The sun rested high in the midday sky, unobscurred by any clouds. A small crowd swarmed over the streets of the business district, with a few gathered by the remains of the destroyed department store display window. Cye and Ayame navigated their way through the crowd, not a small feat considering Ayame’s reliance on a makeshift crutch. Nothing had been bought or rented, as nothing of interest had been found. The two had simply strolled, as best as they could, around the city until they had wearied of it--which was now.
Cye closed his eyes and let his posture fall a little. He cleared his throat, catching Ayame’s attention. “Ayame, why did you follow me?” he asked.
“What?” Ayame responded, slightly startled.
“Why did you follow me from the airport? You didn’t have to.”
“I.....I don’t think we should talk about it here.”
“Well, I’d really like to talk about it. I’ve done some thinking, and I decided I need to talk to you.”
“Cye, can’t we talk this over in private?”
“If you want, we can talk it over at my place.”
The keys never cooperated when they should have. Cye tried five keys before he found the right one. He unlocked the door and escorted Ayame into the tiny living room, leading her to a seat on the worn-out sofa. He cautiously peered his head around the side of a half-door, then breathed a sigh of relief as he returned.
“Okay, kitchen’s empty,” he told Ayame as he sat down next to her. “We’re sa--”
“Cye, that you?” Kento’s voice called from the back bedroom. He reappeared a little while later, dressed in his waiter’s uniform for his weekend double shift. “Hey, where’ve you been?”
“We were just out. How long’s your shift tonight?”
“Ten hours, and then I’m going to Mia’s to hang out. You wanna come?”
“No, I really can’t. Say hi to everyone for me, okay?”
“Yeah, sure.” Kento left with barely a backwards glance.
Ayame watched him uneasily. “Wow. Normally, he’d chew me out first.”
“Yeah. He’s been acting strange for a while now. I got this phone call and ever since, he’s.......Well, ever since, I’ve been thinking. That’s why I wanted to talk to you.”
Sage wandered the woods, trying to think. What should he tell Cye? The last thing would be to tell him directly; he had seen how effective that was in gaining his trust. Telling the others would only make things worse, wouldn’t it? Still, he couldn’t let Cye just die without a chance to defend himself. Maybe if he told one person, he could do something to protect him.
“You never quite learned the dangers of eavesdropping, did you?” a shrill voice called out.
Eshe appeared behind him, dagger in hand. Hardly had Sage managed to glance over his shoulder did the dagger tear through his body, the silver point protruding from his chest. Everything dissolved for a moment, a moment of no physical or mental sensation. A warm darkness eventually gave way to a chill, and he was immobile. His eyes opened slowly, and he glanced down at his chest; not a single indication of a wound existed. A nagging, all-consuming pain covered his motionless form, yet there seemed to be no real tangible matter surrounding him.
“Why don’t you look down?” Eshe taunted. Sage glanced down and saw.... himself. His limp, icy form was cradled in Ryo’s arms, as he and Mia wept over him. Not a mark was on his body, not even a bloodstain from the dagger.
“How did you...?” Sage strained to ask, oddly short of breath. A searing agony engulfed him, every inch of his being suddenly burning with paralyzing pain. He couldn’t help but cry out.
“Oh, shut up. You’re not the only one who has to go through this,” Eshe mused before vanishing. Sage closed his eyes, fighting back the tears produced by his pain and a fit of preparatory grief. Soon, he would be here, screaming in agony alongside his best friends.
Ayame’s hands were shaking as they clenched the hot mug. The tremoring became visibly noticeable, and the hot tea started to spill over onto her hands in burning waves. Carefully, she set it back on the table and looked over to the counter across the room. Cye spun around just as she did, bringing a tray of sweets. He noticed the shaking of her hands as he lowered the tray to the table, along with the steaming puddles of tea. He seized a dish tower, pried her hands from the mug, and carefully began to pat her hands dry. Ayame blushed, making her shaking worse.
“Calm down, okay?” Cye said as he squeezed her hands through the towel. “I won’t judge you, no matter what you say.”
