"I've been your tempter. I've been your prize."
There may have been words spoken before those two simple, short statements sliced into his mind. Surely there had been. Who started talking with that kind of non-sequitur? But, even if there had been, Touga missed them completely in the wave of cold that washed over him like a skull tide. Words were a weapon, they always were, and why would now be any different?
Frozen in place, hand locked on the knob of the door, all he could manage was to stare into the shadowy dimness of the guest room from the doorway.
To stare back at the burning eyes that gazed back, unblinking, unreadable.
He -- how was he even awake --
The weeks spooled out, day after day; and, day after day, Touga Kiryuu replayed the fall of the castle in his mind.
It happened. He knew it had happened. No matter how insane it seemed -- and it was no more insane than all that he'd had whispered to him by World's End, really --
Through the long weeks of his recuperation, he'd clung to that truth ... only to return to the school, to Ohtori, and find it like he really was a lone madman.
Mundanity. Utter mundanity. The Chairman -- the real Chairman -- old man Ohtori himself, bustling around as if he'd always been there. No Duels. No sigils. No arcane laws of the Rose Seal, nor mysterious letters sent from the ends of the world. No Bride, no Sword ... and no Tenjou. It was as if it all -- as if she -- had never existed.
And in Tenjou's place was Himemiya.
Who wasted no time, once she saw him limping lightly towards her, in smiling sweetly and brushing his concerns (his confusion!) aside with the blithe statement that Tenjou was out there somewhere -- well, it confirmed he wasn't mad; small comfort, that -- and she, Himemiya, still possessed a ring. The ring. All that remained of the power drawn from a god-prince in a pale castle in the sky.
The longer they stood talking (did anyone hear them talk? could anyone hear them talk?), the more the memory sharpened -- if memories they were, and not some magicked transplant of events he could never have seen, crumpled and broken as he'd been -- of that final, fatal, glorious, terrible battle. By the time Himemiya waved goodbye, Touga was overwhelmed. Overwhelmed, and now really and truly the only soul left in Ohtori who remembered. Who remembered the power, and the terror, and the desperate tempting promise of it all ...
Unless. Unless. Unless there was some remnant left, some shred that might offer freedom or at least an anchor --
Or it's all a dream, after all. A dream, or a delusion, or some last trick Himemiya managed to pull on me.
Touga scrubbed at his face, ignored the questioning glances a passing knot of students shot in his direction, the quiet whispers. He didn't want to deal with this; he wanted to doubt his own sanity even less, because if he weren't already insane he'd not waste much time driving himself mad with gnawing on (false?) memories.
But, no; it was all too real. He knew it. He still felt that reality in bruised bones and knitting flesh; the same way that he'd felt that numinous power -- Dios' power -- contained in Himemiya's ring before she'd walked away from him, and from Ohtori. That ring, and that power ... the power of a god, or close enough to make no difference, whose blood spilled twice over and now ...
Now he's nothing, isn't that right, Himemiya? You've replaced your beloved with someone else you need to look for, and I'm still trapped here with mad memories and I'm still half convinced I'm just going crazy --
Weeks of recuperation and a solid month of drifting across the campus, unmoored and adrift, suddenly crystallized into action. He'd go to the Forest, Seal or no Seal, and see what -- if anything -- remained to be found there. Even if there was nothing but the gateway blocking his entry it would still be something, something solid, and maybe the doubts could lay themselves to rest and he could find some other way to wait out this prison.
And no time like the present to try. Nothing to lose, after all.
Actually escaping the attentions of overly-concerned lady classmates and the increasingly irritated Saionji (and perhaps, mused Touga idly as he picked his way down the path, he'd finally return to kendo after this last stunt, provided he was still able) was still child's play when he put his mind to it. Touga smiled at the thought, though his heart wasn't really in it; he was still Student Council President, and somehow that still meant something to the student body. He didn't feel it himself, only a disconcerting hollow whenever the Council met to discuss festival plans, schedule rallies, meet for tea ... all perfectly normal, perfectly mundane activities. Just going through the motions ...
Get your mind back on the goal at hand, fool, there it is --
Indeed it was. Looming ahead of him like a glowering green-black shadow, the Dueling Forest was still every bit as ominous as it had ever been. And -- was that a glint of metal, deeper down the forest path? A dull gleam of pale stone, or shattered glass? Or just the flicker of sunlight through the trees?
