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Into the Fire

Chapter Text

There wasn't much furniture in Hisoka's apartment. He hadn't thought to care, not anticipating that he would ever have visitors. At least there was a table they could sit at. And at least he had coffee and tea, so he could cover the standard awkwardness of leading someone into one's home for the first time by offering him a drink.

Watari opted for green tea, so Hisoka went to boil the kettle and fill a pot. When he came back into the main room, Watari was sitting with the case file in front of him, unopened. He didn't say anything about how empty of personality Hisoka's apartment was, but Hisoka read it in his thoughts.

"I haven't had much time to settle in," Hisoka said, unexpectedly stung by the realisation that this place showed no more imprint of himself than his hospital room had.

"No, I guess not," Watari said. "Let me know if you want any houseplants. Mine keep multiplying."

"... they what?"

That got him a ten minute explanation of the way certain plants put out shoots with new plantlets on them, and how Watari felt bad about letting them die, so he'd re-pot them, and the next thing he knew there were fifty-three spider plants sharing his bedroom. Hisoka let him talk while he poured the tea. There was something comforting in the chatter, even when he could sense how paper-thin it was stretched over Watari's emotions.

"So?" Hisoka said, when Watari ran out of things to say about spider plants.

Watari sighed. He flipped open the cover of the case report and pushed it across the table towards Hisoka.

The first page wasn't lacking in gruesome photographs, enough to make Hisoka put down his tea, but even as he took in the details, a nagging awareness crept in that this had not been what Watari had reacted so strongly to, back when Nonomiya had given him the folder.

Hisoka started reading the case details. They weren't any more pleasant than the photographs.

"He killed his whole family?"

"Yeah. Wife, two kids, his parents, even the dog. Then he emptied out their bank accounts and disappeared. The police are still looking for him."

There were more pages of details about the man, but not enough to account for the bulk of the case file. The reason became clear when Hisoka turned over another page and found himself looking at a completely different set of pictures and notes detailing the suicide of a university student. There was no obvious connection to the murders.

A few pages further on, he found himself reading about a middle-aged man who'd been killed in a brawl. Then a female student who had been hospitalised two years ago for extreme psychosis and was still under care. Then a young man whose notes appeared to show nothing but that he was living an average, happy family life. Rather than clarifying the link between them, each new set of notes only served to baffle Hisoka further. The only thing they seemed to have in common was that they all lived in Kyoto.

Hisoka looked up from the file to study Watari's face. He'd been reading the pages upside-down as Hisoka turned them, though Hisoka could tell he already had the contents memorised.

"What am I missing?" he asked.

Watari flinched.

"Something... happened in Kyoto, three years ago," he began. Then he stopped, staring down at the sheets of paper in front of Hisoka.

The silence dragged on until Hisoka took pity on him.

"The fire."

Watari's head jerked up, expression halfway between angry and startled. "When did you--"

"I've been putting the pieces together." A part of Hisoka wanted to know what Watari would say if he were left to talk. A larger part couldn't stand to suffer through his anguish secondhand. "How about I tell you what I know, and you tell me what I don't?"

Another long silence, and then Watari said, "Okay."

"A Shinigami named Tsuzuki died in a fire started by his own Shikigami," Hisoka said, keeping his voice as even as if the information meant nothing to him. "Rumour has it the Shikigami died too, and that's why Gensoukai closed the gate. Shinigami aren't meant to die like that, especially not… in a way that puts them out of reach of the Judgement Bureau. That's why the Summons Division is so distrusted now."

Even more silence. Finally, Watari let out a shuddering sigh.

"Yeah," he said. "That's… the gist of it."

From a pocket, he pulled out his pack of cards and leafed through them as if looking for something in particular. A moment later, his power flashed golden, and 003 sprang out of the surface of the card with soft hoot. She flew up to circle Watari's head before landing on his shoulder.

"She's one of the cards?" asked Hisoka.

"Yeah. The third one, when they're in proper order." Watari held out the now-empty card frame, and Hisoka saw numbers inscribed on the frame: 003. "She doesn't spend much time in the card. Only every now and then." He reached up to pet the tiny owl. "I kind of… bonded with her."

Hisoka nodded. He rarely saw Watari without 003 in Meifu, and he'd occasionally wondered where the little owl went on the occasions she was absent. He waited.

"The fire was like nothing you've ever seen, Bon," Watari said quietly. "The flames were black, and the heat… they say it was like the bombs all over again."

A chill went through Hisoka. Japan had been struck by many bombs during the Pacific War, but there were only two that Watari could be talking about with such dread, horror stamped on the nation's memory even half a century later.