“Will you believe me?” Ayame responded, her voice weak. “No one ever believes me.”
“I’ll believe whatever you have to tell me.”
Ayame steeled her nerves and pulled her hands from the towel. Her eyes locked into his, awash with waiting tears. “I’m not totally human,” she began. “I’m half demon. My mother died when I was born, and my father--he’s the demon--raised me. I was supposed to find him perfect souls once a year, but then I found one my first time. He was this really sweet guy, and he helped me hide from my father and taught me how to be a normal human being. He was like a big brother, he protected me and everything.” The tears started to roll down her face over the marks from her gravel scratches. “But I couldn’t protect him from my father, and he was consumed. It was horrible. I could hear him screaming and feel every little thing he felt. I promised him I’d protect any other people that my father went after, but I kept failing and failing, and I can’t stand it anymore.” Cye held her in a kindly embrace, letting her cry into his shoulder. She pulled away from him and stared straight into him. “I don’t wanna lose you, too.”
“Tomorrow’s the new moon, and that’s when my father needs to consume a perfect soul. Cye, he chose you, and I can’t let him. You’ll never stand the pain, and you’ll be gone. I don’t think I can protect you without putting you at more risk.”
“Ayame, I can defend myself.”
“Not from him. He chose you because you were already upset, and he knows that getting to you would be easy. You can arm yourself to the teeth, and he’ll still attack your weakest spot and overpower you.”
“You don’t understand. I really can defend myself.”
“No, you can’t. Here, let me show you something.” Ayame closed her eyes and placed her two straightened forefingers between her gaze; she then opened her eyes, the placid blue having been usurped by an unearthly amber. Her hand gestured toward the dish towel on the table, which levitated over the table for a few seconds; she swung her hand towards the doorway and sent the dish towel flying into the living room. She lowered her hand back and rested it on Cye’s arm, her eyes returning to their normal, human coloring as she did. “That’s the demon in me. I don’t like it, but I have to use it to protect you.”
“Ayame.” She leaned her head on his shoulder, still crying. “Here, sit down.” Cye led her into the living room and sat her on the sofa, making a point to move the dish towel. “If you plan on protecting me, how will you? I don’t want to belittle you, but that’s not very effective protection against much of anything.”
“I can vex you so my father can’t touch you. After that, you’re on your own. You have to accept it, though.” Ayame wiped away her tears and took Cye’s hands in hers. “Are you willing to accept?”
“Yes, of course.”
“Okay, close your eyes and relax.” Cye shut his eyes and waited, able to feel Ayame’s warmth against him. She quietly uttered a string of antiquated words, not a single one familiar to modern ears until the final two: “Please accept.” Upon these, she leaned forward and ever so gently kissed him on the lips. A blush stained his face. She pulled away and just looked at him. “You didn’t accept.”
Cye’s eyes shot open. “What?”
Ayame let her head fall down in shame. “I don’t know why, but you wouldn’t accept. I can’t help you.” She started to cry again. “I’m sorry.”
“You don’t need to protect me, trust me,” Cye said, consoling her with another embrace. “If anything, I’ll protect you.”
Ryo sat by the bedside of his dead friend. Even in death, Sage looked remarkably serene, and not a single mark marred him. His death was so sudden, so odd, that he just couldn’t accept it. Any second now, he was sure Sage would open his eyes, sit up, and tell him it was a joke. All he had to do was wait.....and wait.....and wait......until it sank in. He was gone; he had dropped dead. And if it could happen that suddenly to Sage, then it could definitely happen to any one of them. He stood up, gathering every bit of nerve he could before he had to call his family and break the news to them..........
The spitting headache had barely lasted a minute. When Ryo finally gathered his bearings, he was stuck. His arms were pinned to his side, and his legs had no sensation whatsoever. He struggled for a while until he was too exhausted to continue. Wherever he was, he was staying there for a while. As he caught his breath, he caught sight of someone trapped in a deep, gelatinous blackness in the apparent distance. Sage. “Sage?!” Ryo called out, his voice echoing. “Sage, can you hear me?!”
