Yeah, your eyes aren't deceiving you. This is actually a new chapter. A broken leg had given me ample time to rewrite PG, as well as piece together the lost bits, found while perusing an old hard drive. It is surprisingly fun to revisit the weird, endearing characters that populated my brain for so long. Hopefully someone out there will enjoy it. :) If not, well, I'll just be over here, chuckling evilly to myself...
Chicken Soup for the Damaged Soul
"You're just saying this because you're overprotective..."
"No. I'm saying it because its true. You're not one of us. You'd only be in the way. Now get out of here before Tatsuke gets bored and decides to play dress-up."
"I won't be in the way..." But my murmur fell on deaf ears. He was already gone.
"I'd love to know what you're so afraid of."
My head shot up, vision a rush of red velvet and gold filigreed tea cups before coming to focus on her face. Fern's dark eyes were unnervingly kind, a trait that made me both instantly suspicious of her actions and inherently trusting of her intentions. It made for some very confusing 'rehabilitation' sessions.
She nodded, her shiny black hair bobbing along with her, reflecting the light in a way that made me think of commercials for hair products.
"Yes. It's a topic we haven't covered yet."
My eyes narrowed. In the past few days we'd discussed everything from my childhood (even the tragic Spaghetti Pants Incident of sixth grade) to what kind of music I preferred (Mongolian Throat Singing did not translate well), to my feelings about the future of our species (Two words: We're doomed). As the demons planned for the life-or-death party-crashing that was to occur, I, playing the part of Silly Human, had been relegated to the little time-capsule antechamber Fern called home. Kareth had insisted that, "Despite the current upheaval, your mental state remains of utmost importance and should be treated accordingly."
I had to give the man credit; he really did take his humanitarian efforts seriously.
A bit too seriously, if you asked me, which very few people did. Being constantly exposed to the intensity of Fern's 'let me help you' face, I could see why she and Kareth were together. They both oozed compassion in the most irritating ways. A match made in Hell, apparently.
Fern was another thing. As much as I wanted to look up to her, see her as an example of the serene, introspective person I could one day become, I couldn't help but notice that she was... sheltered. I don't know if that was a result of her being raised in an era where women were more demure, or if all the time she'd spent hiding away from time and space in ASHSS headquarters had dampened her ability to express fervent emotion. Whenever I did or said something she deemed "extreme," she would politely sip at her tea, or straighten the folds of the blood red tablecloth and wait for me to regain my composure. It was not exactly condusive to "soul therapy." It wasn't her fault, though. I'm sure she was just used to her "patients" being a bit more pliable and a bit less prone to sailor-like outbursts of rage.
"Mirei?" She murmured.
"You are doing it again."
"That thing where you stare blankly at me whenever I ask you a question you don't want to answer."
She started straightening the tablecloth again.
"You're still doing it."
I shrugged. "Nobody's perfect."
A little crease developed between her thin dark eyebrows, like a pucker in an otherwise perfectly made bed.
"You're not going to tell me, are you?"
I smiled. "Now you're getting it."
For the first time in the five days we'd been having these little sessions, she outright frowned at me. It was enough of a reaction for me to sit up straighter. Was I getting to her? How excellent. I was starting to think these little therapy sessions were a big waste of time. It was bad enough to be cut out from all the excitement of planning the Akumi operation. I tried very hard not to think about how all of the demon folk, with the exception of Kareth, seemed to be avoiding me. Kaonal and Varian's absence from my life was more of blessing than anything, but even Tatsuke and Sumisha hadn't said more than a cheerful greeting to me in days.
No. I was not thinking about him.
I was not thinking about the last thing he'd said to me.
And I was certainly not thinking about the fact that he had been outright avoiding me for days.
All of this led me to the conclusion that if I didn't at least get Fern to yell at me, then this would have all felt so... untheraputic. But yelling wasn't Fern's strong suit, and she was matching my obstinance with a spectacular sense of calm.
She tried again. "Mayhaps we can speak about Maiku today."
"We could talk about how you're feeling about his unfortunate betrothal to the demon lady."
Again with the glower. I was really developing a marketable skillset here.
"... Or about how this time apart could help you gain a little perspective on your feelings for him."
This time I threw in a teeth gnashing, imagining grinding up all those stupid feelings like a brontosaurus would to delightful leafy growth.
She set her teacup on its saucer with a little more force than was strictly necessary. The ceramic clank made my teeth hurt. Maybe we were reaching the breaking point after all...
"Mirei," she started firmly, "I cannot help you if you are unwilling to help yourself. I thought we could work through things, but you are making it... difficult."
I snorted. "Fern, we're sitting in a tearoom straight out of a Jane Austen novel while your demon lover and his cohorts plot to outsmart an ancient sorceress by crashing her big ole hell party so she can't claim Maiku's body and soul for her own entertainment. It is ALL a little difficult."
I twirled a finger in the air.
"Why don't we talk about something else today? How about you explain to me how living in this creepy museum exhibit makes YOU feel?"
