinks that this boy is too old for himself. Remiel was too young. It's an odd effect; he supposes both are defences, in their own way. Like his own sullen silence.
"Lucifer said he was looking for the broken ones," he says to the darkness.
The boy raises his green glass bottle. Toshiki does not know where he picked it up from. "We trading, then? My sister was a golden girl who could do no wrong, and I got tired of playing second fiddle and became a recluse. I only came out for the sake of the game. You?" The wine leaves blotches around his lips like dribbles of blood. Toshiki touches his collar again, the absurd clothing that traps him in the part assigned to him. In a suit he is invisible during the day, one more anonymous employee. Middle- management. He hates it. He is meant to be a loyal servant and that he must wear this disguise to keep close to Lucifer makes him want to scream. It suits Lucifer better; he glides in the world of ordinary people with smooth charisma, murmurs of polite greetings like incantations. Toshiki keeps close and tries not to think how Lucifer is the only man there worth looking at.
"The man I loved betrayed me."
The thick taste of the wine was unexpected. Glints of candlelight danced on the boy's glasses, and Toshiki couldn't see his eyes. After a few seconds he pulled back and wiped at his lips. "Love is overrated," he said. "Important, but overrated."
Something is wrong. He is sure that that was not supposed to happen.
Toshiki blinks away the darkness and tries not to wonder why his chest hurts, but the sharp pain is the only thing his mind will focus on, and the shadows of the candles dance across his vision and make the world over into a whirling incomprehensibility. Red wine drops splatter his collar and he knows instinctively there is no way to make them clean again.
It was more than a year before he found a place he could rest. He bounced around most of the southwest of Japan, instinctively avoiding anything closer to Tokyo than Kansai, taking jobs a week or a month at a time, trading words in ones and twos. He travelled by slow train and bus and foot and finally, by boat, chasing a rumor of small-town quiet.
The Oki Islands were clean and broad and welcoming, and Toshiki felt not the least inclination to settle down there. Still, the idea of spending a season or two was appealing. He liked to watch the cattle grazing peacefully on the hillsides, and the fishing boats gliding up to the dock with each day's catch. He found work in a cannery and rented a spare room from a middle-aged woman with three children in college, whom she was terribly proud of and talked about at every opportunity.
At night he would sit outside and watch the stars. He was overcome with vertigo sometimes at the swirling darkness; in Mugenjou the sky had never been this clear or this overwhelming. Sometimes in the daytime he thought he saw birds circling, far up and away.
He told himself he'd leave that fall, after the tourists stopped coming. September, maybe. It was hard to tell sometimes who was a tourist and who was moving to the islands to retire. Sometimes he would stop by the town's more popular bar and listen to the conversations there. Sometimes young women would flirt with him, and he would withdraw, not knowing how to respond. One night in late July he was approached by a man instead, a fellow with reddish hair and a cheerful grin. He was tempted for the space of several seconds, before the man laughed and pulled away, and reassuringly said he was kidding.
It was a good bit after midnight when he stumbled out of the bar and sat down on the grass, followed by the red-haired man and a woman with dark curls and beaded braids. The night was clear. There was a distant smell of salt and it was warm enough that Toshiki was sweating, even dressed as lightly as he was. The man pointed out the constellation Leo in the sky, with broad, unsteady gestures. He made some clever remark about lions, and for the first time he could remember Toshiki found himself laughing. He wasn't sure why.
The woman patted him on the shoulder. "You sure you're not having a seizure?"
"I'm fine," he told her, and was amazed to realize that it was true. "I'm fine. Really, utterly, completely fine." He laughed again. "Come on, let's not sit here all night."
The red-haired man tugged him upright and ran off down the hill.
They wound up at an entirely different bar where the woman made a surprisingly accomplished attempt at karaoke and and the man whispered dirty jokes at Toshiki until he was laughing so hard he couldn't pick up his beer. The evening was a bit of a blur by then, but somehow they wound up outside, and then on a boat, which he knew was a boat and not a deck because of the way it was rocking back and forth, even though he didn't recall walking up the gangplank. The dark-haired woman, who was probably the most sober of them, was singing again, something that sounded almost familiar. It couldn't be a lullaby, he decided. He hadn't known his mother long enough to remember lullabies, even if she had bothered to sing them. But it had that tone to it, and he found himself slumped against the red-haired man's shoulder, shivering with sudden cold. The man patted his head and pushed him away to lie down flat on the bench.
Sometime later he woke in an unfamiliar hotel room. The red-haired man was standing at the window, brushing his hair and humming, still in his underwear. He tried to focus on the light through the curtains, and guessed it was noonish. He swallowed uncomfortably. It was supposed to have been his day off, but he'd offered to help his landlady with her garden -
Suddenly it hit him how silly that was. He had no obligations to her. If he never showed up again, she'd fret a bit and then forget him. He didn't matter. He never mattered to anyone.
"Where are we?" he said to the ceiling.
The red-haired man smiled and turned to put his shirt on. "Matsue." The mainland? How had they gotten back? "Don't worry, the police aren't looking for either of us. Well, not for anything we did last night. I ordered up lunch, if you feel well enough." Toshiki realized his mouth was watering.
When the sun set and he still hadn't even looked for the ferry dock he realized his decision was made. He asked the man, rather sheepishly, if he could borrow a few dollars for a comb and a bus pass. The man cheerfully produced both, with a stage magician's flourish, from his bag, and kissed Toshiki on the cheek. Toshiki grinned back as he walked away.