Touga lifted his head, squared his shoulders, stared down whatever it was that lurked unseen ahead. How many times had he made this same trip, down this same path? How many duels, how much scheming; how many visits, alone and -- he'd thought -- unseen, to stare up at the shimmering castle out of reach of mere mortals and hope beyond hope to claim the power, the chance at freedom, that lay inside?
Power, in a form he'd never expected.
Did it count as extinguishing a light in the world, he wondered idly, if the matching darkness was also murdered?
Suddenly annoyed at himself, he shook his head, trying to clear it.
Stop stalling for time and get in there, damn it!
What am I so afraid of seeing? The whole thing already came down around our ears, what else could possibly happen now?
He shivered, a thousand nightmare scenarios helpfully racing through his thoughts all at once. But that didn't stop him from tossing his head and striding -- with a bravado every inch false, and well he knew it -- down the last turn of the pale-pebbled path to enter the Forest's waiting heart.
Where, before his searching gaze, there was nothing but more forest.
A small clearing, dappled with sunlight, a few smaller trees studding the mossy grass ... but no gateway, no forbidding metal slabs with their wrist-clutching mechanisms that barred the way to another world. Nothing but forest. His own heartbeat thudded in his ears, a roaring that overwhelmed as Touga turned to leave -- and then he saw the shadows on the forest floor.
The shadows of the missing gates, flickering against the sunshine on the mossy ground, hanging open and unlocked, there and then not-there and there again. And if shadows existed, something had to cast them -- had to exist, or used to exist, or might still linger, and the urge to try to cross over just one more time joined the roar of his heart.
It was insanity, purest insanity, a mad gamble at best. Even if the things were real -- if 'real' be said about dancing shadows -- there was no guarantee that death or worse didn't wait on the other side this time. After all, what could possibly even be left?
Touga felt the smile twist his lips before he realized the expression had settled on his face.
If the worst happened, would anyone even remember me to be able to care about it? What could be worse than what's already waiting for me?
I've got nothing to lose by trying and no one's here to see me make a fool of myself, so why not? It's too bad I don't have a ring -- but the gate's already open.
The shadows beckoned; drawing a breath, Touga crossed the little clearing and stepped squarely between the two fluttering, gaping shadows with a few quick strides -- and for one long sickening moment the world heaved itself sideways. His vision blurred; he fought it off stubbornly, shaking his head and forcing himself to keep his eyes open, vertigo be damned. Whatever was happening, he was going to see it with his own eyes, damn it.
Then the moment passed in one more beat of his heart, and Touga realized with a start that he was still in the Forest after all. A Forest decimated by shattered, ethereal stones.
What ... We really did fall? The castle -- the dueling platform -- everything really did --
Slowly he pivoted on one foot, ignoring the twinges. A glance over his shoulder showed him the gates -- perfectly solid-seeming, now, and still gaping -- behind him, while all around him lay splintered trees, broken stonework, fallen masonry, and -- yes, there -- the shattered stump of the stairwell's once-graceful curves. An entirely different sense of unreality settled over Touga now, the distinct impression that this was all that remained of that other world, a broken and faded remnant, overlaid on the forest's mundane existence. But, still, it existed, which meant his memory was not false.
It really does exist. Did exist. Whatever.
That other world is real. The Duels did happen. And ... Tenjou was real. World's End and his plans, real. Dios was real. All of it. There's no other way to explain all this.
And, I wonder -- can I take anything back out with me?
A wild thought, but it lodged in Touga's heart like a burrowing thorn. If he could find some broken bit that called to him -- a bit of shattered sculpture, a fragment of stained glass, a shard of that certain gleaming, glassy sword -- then maybe the memories would stick. Maybe he could believe there was something to stick around for. Maybe there'd be some small comfort in being the only one who even knew what they all went through.
... Maybe I should make sure I can get out of here, first.
Cautiously, Touga padded back towards the gateway. First he passed one arm between the heavy leaves -- nothing, that he could note -- and then, hanging onto one massive door with clinging fingertips, leaned out into the mundane world beyond. Or would have, if a spike of vertigo hadn't struck him like a bolt from blue skies. Alright, then; hanging between worlds probably was a poor life decision. Leaning heavily on the witchling side of the gate, Touga scrubbed at his face shakily for a long moment, drew several deep, careful breaths, and elected to set off on his quixotic quest for a 'souvenir' rather than prolong that experiment any further.