I could see the lump in her throat. "These sessions are not about me."
I leaned forward, eager to see her sweat. "Or we could talk about Kareth. What's the draw there? Is it some kind of Type A personality fetish? They say you always have to watch out for the quiet ones..."
She blinked and her eyes got that glassy look whenever I said anything bordering on uncouth. But this time, instead of simply sipping and straightening, she slid her fingers across the table and touched them to the back of my hand.
"I know, Mirei. I know this doesn't make sense, and the thought of trying to shuffle through the experiences you've had is so overwhelming that you would do anything to distract yourself. I want to help, but you... you are..." The words seemed to get caught in her throat, but she forced them out in a sharp whisper.
"You are being, in your words, a rather large pain in the ass."
I couldn't help but burst out in laughter. "Fern! Language!"
She flushed as her arm snapped back. Her head wagged back and forth in agitation as she turned her teacup around in those tiny, caramel-coloured hands.
"I apologize. That was unnecessary."
I slammed a hand down on the table. "Nonsense! It was completely necessary! I AM being a pain in the ass!"
There was a grunt from behind me.
"You? I'm shocked."
For the briefest of seconds, I imagined it was a different male voice and spun around so fast I made myself dizzy. The disappointment must have been written all over my face, because Kaonal sighed. The Wulphe brothers were remarkably similar in appearance, but I knew it was Kaonal simply because Kareth would have announced his approach by politely coughing. That, and because Fern always seemed to know when her lover was near, and tended to neatly wrap up conversations just before he arrived.
"Don't get too excited," Kaonal's voice was tinged with its usual ironic self-deprecation. "It's only me."
"Good to see you, brother," Fern said, the eternal hostess.
I wasn't too certain of the relationship between those two. Kaonal spoke kindly of his some-day sister-in-law, but never seemed to warm to her presence. Then again, he didn't seem terribly warm towards anyone. Except maybe Varian, and that behaviour was clearly the result of an unstable mind.
As if on cue, which is the way these bloody demons seemed to operate, Maiku's sister pressed into the doorway beside Kaonal. She wore a short, cap-sleeved cerulean dress that was tailored to fit her curves, tucking in at all the right places. Set beside her pale green hair, it gave her the aura of some kind of deep sea mer-queen.
"Have you been fixed yet?" She asked me as a kind of greeting.
I pretended to think about it. "I still feel crazy."
Her lips, stained peach today, quirked with amusement. "My brother will be relieved." I tried to hold it back, but I'm sure my face betrayed something because the quirk turned smirk faster than I could bite my tongue.
"There has been some progress," Fern added while giving me an apprehensive look. "... Some."
I held up a finger. "My dignity would just like me to point out that I don't really need any 'fixing'."
They all smiled, like I was a puppy learning to roll over and not quite making it. I bit the inside of my cheek to keep those sailor-like fits of rage at bay. Rage would not get me out of this room, and if I did not get out soon, I was going to go space mad and murder all the unicorns. Yes... ALL the unicorns.
I forced my expression to mimic Kaonal's detached interest. I am exactly three percent certain of my success. Ever since we'd arrived at ASHSS headquarters, it felt more and more like I was being put at the kids' table. It was enough to make a girl miss her goddess days.
I thought about the goryo, the sharpness of the ribbon around my neck. And the sharpness of Chie's fingernails forcing my skin into lace corsets while I screamed around a mouthful of grapes.
No. Not quite enough.
"So, how's the plan coming? If I've been counting right, you should be leaving tomorrow, right?" My tone was a bit more eager than I liked. I had hoped to, at the very least, wish everyone luck... Wish him luck.
"Don't worry about that now, Mirei," Kaonal said. "You just focus on your mental preparation."
I frowned. "Mental preparation for what?"
Varian, too, seemed confused. "What would she possibly need to prepare for? We all agreed she would be of no use, and probably harm, on the mission."
That stung. I pictured the scene. Varian and the Wulphes didn't keep it a secret that they thought humans were... delicate. Sumi wouldn't argue. Tatsuke would be the last to admit to my uselessness, being the sweet, disturbed soul that he was. I wondered what Maiku said. He might have some... interesting feelings towards me, but there was no denying that he thought me pretty incapable. The thought gave me a pang of nausea.
"I didn't mean anything by it," Kaonal said, voice low. "Just... there will be changes, and she needs to know how to deal with them without drawing attention to herself."
"What... what kind of changes?" I asked warily.
He caught my eye, like he'd just now remembered I was the subject of the discussion.
"All you need to know is that you're safe here, with ASHSS, with us. Our job is to get you back to your kind unharmed, and we have a plan in place to make that happen much sooner than we thought. We just need to make sure you are going to adjust smoothly after your ordeal."
That made me sit up straight. "W-Wait a minute. I'm going home? Like, for real?" The thought was an atomic bomb to my current mindset. I could stop having to deal with all this? I could just... leave? Did I want to just leave? My own indecision spun around wildly, a plastic bag gone walkabout in a strong breeze.