“Don’t.....talk....” Sage replied, straining to breathe. No sooner had he managed to force the last word from his lips than the two were swallowed by a pain that radiated through their beings; the blackness that held them began to cover them more and more, adding to their suffering. Cries of misery echoed through the area, growing louder and louder. The blackness swallowed the two whole, leaving the screams to resonate and the pain to amplify.
Ayame sat on the sofa, utterly mute for the last ten minutes. Cye sat nearly next to her, watching her. Her posture and her new aura of sorrow and lost hope had seemingly been transferred from him to her by proximity; her gaze stayed vaguely forward, not truly focused on anything. He rested his hand on her shoulder, getting only a pathetic stare as a response. He gave her a sad smile, but she barely mustered the nerve to return it.
“I guess you hate me now,” Ayame finally squeaked. A remaining tear trickled down her face.
“No, not really,” Cye responded, putting on his best air of confidence. “You’re trying to help me. That’s more than anyone else will do. I truly appreciate that.”
“But you don’t LIKE me. You’re just glad I’m here to try and get you through this, and if you survive, you’ll ditch me. I don’t wanna see anyone die, but I’d just like it if one person would treat me with some kindness.”
“I like you. You’re a sweet, gentle, compassionate soul, and there’s no way a sane person could hate you.”
“You sound just like him.” Cye gave her an odd, almost jealous look. “Aaron, my ‘big brother.’ He kept telling me how I was a good girl with a good human soul and all. He even gave me my name. I just wish I could’ve done more to save him. Have you ever felt that helpless?”
Cye swallowed hard and stared straight into Ayame’s lachrymose gaze, finding tears of his own. “Twice, actually,” he began with a choke that halted Ayame’s self-pity with its wrenching tone. “In school, there was this group that always made a point to torment me. Normally, one of the guys would stand up for me if it got bad, especially Ryo--they gave him a lot of grief, too. But one day they were all out sick or away, and that group decided to settle things physically. I remember their leader sucker-punched me in the stomach, and then I just remember my friend Rowen standing behind me, holding my arms back. He said I was throttling that guy and nearly killed him. I didn’t get in trouble, but I was pretty much shunned by everyone.
“The only person who would listen was Mum. I was her baby, and she raised me after Dad died. She had heart disease for a long time, and usually my sister was there to take care of her. But then Sayoko got married and moved away, and that just left me and Mum. She was the only person who wholly believed me about the fight--even my friends thought I was lying, except Rowen. But I really think that if I hadn’t told her I’d been in a fight, she wouldn’t have been so sick that last week. And if I’d just stayed home with her like I should’ve, I know she’d be here now. But I didn’t and now I...” Cye deteriorated into sobbing. Ayame put aside her own grief and gently held him, stroking his hair and letting him cry. “Sayoko said I killed her. I know I didn’t mean to, but...I... And then my friends just treated me like I was half-insane. First, I get into a fight, then I let Mummy die, and then I tried to get away from them, and now they just try to avoid me or send me away or.....I don’t know.” His words were swallowed in wails of remorse and grief and weeping, hiccuped breaths. “I can’t do a single damn thing right anymore.”
“Of course you can,” Ayame whispered, still stroking his hair.
“Name one thing.”
“You keep that friend of yours fed. That’s not easy.” Cye laughed a little. “Isn’t there anything that makes you happy no matter when you think of it?”
“Yes, one thing. The ocean. It’s so beautiful and full of life. It never dies or turns against you unless you betray it. It’s the last pure, good thing I can think of.” Cye looked up at Ayame, his face a little brighter despite the wash of tears. “What do you think of the ocean?”
“I think it burns.”
“Guys, I’m here!” Kento shouted from the porch of Mia’s house. He grabbed the doorknob and jerked it, finding it locked. “C’mon, it’s not funny. Besides--” He delved into his pockets and fished out a keyring loaded to its capacity; he quickly located the proper key and started to unlock the door. As he strolled in, he continued, hardly bothering to lower his volume. “That’s pretty pathetic... Guys?” The living room was empty except for an untouched can of soda. “Guys?” Kento started down the hall, having heard the slightest rustling sound echo through its narrow dimensions. As he finally found the source of the noise, the words he had intended caught in his throat.