Skirting around sections of walls crumpled like tissue and columns fallen into ragged segments, for the next several hours (or so he assumed; it felt like time did not exist in the fading half-world) Touga followed faint gleams like shining crystal, or water over shimmering glass, hoping to spot some familiar shard to bring back -- unlikely, he knew, but he couldn't help himself. And something small, that he could stealthily pocket, would be much easier to explain than broken stone, so that was what he prioritized. Something he could explain away as pretty, artistic, artful; that was what he searched for. Branded with a rose, ideally; even easier to explain away, that, as something related to the school.
What he stumbled over in the process, of course, was nothing of the sort. Picking his way around the remnants of a fallen ornamental arch, he spotted a crumpled patch of white and pale gold against the mosses and pale shards and moved closer, curious, before drawing up short in stunned alarm as he registered just what lay on the moss and broken stones in front of his very face. What -- who -- was curled up and unmoving, even as Touga threw off his shock and slunk cautiously closer, hands trembling with reaction. It couldn't be him. There was no way possible for it to be him -- either of him -- they were dead, he was dead, both run through with their own sword, power spirited away by Himemiya.
This couldn't be real. It was more than a month, closer to two. What he saw was a corpse, surely, of one or the other; World's End, presumably. The other was faded, eaten up, but World's End might still leave a corpse behind ...
No amount of silent protests, alas, changed the tableau. He was still there. Fascinated, revulsed, Touga knelt next to the still figure as his mind screamed to flee, and hesitated a heartbeat more -- hand hovering over one white-clad shoulder -- before reaching down and turning the corpse onto its back in one quick motion.
A corpse that was no corpse at all. Corpses did not wheeze when moved, a small quick cough of pain.
And the face with its bruised cheekbone that met Touga's wary gaze was not who was expected, either. Oh, the features were the same; but it was still not World's End, or Dios. Not really at all. Too young, to begin with; if anything, Touga guessed this apparition to be more like his own age. Even the thick shag of bloodied hair was subtly different; neither Dios' perfection nor the slick tail and rakish bangs that World's End affected, the loose curls were untamed, brushed against the nape of the neck but no more than that ...
But, even more than age, even more than the tiny differences in hair and face and build, there was no doubt in Touga's mind as he stared down at this unlikely tableau that, whoever or whatever this was, he was no divinity. Gone was the eldritch scent of roses, the air of barely contained, sacred power, the dark and dangerous edge; there was only the whisper of softly ragged breaths, and the sense of heat simmering under the skin. And that last little detail prompted Touga's decision.
Still clutching the doorknob, Touga dared to draw a breath as the low-voiced litany paused; dared to look, actually look, at the speaker of those words. But he did not dare move from the doorway, ready as he was to bolt away from the room and its occupant both.
He looked, and saw shadowed eyes watching him just as closely from beneath that crown of curls. Knees up beneath the coverlet, arms locked across the top of the knees ...
"Am I mistaken, Touga? I don't think that I am. I remember."
A strange note in the words -- too carefully level, too carefully controlled? -- as one hand tightened its grip on the opposite elbow, holding himself upright in the bed by sheer will alone ...
"I was Dios, light and dark. I was the prince in the castle. I was World's End. These weren't lies. But they weren't the truth. I am no god."
Burning brightly now, those eyes bored into Touga's own even as the sharp chin of that heart-shaped face came to rest on one forearm ...
"Stay. Listen to me. I've been sinner and saint, saviour and ravager. I've been in the highest courts of a thousand kingdoms; I've slept in crumbling stables, hunted and hiding. I've been the prince and the devil, the muse in the high tower and the corpse in the garden."
There was scars on both forearms, one tracing past an elbow; Touga could see them clearly, and a few more on one shoulder ...
"All of these were nothing more than mirage following after mirage. Illusions. A fairy tale. The spell's been broken, the story is over, the magic shattered and the quest undone.
"Here I am, as I was long, long before princes and witches and enchantments ensnared us, and my sister has moved on."
Above all, Touga knew, that posture was a defensive one. He knew that all too well indeed ...
"And so, Touga, what will you do?"
For a moment, his mouth tightened and the world spun, as his hand tightened its grip on cold brass, an anchor point against madness.
Then Touga threw it off, and stepped slowly through the doorway into the darkened room.