His smile seemed genuine. "I'm glad to hear you sound so excited. The last time we spoke, you seemed rather... comfortable with your current situation. Perhaps too comfortable."
"What do you mean by that?"
His pale lips pressed together, forming a long, straight line. "Let's just say, I'm glad Fern has talked you out of your infatuation. I thought it would fade if you two just had a little distance from each other, and I'm glad to see I was right. You know, I thought you'd resist more, but clearly your young human mind was only in awe of your new role as goddess, and of Maiku's considerable illusionary powers. I'm glad you are mature enough to-" He stopped, distracted by something Fern was doing.
I turned, only to see the end stages of an odd twitching motion she was making. It almost looked like a 'oh-god-please-stop-talking' type of gesture, but the Fern I knew was incapable of such a plebian expression. My brain then registered what Kaonal had been implying and I whipped my head back around to face him.
He was already backtracking. "-What I meant was, uh, simply that it's good you, ah, are making progress..."
This was the purpose of my 'soul therapy'..? To get me away from Maiku because my 'young human mind' wasn't capable of distinguishing between reality and fiction...? Between being normal and being exceptional? Between knowing what you want and actually getting it?
My face felt hot, while my stomach quickly compensated by hardening into a solid, impenetrable slab of ice. I could feel the rage building up, the sting of it in my eardrums. I couldn't hear a word of the evenly-toned platitudes coming from Kaonal's mouth.
How stupid did they think I was?
... I already knew the answer, and it made me clench my fists.
"Now, Mirei, don't go having a meltdown..." Varian tried to cut in. "I thought we agreed only on birthdays and special occasions."
My face must've been much scarier than I thought possible, because her jaw clamped shut with a loud crack that would've made me laugh, if not for the fact that if I opened my mouth, I was certainly going to scream. And throw things. And quite possibly have a temper tantrum that would completely undermine any credibility I had left.
If I even had any to begin with...
I wanted to tear my hair out. This just wasn't normal! How was a regular person supposed to deal with this? It was like we were all playing 3-D chess, except that all the pieces were invisible and the board was made from porridge. Impossible. Growing up, I had always thought I was odd, a notion certified by almost every person I'd met. But my old mindset was stone cold sane compared to the current version. Could I ever get back there? Did I even want to?
Ignoring that question, I slid the delicate wooden armchair out from the table, the legs screeched against the stone floor, slicing up the silence. Breathing deeply to quell the anger, I turned to Fern and gave her a deep nod.
"Thank you for your company, but I think that's enough brainwashing for today." I used her own calm tone, proud of how Fern-like I sounded. Her normally large eyes were widened to such a point they seemed to take up half her face. Getting angry at her was like kicking a dandelion. All fluff, no satisfaction.
"M-Mirei... I-I wasn't trying to..." She trailed off, blinking hard. "I just wanted..."
"To help," I finished for her, smiling tightly. "I know."
I took a step towards Kaonal, ready to use my tiny, ineffectual fists to their utmost potential, but then, seeing the expectant expression on his face, I stopped myself. Would raging and throwing things really help me now? It would definitely make me feel better, I reasoned, but would it actually do what Fern wanted to badly to do, would it- help-? Or would it be one more reason for everyone to dismiss me as volatile and helpless?
Mid-stride, I switched directions to face Varian. She, too, had the look of a person who knew what was coming, and as much as it made my blood boil, it also made me think.
Eagan's words came back to me, as if he knew I needed to hear them.
-You need to let go of your idea of what's 'normal'.-
Eien's boundless smile flashed behind my eyes. But it was not a smile I remembered. This smile was older, less boyish. Patient. Encouraging. I didn't have the time to dwell on where the image had come from, or why.
Silence was not Varian's element, and as such she sighed melodramatically. I knew it was coming, but that didn't stop me from feeling a stab of annoyance. Wasn't a girl entitled to a little monologuing in situations such as these?
"Mirei, as much as I'd like to indulge this inner turmoil, I do have places to be. Things to do. People to-"
"-Varian," I snapped. "Just... shut up."
Her eyebrows shot up her forehead so fast it looked like they might rip off and blow away.
I held a hand up, to stop her. "I think you owe me at least one minute of silence, considering you tried to erase my memory and have me killed."
Unsurprisingly, she ignored me. "Well, I wasn't part of this scheme." She gestured towards Kaonal and Fern with a dismissive arch of her arm. "So don't bother shrieking at me. I don't give a damn about 'rehabilitating' you. I'm here for my brother and that's it."
From the corner of my eye, I could see Kaonal frown slightly.
"I'm glad of that," I said quietly. "As angry as I am, I never wanted to cause him pain."
"Even that time when you tried ripping out his ponytail?"
"... Maybe then."
"And when you tried to use an eggbeater to bash in his eye socket?"
"And how about when you helped me break several sandwich serving trays over his skull, was that for something other than pain..?"