Ryo was sprawled out in the doorway of one of the rooms, devoid of color or movement; White Blaze futily nuzzled and licked his face, trying to revive his fallen master. Kento knelt down and grabbed his stiff wrist; this couldn’t be real, he had to be alive....... He was long dead. A glance inside the bedroom revealed to him the tranquil resting place of Sage, as cold and lifeless as Ryo. Kento slumped down against the wall, letting hot tears roll down his to his neck. Who could have done this? And, more importantly, how could he hurt them?
White Blaze curled up to Kento, the two sharing their shock. “I know, boy,” he whispered, his will to speak nearly gone. A muted thud came from the living room. The massive white tiger instantly slipped into an angry alert. “What? Those bastards come back?” White Blaze responded only with a snarl towards the living room, and Kento stood up, his grief giving way to familiar anger. He stalked into the living room, failing to note the tiger’s refusal to follow. Nothing.
“I hope you’re the last,” a shrill female voice whined. “I’m getting tired.” Kento spun around and stepped back, barely missing the thrust of a dagger. Eshe stood facing him, a look of bored cruelty meeting his confused rage. “You wanna make this hard, don’t you?” She dove at him again, but he sidestepped and dealt her a strong punch in the ribs. She fell to one knee, winded. “Stupid bastard.”
“You sick bitch,” Kento growled. “Who do you think you are that you can just walk right in here and take two of my best friends away?!” He swung his foot to kick her, but she caught him by the ankle and tripped him against an endtable. He rolled onto his back just in time to stop the dagger from impaling his face.
“I knew those two were too easy,” Eshe said, straining. She jumped away and threw two silver balls at him, hitting his chest and throat. Instantly he was swallowed by wires, each strand digging into his flesh and choking his air. He thrashed and fought, only finding himself more caught than before. The room dimmed into a dark blur while the agony of the cutting wires increased. Finally, the pain spread to his entire body, and the screams couldn’t be stopped.
“Kento! Kento, open your eyes! C’mon, man, wake up! Fight it!” Kento’s eyes opened into darkness, the tortured voices of Ryo and Sage echoing throughout the ill-defined area. They were practically in front of him, joining in his paralyzed agony.
“You’re al--AAAIIGH!!” Kento strained out, succumbing to a withering wave of pain.
Sage shut his eyes and fell to his knees, his arms trapped at his sides. “Why’d you....” He silenced himself as another wave of pain wracked his form. “You shouldn’t...AAGH!”
“Don’t let her...” Ryo began before his breath was choked off by a stabbing attack that doubled him over briefly.
“SHUT UP!” a disembodied voice commanded. The three silenced, robbed of breath by the sheer violence of the latest attack. “That’s better.”
“You can’t touch water?” Cye asked, his face a twisted mask of shock. Ayame shook her head. “Not even a drop?” Ayame sighed and shook her head. “How do you bathe?”
“In horrible pain,” Ayame responded. “I wish I could swim and go out in rain and all, but it’s the demon again. If I wasn’t half human, it’d kill me, so at least there’s that.”
“Oh. I guess you won’t wanna see my fish then.”
“I’d love to! Where are they?”
“Here...” Cye stood up and escorted her from the sofa into his simply arranged bedroom. Ayame paled and hesitated. “It’s okay. I keep them here so Kento doesn’t get any ideas.” He led her a large tank of fish, an underwater light glowing an eerie blue throughout the room. “Here, this one’s Lister. And here’s Rimmer, and Kryten. Oh, and here’s Cat, and Kochanski. And right here is Holly II. Kento ate Holly I on a dare.” Ayame touched the glass with her fingertips, and the fish scurried away. “Hey!” Cye yelled into the tank. “Be nice!”
“I’m sorry. Animals don’t really like me. More of the demon. I mean, this is nothing. Sometimes birds attack me when I’m walking.”
“That’s a shame.”