"Not the point, Varian."
Her powdery mint hair tickled down her shoulders as she snorted exuberantly. Her gemmed green fingernails were distracting and I looked at them instead of up at her face. Maybe the posture made me look weak, because her next words were ripe with mockery.
"I don't think you have a point, girl. I don't think you've ever had one. You're a minnow in the sea. You swim and splash, but in the end a bigger fish is just going to eat you up."
"Lousy metaphor for a demon who can't swim," I muttered, recalling Fern's trivia. "...And I am not a minnow." A clownfish, maybe...
"You're a human," Kaonal added. "You might as well be." His eyes went to Fern. She looked like she was going to be sick. "I don't say it to be cruel. I say it because most demons in this dimension have no respect for human life. They see you as tools, a means to an end, utilities to be used."
I swallowed in order to ready my throat for the next words.
"So use me."
Kaonal's shoulders shot back. "What?"
"Use me. If anything, being stuck here is worsening my mental state, not helping. Surely you can think of some way I can be of service. Tatsuke said that Akumi is a reactive personality. She feels extreme jealousy and paranoia, which causes her to react impulsively. Even minnows can be used as bait. Isn't there some way I could help with that? Some way I could-"
"Absolutely not." His voice was firm, but not in the fiery way Maiku tended to lay down ultimatums. No, Kaonal was much more aloof, much more cautious. In this way, he was a proper twin to his brother.
Varian's silence made me curious. Her face was a mask, but there was something boiling underneath. I could see the wheels turning, much faster than I'm sure mine ever could. If I could count on anyone to put their own desires ahead of my safety, it was her. It dawned on me: I could use that. The thought gave me a rush of confidence.
"Varian, don't," Kaonal warned as her lips began to turn up, responding to whatever thought was going through her evil little mind.
She turned to him with a cherubic smile. "Don't what?"
She was an objectively beautiful thing when she tried to be, I had to admit. Her current soft expression would melt iceburgs. I won't deny that the efficiency of her acting scared the living crap out of me.
"But, she said she wants to help," Varian purred. "She wants to be useful. Aren't those your guiding stars? Being of service and helping the less fortunate?" Her syrupy tone flirted with the sarcasm line, but made its way back again.
"I would hardly qualify your brother as 'less fortunate'."
"In the next three days, he's either going to be eternally tethered to a psychotic, mass-murdering demon mistress or have Lord Jigoku cast his body and soul into a dimension filled with unending pain from which there is no redemption. I don't know about you, but I'd say that's the most horribly unfortunate thing I've ever heard of." Her voice cracked ever so slightly. "And if you tell him I said so, I will flay you in your sleep."
To hear Maiku's future described so frankly caused a horrible burning pain in my chest. Heartburn. How appropriate. Sentimentality always did tend to give me ulcers. The harshness of Maiku's sentence was shocking. Was that how it was in this place? Great power and terrible consequence? Were demons always living on the edge of a knife?
"We can't let that happen to him," I blurted. "He doesn't deserve it."
Kaonal's face twitched in disagreement. Varian just looked lost.
By some standards, including those set by ASHSS and those set by the human race, he did deserve it. I could see that side of things from a logical standpoint, but my heart wasn't with them. I truly felt like Maiku was a person worth saving, regardless of our attachment. He had a harsh and unsympathetic exterior, sure, but I had seen hints of a soul who didn't deserve to be cast aside. However, this was all coming from a someone who should be heavily medicated...
"You're letting your human emotions cloud your sense of logic, Mirei," Kaonal reasoned. Well, that sounded better than my version.
"That doesn't mean she's wrong." Varian's eyes never left mine. "You really want to help, regardless of the cost?"
My hands quivered, but my voice stayed firm. "Yes."
The cost? I closed my eyes and pictured my brother and father, who had, oddly, never seemed very far away until now. When I opened them, a decision was made.
"And after it is done..." If I survive this insanity. "... I think... I think I should go home."
He didn't cover his surprise very well. He just blinked his teal eyes at me for a moment, searching for something in my expression, before finally uncrossing his arms and nodding.
"Fine. I think this is the best compromise we will achieve. But don't make the mistake of thinking I like it, or that I won't use every opportunity to talk you out of it. I'm sure Kareth and Maiku will feel the same. He never wanted you to be a part of this business, you know."
I thought again of the words Maiku had said to me the night after the group's first strategy meeting. It hurt, but in a way that only made me feel more resolute.
"I know. He told me. Very clearly." I laughed a bit. "He really is an asshole, isn't he?"
Kaonal scowled. "Yes."
Varian smirked. "Oh yeah."
I tucked my hands in my pockets and smiled to myself. Whatever it was I was smiling about, my lips weren't telling me.
"It's funny," I said. "You really can't help the people you care about, can you? You two, of all people, should understand that."
There was a half a second where Varian and Kaonal looked at each other before letting their eyes shift away. I nodded firmly, suspicions confirmed. The impending silence prompted Fern, who had been deathly still until now, to cough a little and say,
"Uh, do you two need to talk about that? I have some excellent counseling techniques."
My leg had developed this annoying habit of twitching when I was trying to think. It was a recently flaw, one surely caused by the thought of my fate being sealed three days from now. As much as I wanted to hope that we could find evidence of Akumi's trickery, and escape alive enough to present it to Lord Jigoku, my inner cynic wouldn't allow it. The odds were not in my favor. Judging by the sad state of our plan, I would have to say that I was definitely, absolutely screwed.
Part of me wished Tatsuke was around, if only to use his inane optimism as a distraction for my bleak thoughts.
... A small part of me. Very small.
I wasn't the type of demon to be prone to panic attacks, but if I were, I would surely be having a doozy right now. For the first time in my life, I felt a surge of gratitude for the severity with which my mother raised me. Marma had always encouraged strength in my sister and I, and by strength, I mean sheer, indominable self control. Varian had mastered it so quickly, with her silver tongue and icy logic. My temper made control difficult when I was young, but eventually I'd managed to acquire a thick coat of apathy that hid it... for the most part.
At least, I thought I had. But the last few weeks, or maybe the last five hundred years, were enough to wrench from my grasp any control I had previously laid claim to. Perhaps it wasn't entirely my fault. I could never have predicted that Mirei would be a no-dreamer, or that Tatsuke was certifiably insane, or that my furin would be of little to no help.
Often, I wondered if Fate was fucking with me... What were the odds of all these pieces falling in such a way?
Sumi, a silent but calming presence, hovered beside me. Her long whiskers brushed my bare arm occasionally, a tickling kind of reassurance.
"Do you think it could work?" She asked, as if sensing that it was her duty to fill the silence.
"I don't know." I stared up at the hologram dome that was the ceiling. I had to admit, for all the negative traits the Wulphe brothers possessed, they sure had a badass hideout. The dome was projecting a replication of the morning sky on Earth. The gradients of rose and gold and inky violet were really something, especially against the pale white benches we sat on. I wondered if I would see such a sky in person again.
"I have the distinct feeling you're being emo again." Sumi gave me a gentle poke, thankfully clawless.
I snorted without looking down. "Haven't I earned it?"
"You can have your moment when they're dragging you away in chains. But for now, it is overly indulgent."
My leg continued to twitch. It was oddly reminiscent of Sumisha's long tail, which tended to jerk this way and that at odd intervals when she was upset.
"The plan will work," she continued. "We will find evidence and we will... fix this."
The phrasing made me think of Mirei. Kaonal had said she could be fixed, could be "de-programmed of this incident and sent back home, to her family, to safety". It was a trap, that much I recognized. If I said no to this separation, if I refused to leave Mirei to Fern's care, he would call me selfish, and unworthy of her should I survive. Honestly, though, being 'worthy' was never really my objective. Mirei wasn't some fair damsel under guard in a tower. She was the damned -dragon-.
The muscles in my jaw tightened almost painfully.
It was so, so wrong to think of her as -my- dragon. But there it was, this sense of protectiveness, of posession. It made me feel a bit like the old Maiku, the guy who wore women like they were prize pelts. I had never felt guilty because I knew those demon women were also using me, my name, my power, as a door to wherever they were trying to go. It had been a fair trade, or at least it had seemed like one at the time. Now it seemed so pointless.
But Mirei... What kind of transaction were we involved in? I didn't feel any desire to use her. She was not a trophy, not by a long shot. I didn't mean that to diminish her looks. I'd seen her in lingerie; there was some... interesting potential there. Not that I would ever say that aloud, for fear of being beaten into the ground with a frying pan.
"You're smiling," Sumi growled.
"Am I?" What an odd reaction to imagining physical pain. What has that girl done to me?
"You're not about to cry, are you?"
I leveled her with a dry look. "Has that ever been a possibility?"
"No, but you're having a rough week. That and your favourite toy got taken away."
Favourite toy..? My eyebrows lowered.
"Mirei is not my toy, Sumi. You know that."
She sighed in that rumbly, feline way of hers. "A cat can hope."
"Besides, I'm pretty sure I sufficiently pissed her off the last time we spoke. I don't think she'll be coming out to play anytime soon."
She let out a feral laugh that would've been a mistaken for a snarl in any other company.
"Yeah right! That girl goes to you like a moth to a flame. It's only a matter of time."
I shook my head. "Maybe Kaonal and Kareth were right. Maybe this is better. I pulled her into this, with the worst of intentions. The least I can do is let her go." Besides, if this plan goes the way my inner cynic insists it will, it'd be much better for her to get as much distance between us as possible.
"Since when do you listen to those two?" She sniffed. "Three days ago, you were telling them off, insisting that you had to at least talk to her."
The grimace was impossible to hide. "A moment of stupidity."
"You have a lot of those."
"Love you too, Sumi."
I wasn't prepared for her reaction to that. She spun on me, raking her claws across my tunic. Her ears were folded back on her head, teeth bared.