“Well, there’s some good things about being half-demon. There’s the whole floating-stuff thing, and if someone will let me, I can sorta read their mind.”
“Really?” Cye asked, sitting on the bed. “Try me.”
“Okay. Close your eyes.” Ayame placed the two forefingers of both hands against his forehead and shut her eyes. A long silence followed, before a slight grin came across her face. “You sleep with a big stuffed dolphin named Sparkle.”
“That was too easy. He was right next to me. See?” Eyes closed, Cye reached over and picked up Sparkle, softly jabbing his plush snout into Ayame’s stomach.
“Stop it! You’ll break my concentration!” She laughed a little and returned to silence. Then she burst out laughing. “Oh, you poor kid!”
“Okay..... When you were five, your sister and her friends had a slumber party, during which you were given a perm, a make-over, and put in one of her lacy nighties.” Cye blushed in embarrassment. “I won’t tell.”
“Do you think you could know everything in a single person’s mind?”
“With a lot of time, maybe. I--AAAIIIGGH!!” Ayame fell to the ground on her knees, her hands gripping her head. Tears of pain started to form in her cinched eyes, and her teeth gritted together in a crippling vice. “Stop it, Nen, stop it....!” she hissed.
Cye pulled her up, noticing how her body trembled uncontrollably. “Ayame? Ayame?!” A surge of pain traveled through his body, and he heard the screaming. The voices sounded familiar, but recognition was dulled by the pain.
“Cye Mouri....” a disembodied man’s voice called.
“Don’t answer, Cye!” Ayame shouted.
“Sure, Cye, ignore me.... Any good-byes you three wanna give your friend?”
“Cye, don’t listen to him!” Sage.
“Don’t let him get to you, man!” Kento.
“You can’t let him take you!” Ryo.
“What are you doing to them?” Cye answered.
“Father, stop it!” Ayame cried.
“Will you shut up?” Nen’s voice responded. “I was addressing Cye. If you want your late friends to find any sort of rest, you will meet me near sunrise. And do me a favor... Don’t bring Ayame, or it’ll be much worse than this.”
The pain relented, yet the two were noticeably shaken. Cye stood up first. “Rowen.... He doesn’t have Rowen.” Ayame moaned and barely got to her feet. “Ayame, I have a huge favor to ask. You have to find my friend Rowen before anyone else does. He can help us.”
“The one with blue hair.”
“Oh, him.... Wait, what about you? I need to protect you.”
“Trust me, I can take care of myself. Please, just go.”
“Are you sure you can handle Nen alone? He--”
Cye seized Ayame’s clammy hands and stared into her eyes with an intense conviction that was both foreign and familiar. “Ayame, I can take care of this alone if I have to.” He leaned to kiss her on the cheek, but her face moved just enough for their lips to meet. The warmth between the two suddenly seemed to unify and intensify so long as they were together. An eternity passed until he pulled away. “Take care of yourself.”
Rowen stood on the roof of the apartment building, peering down at the hard pavement below. He had two options: jump and break something major or return to his father’s and be beaten within an inch of his life. The bloody welts under his pajamas told him which seemed the lesser of the two evils. He edged his feet over the absolute edge of the roof, trying desperately to avoid the sudden sense of vertigo. He drew a deep breath into his body; this was really it. He had thought about this escape so many times, and now he was going to do it.
“Rowen!” his father’s voice angrily called from the stairs. “Rowen, get back here!”
He jumped. He closed his eyes and enjoyed the fall. It seemed to take so much longer than expected. Just think, soon he’d never have to endure another beating, another night of berating, another day out with his friends, another pick- up game of soccer, another meal, another daily routine, another hot mug of coffee...... Maybe this wasn’t such a good idea after all. A panicked yell escaped his lips as his eyes shot open. He was practically on top of the pavement. The image of his face crushed against that unyielding cement seemed so likely and so disgusting....All that blood and mess....He couldn’t watch anymore. The plummet stopped. Slowly, Rowen opened his eyes and saw....the pavement. Five inches away from his face.