"Ow! Fuck, Sumi! What the hell!?"
"In a thousand years of partnership, you have never ONCE said that to me. Not in jest and certainly not with any seriousness. Not even when you were being hauled off the first time. You're only saying it now because you think it's over, and if you think it's over, than it bloody well is. And you know what? That PISSES ME OFF."
A scratch across my nose, then one on my forehead, followed by a disconcerting chunk of black hair. I flinched away, swatting an arm at her.
"I don't think it's over!" I shouted in between attacks. "I'm just being realistic about the outcome! Our team consists of one demon with a broken furin, two hippies and a glorified tailor! We may have the blueprints, but Akumi's citadel is enormous and heavily guarded with traps at every conceivable turn. She has immeasurable resources and the entirety of the demonic world thinks she's on the right side of this. Hell, she might be! It's not like we have actual proof that she cheated with the bet!"
I blinked, surprised at my own words. Sumi's attacks ceased. her nose wrinkling as she pulled back.
"Well. You're officially too pathetic to torment. Even Tatsuke never reached this kind of low."
"Well, it's true. You've changed. Now you're all... pruny."
I cocked an eyebrow at her. "Pruny?"
"Wrinkled and puffed up with all kinds of oozy... feelings. You're one of them now."
Indignation flared my nostrils. "I am NOT filled with oozy feelings. Also, that's disgusting."
The false sky began to fade into pale greens and yellows, colours desaturating as the sunlight intensified. Sumi craned her head up.
"Oh gods, we have got to get you out of this room. It looks like a bad set from a Cerise Styxen music video. No wonder you're being all introspective and weird."
"Again, I am not being 'introspective and weird'. I am preparing for a serious thing here, the probable loss of life and soul. I like to think that warrants a little understanding." I was preparing. If it just so happened that Mirei came in this room occasionally after her sessions and interrupted my preparations, well, that was a complete coincidence.
I barely felt her claws this time, my shirt taking the worst of the blow.
"You just asked me, ME, for a 'little understanding'. Your pruniness has reached critical mass. No wonder your furin doesn't work anymore. You've radiating all the power of a baby's burp. Demon up, Maiku. All this distraction is blocking you from your strengths."
That wasn't why. It hadn't taken me long to notice the correlation between Mirei's presence and the furin's ability. In her absence, the bell-shaped vessel had been devoid of life. It was an ironic, and annoying, reflection of my own thoughts. At the heart of it all was fear: How could I save myself from this fate when my greatest tool was no longer an option? How could I save her when we were both entrenched in this messed up dynamic?
By now, I could be honest enough with myself to admit I felt things, strong things, towards the girl. I even thought maybe she returned those feelings. Maybe. But it's not like we'd ever get a chance to figure it out together. I was a dead demon walking, and she was a deer in a den full of hungry lions.
I'd never been so glad to hear footsteps coming down the hall. I jumped up from my seat, all too eager to greet the incomer, if only to avoid Sumisha's intense gaze.
That it was my sister was an unfortunate side-effect.
"Brother, cat," she nodded to us each in turn. "How goes your plotting?"
Sumi seemed to stop seething at me. The fact that the hellcat had always seemed calmer in Varian's presence was not the least bit reassuring. Sometimes I think I chose Sumisha as a partner because I was used to having an overbearing female presence in my life. ... That thought was immensely depressing, and it crowded up with all the others like a sad mental game of sardines.
"I'm glad you're here," Sumi said. "Maiku needs some motivation."
"No, I don't." I hoped the apprehension didn't slip into my voice; Varian's motivational techniques were permanently branded in my psyche.
My sister's lips lifted into her trademark simper. She set herself down on the bench beside me. I tensed. Whenever Varian chose to initiate contact, pain was usually involved.
"What's wrong, Maiku? I thought you were good under pressure."
I watched her, wary. Her tone was downright cordial. What was she up to? She batted her eyelashes at me, and patted my arm. I narrowed my eyes and watched her closely, ready to take to the offensive if I had to.
"What. do. you. want?" I asked, emphasizing the syllables.
"No need to sound so hostile, little brother. I have good news."
This peaked my interest. Good news had been hard to come by as of late. As much as I resented her condescending nature, I knew that of all the demons in my corner, Varian was the one with the most aces up her sleeve. If anyone could be expected to pull this plan off, it was her.
"Good news?" Sumi's tone was skeptical.
Varian nodded. "Oh yes. A new tool for our pitiful arsenal."
New... tool? I wracked my brain for her meaning. My sister had a lot of connections in the demon dimensions; perhaps she'd found some powerful weapon to use against Akumi. The thought buoyed my spirits.
"Show me," I demanded. I didn't miss the smirk that disappeared as fast as it formed.
"Oh, no. Not just yet. Later, when it's ready. I want to make sure you get the full picture." Her hand went to ruffle my head in an uncharacteristic show of sisterly affection. "I think you'll be pleased." With that, she stood from the bench and brushed her blue dress free of wrinkles.
"I'll come get you when it's time," she said. "In the mean time, uh, perhaps you should take a shower, get out of this weird room and stop thinking so much. Best stick to your strengths, after all."
She turned and I felt the question leave my mouth before I could stop it.
"Varian? How's Mirei doing?"
Her smile was positively villainous.
"She's coming along nicely, I think. The girl may be less useless than I first thought."
Then she left me to ponder all the potentially horrifying meanings behind her statement.
I'd been careful to avoid being caught alone. It took me a day to acclimatize to being in the heart of the ASHSS operation, but I thought I'd narrowed down all the danger spots, the secret corners and passages in which I could be cornered.
As I strode down a hall, a shadow descended upon me, and I knew I'd thought wrong.
"Varian," the growl came fast and fierce. I didn't slow, pace quickening to reach the door at the other end, where my most recent project awaited me. I reached for the switch to open it, but a hand came down on mine, swatting it away.
I gave my best impatient sigh and turned to face my attacker. It was bound to happen sooner or later, and with this development with the human, I knew he had to be furious.
"Kaonal, what is it? I have things to do."
"I know perfectly well what you're doing," he snapped. His features were contorted with displeasure, triangular tattoos practically glowing for emphasis on his cheeks. His wide-set shoulders blocked my escape. I'd done everything in my power to avoid being alone with him. It simply wasn't safe, not with the looks he'd been giving me all week. Looks that promised he wasn't done discussing... things.
I chose very deliberately not to think about what things those may be.
"I'm trying to save my family here," I said, trying to cut his anger off at the foot. "I think that takes precedence over any minor concerns you may have."
"Minor concerns?" He snorted. "I hardly think manipulating that poor girl into sacrificing herself is minor."
I waved a hand dismissively. "She's not sacrificing herself. Her part in this is minimal, a distraction. You'll get her back when I'm done, and in mint condition no less."
"You've been planning this all along, haven't you?"
I shrugged. "Anyone could see how eager she is to be included."
His hand flew up, latching onto my arms. His ironclad grip betrayed the extent of his anger.
"She's not some pawn, you know. She's a person, a living, breathing person. Just because you come from a long line of self-centred soul-collectors doesn't mean you have to toe the party line. I thought..." His face twisted. "I thought you had changed."
Alarm bells went off in my mind. This conversation was going exactly where I didn't want it to. I could stand here all day and take being called names, that was usual and very manageable, but if he started drudging up the past, I wasn't sure I could handle it with my usual aplomb. Perhaps I should throw a punch, lighten the mood a bit...
"I'm still the same demon," I managed to get out. "I never implied anything to the contrary."
The grip loosened ever so slightly. I did my best to maintain my cool, distant gaze, even as he searched my face with those piercing teal eyes. Being this close to him brought back memories I'd rather I didn't have.
"You've done an admirable job avoiding me. Why?"
I shrugged. "Like I said, I'm busy."
His face softened. "Still pissed, I see. You Kuukyos sure know how to hold a grudge."
That baffled me, threw me off guard. "What grudge?"
His knowing smile made my throat clench in a most inconvenient way.
"You're pissed that I let you walk away. That I didn't try to stop you. It took me a long time to realize it."
"I'm not 'pissed' at anything." The quaver in my voice betrayed me and I cursed inwardly. Why did he always do this? Made me feel like a squishy, helpless child instead of the powerful demon I was? I'd thought I was over our little fling, but as he looked at me, it was like the last six hundred years hadn't happened at all.
"Well, I've learned my lesson, Varian. You can avoid me all you want, tell yourself whatever you need to, but I'm not letting you get off that easily. It's in your nature to push people, but I'm ready now, to push back."
Sensing danger, I tried to shrug out of his grip, but he held strong. My eyes darted back and forth, looking for anything, anyone, to get me out of here. I would've been overjoyed to see even Tatsuke, with his overly perky grin, or hell, even my mother, with all her sneers and snide remarks. But we were alone, and I was trapped. It was as bad as the worst-case scenarios I'd played out while lying awake at night in a foreign bed.
I swayed ever so slightly towards him. No, this was worse. My wild imaginings hadn't counted for Kaonal Wulphe's actual physical presence, or the draw I'd felt all those years ago.
I steeled myself, and dug deep into my reserve of self-control to deliver a haughty smirk.
"It's cute, really, the fact that you don't seem to realize when something is over. Points for persistence, I guess, but really, Wulphe. I'm so far past you it's not even funny."
His smile slipped and I seized on the doubt that replaced it.
I shook my head, flicking my hair back. "That silliness happened so long ago, I barely remember it." He was silent, contemplating me for a moment. I tried not to admire the angular face, the intense brows, the taunt line of his abdomen.
"You're still a bad liar."
My nostrils flared and I retorted without thinking.
"I am an excellent liar."
He released me, and I felt a whoosh of relief. I'd done it. I'd finally scared him off. I smothered the disappointment before it could rise to the surface. This was better. Safer. For me, for him, for everyone.