“Are you okay?” Ayame asked. Rowen craned his head around to see her standing next to him, upside down, with her hand held up near her face. “You need help?”
“Rowen!” the distant bellow of Rowen’s irate father echoed down the streets; Rowen froze for an instant.
“Yes, definitely,” Rowen hastily answered, and he twisted himself around in the air enough to land on his feet as Ayame lowered her hand. “Thanks.” He led her into a nearby alley, watching as his father ran by with belt in hand. “Who are you?”
“I’m a friend of Cye’s. He sent me to find you.” Ayame looked at him oddly. “Do you know anyone named Aaron?”
“A cousin, died a few years ago. Why?” Rowen jumped slightly as Ayame gave him an unwelcomely familiar hug. “Uh...you mind?”
Ayame backed away and smiled meekly. “Sorry. Please, come with me. Cye really needs your help.” She led him down the silent night street in a rushed pace. Rowen shuddered, not really dressed for the trip. Between his shivering and his injuries, he had a hard time keeping up.
“Wait!” Ayame lagged back slightly at his demand. “What’s wrong?”
“Cye needs your help. He needs you to help him. And since you knew Aaron, you’re perfect.”
Rowen seized her shoulder and stopped her. “Okay, two things: how do you know Aaron, and why can’t Cye get someone else to help?”
“We really should keep moving.”
“Not until you tell me who you are.”
“Okay, your cousin helped me out, and I owe it to him to keep you moving and get you to help protect Cye.”
“What?” Ayame seized his hand and started to drag him down the streets. “Hey, wait! You didn’t answer me! Stop it!”
“Dammit, I knew I missed one,” Eshe’s voice whined from behind them. Ayame shoved Rowen to the ground and took the dagger through the chest that was intended for him. She stood up for a moment, holding the blade with an unsteady hand, until Eshe pushed her off and let her fall beside Rowen, blood staining her body. “Will you keep out of this?” She turned her attention to Rowen. “Dear boy, I’ve had a long day. I’ve had to take three little runts like you, and the last one gave me grief. So why don’t you just hold still, and I’ll make it relatively painless.” Rowen stood up a little, mustering a fairly threatening look.
“ARMOR OF STRATA--DAO INOCHI!!!” Time froze as Rowen let the scrolls of silk and cherry blossom petals swirl around him. When the spectacle finished, he stood nearly at attention in his deep blue armor, compound bow in hand. He gave Eshe a glare of pure ice and nerve. “I’d really rather give you more grief.”
Eshe just stared, raising one plucked eyebrow. “.....The hell?! Don’t tell me you and all your ROWDY friends can do that.”
“Sorry, we can.”
“Oh, well, thank goodness those three never did THAT. That one didn’t even hear me. Y’know, I’ll just let Nen take care of you and the perfect one, ‘cuz I’m tired.” Eshe lept towards him, and Rowen quickly fired off a volley of arrows, one of which struck her leg. She fell. “Shit. Damn, it’s gonna be fun killing you.” When she looked up, she caught sight of Rowen helping Ayame to her feet; a grin flashed across her face as she seized one of her silver balls. “Hey! Don’t even think about leaving!” She tossed the ball at the two.
Ayame shoved Rowen aside, letting the ball strike her just below her knife wound. The wires dug into her sharper than ever and lept over more of her body than before, choking her mouth and leaving her hands twisted in their slightly defensive stance. Eshe pulled her back, holding her up like a price catch. Rowen watched in baffled silence as Ayame trembled and struggled to stay awake. Eshe placed the dagger to Ayame’s throat, drawing a weak whimper.
“You know what?” Eshe started. “Why don’t you try and defend your little friend, and I’ll take this bad--” She gave Ayame a rough jerk. “--little--” Another jerk. “--girl--” Another jerk. “--back to her daddy. Once he’s done with you, I’ll let him deal with her. Pass that on to Cye.”
Eshe vanished into the night, leaving Rowen standing, ready, in the streets. He tried to sort out what he had just heard, but there was only one idea discernible in the end. He had to protect Cye. He may not know why or from what, but it was what he had to do.
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