Then his hand was on my cheek, and his lips on mine before I could think.
It all came back so fast, my head spun. The evening rendezvous, the tangled sheets, the whispered promises. His head propped on my stomach, making me smile and laugh and feel...
I threw him off me with all the force I could muster. He didn't resist, but simply stepped back, hands raised. The smile on those reddened lips made my blood boil. I was breathing heavily, I noticed, and tried to get my expression back to neutral. But it was too late. I'd kissed him back, with all the enthusiasm I used to feel. The triumph of it was written all over his face.
"You are a terrible, terrible liar, Varian Kuukyo," he breathed.
My fingers fumbled for the door switch. It clicked, and I stumbled backwards through the opening.
He waved a hand, the gesture downright cheerful. "I'll see you later." The words held a promise.
For the first time in my life, I had no snide rebuttal.
"Is it time yet?" I asked, impatient.
"Time for a new floor, yes." Sumi's voice was dry. "Stop pacing. You're wearing the ground thin."
I tried to stop. Really I did. But all this waiting was infuriating. I knew we couldn't leave until the last second, until Akumi's citadel was brimming with people. It was the only way to slip in unnoticed. Patience was never my strong suit, though, and all I wanted now was to have my chance to clear my name. I was good at doing things, and all the planning in the world wouldn't find the evidence I needed.
"She said later," I grunted as my damp hair dripped water onto my shirt. "It's later. Aren't you eager to see what Varian has been planning?"
She shrugged. "Sure. But wasting your energy now isn't going to make time move any faster. You should be resting, gathering your strength."
Ugh. I hated it when she got all reasonable on me.
The door slid open behind me. I spun on my heels. Varian stood there, a grim look on her face.
She shot me a look. "Don't start. I'm not in the mood."
Sumi hovered beside me, tail twitching. Maybe my impatience was contagious.
"So, are you going to clue me in, or what?" I tried again, feigning a calmer tone.
"Come with me." She gestured to the door with less of her usual flair. Something was wrong. She seemed to be distracted, more hostile than normal. I spotted a tangle in her otherwise perfect head of hair. That was enough to make me nervous. I kept quiet and followed her into the hall. Bio-luminescent vines hung from ceiling to floor, casting an eerie green light over us. She wasn't talking. Or gloating. Or... being generally annoying.
"What's up?" I asked as we approached the door to the dining hall.
Her head spun around, the trademark Kuukyo eyes wide. "What do you mean? Nothing's up. Nothing's changed at all."
"Uh... O-kay. You just seem... off."
Her scowl was vicious. "I am more on than you know, little brother."
I chose, wisely, not to bait her. Clearly this place did not agree with her. Not up to her usual standards, probably. A low thread count could make my sibling very irritable.
"So, how does this change our plan?" Sumi intervened. "You made it sound like this new weapon could turn the tides in our favor."
A ghost of a smirk drifted over Varian's face. Her hand paused over the door switch.
"Let's just say... Akumi will not be expecting this."
The door slid open and she stepped into the room. A flash of fushia caught my eyes first, and I spotted Tatsuke. His back was turned, and I could see he was doing something with a swath of glossy black fabric. He turned to greet us with a dazzling grin, the likes of which I'd only seen when he was in the midst of decorating the dreamscape or dressing up Mirei against her will.
Dressing up... I looked at the figure standing beside him, delicate white arms outstretched.
A soot-eyed demon dressed in black, with a blaze of shining copper hair tied up in knots. I narrowed my eyes. It was unlike Varian to be so thoughtless in inviting a stranger here. I was a little surprised Kaonal and Kareth had allowed it.
I wrenched Varian by the elbow, leaning to hiss in her ear.
"What is this?"
Her eyebrows raised in surprise, but then settled in as a smirk crossed her mouth.
"What? You don't approve?"
"Approve?" I growled. "I thought we were trying to keep this between us. You keep bringing people here and soon every demon in Hell will know I'm going after Akumi..."
Then a peal of laughter rang my ears so hard I thought I might go deaf.
"Oh, Maiku! That's the nicest compliment you've ever given me!"
I stared at her. Okay, so Varian had clearly cracked under the pressure... I mean, I knew this was a stressful situation, but I never expected she, of all people, would be the first to fall. Tatsuke, sure. Kareth, perhaps. Me, probably. But Varian?
She kept chuckling, much to my dismay.
"You idiot," she snorted as soon as she could catch her breath. "That's not a demon... That's Mirei."
Next on PG: The Hell of the Ball
Varian's talents are put to the test. As the clock ticks down, Maiku is feeling unusually honest. Mirei makes a choice that may just change the course of history. Kaonal betrays Varian at the worst possible time. It's the gala of the millenia; attend at your own peril.
Leave me a comment if you enjoyed the chapter, and if you're interested in reading more. We're entering the final act, and I'd love to know what you folks think will happen. It might not be what you expect...