"A lot of people died," Watari went on. "It was a university with a high school on the same campus… there were students and staff there. And the fire spread out of control for blocks… it burned stone and concrete like wood. A lot of people died, a lot more were hurt."

Because of Tsuzuki, his thoughts whispered, and Hisoka felt him lash out silently against his own accusation, with pain enough to break a hundred hearts.

"So... these two." Watari turned the pages of the report back to the second and third men. "They both died recently. And... their souls didn't come back to Meifu."

Hisoka barely contained the jolt that went through him. "What?"

Watari half-laughed, a choking sound that made 003 huddle against his neck in comfort or alarm.

"So you can see why Security were on it," he said. "They died, and now they're just gone. Just like... just like Tsuzuki."

Hisoka frowned, trying to keep his thoughts off his face. Tsuzuki hadn't come back to Meifu because he wasn't dead - or at least, no more so than any Shinigami. What did that mean for these people?

"What does this have to do with the fire?" he asked.

"That's what we're supposed to figure out," Watari replied. "See, turns out both of those guys were injured during the university disaster. Not just that, but when they were pulled out of the wreckage, they were in deep comas. They were hospitalised for over a year, both of them... then one day, they just woke up on their own."

"And then they died."

"Yeah, but not straight away. Someone spotted the link between them and the fire, and called in Security. Kazuma and Nonomiya have been doing their homework. There's ten people in that folder. They were all in a coma after the fire, and they all woke up at some point in the last three years. So far only those two have died, but, well, you saw the first set of case notes..."

"The murderer was one of the coma patients?"

Watari nodded. "Hashimoto Shinji. He was in the coma for over two years. Then he miraculously woke up - and eight months later, he killed his whole family. It just happened a week ago. That's what made Security come to us with it."

"What about the others?"

"They're all different, but it's... not a happy story, for most of them." Watari reached out and flipped through the report again. "This one, Harada Chiyo... she came out of the coma raving and screaming. They tried a ton of antipsychotic medication, but nothing helped, so she's ended up institutionalised. There's another one that's even worse..."

Watari grimaced, turning the page again.

"Tachibana Jirou. First thing he did when he woke up was rape his nurse. He should have been too weak and wasted from months in a coma to do anything of the sort, but he beat her brutally and tied her down with his sheets. She was lucky to survive - it was the middle of the night shift in a private hospice. No-one heard her screaming until it was almost too late. He was a University professor before the fire, his students loved him, everyone who knew him said he was shy and kind-hearted... now he's in solitary confinement under the highest security in the country. No-one's managed to get an answer out of him about why he did it. The doctors concluded he must have been severely brain damaged by smoke inhalation. Same for Harada."

Hisoka couldn't speak. Despite all he'd seen as a Shinigami already, the description of the rape of the nurse made him feel as though cold hands had tightened on his throat. It was all he could do not let Watari see that he was shaking.

"So that's... five of them," Watari went on, unaware of Hisoka's reaction. "Number six, Kanda Maki: she was a student at the high school... she woke up, but after six months she relapsed back into a coma. She's still in it now. Number seven, Kobayashi Asuka: didn't speak a word for a year after she woke up - then when she did, the first thing she did was dump her fiance. After that she cut off contact with her family and vanished."

"That leaves three."

"Yeah, and that's where it gets even weirder. The other three are fine. Nothing bad's happened to them. There's a young guy with a family - you saw his file - and then this old woman, and this little girl."

Hisoka skimmed the indicated pages, confirming Watari's assertion. The last three victims of the fire seemed totally innocuous.

"And you don't have any theories?"

"Oh, I've got theories," Watari said with a sigh. "Plenty of 'em. But none of them add up right. Like, maybe most of them had some brain damage from the fire - smoke inhalation can do that, and it doesn't always show up on scans - but if it's bad enough to put someone in a coma, they don't usually wake up. Most of them had memory problems after they came out of the coma, but none of them had any difficulty with motor coordination, speech, the things that you'd expect to be impacted. So maybe it's just that the shock of waking up from something like that was too great, and they acted out or snapped - all of them lost friends, family, or coworkers in the fire, and by the time they came around, those people had been dead for months or longer."

"But that doesn't explain Chiyo or Jirou," Hisoka put in. "You said they lost it as soon as they woke up. They didn't have time to find out anything like that."

"Exactly. And it doesn't explain why the two who've died didn't come back to Meifu." Watari sagged. "I've been running around Kyoto for the last three days, watching the ones who are still alive, trying to track down Hashimoto and Kobayashi, trying to figure this out... all I seem to find are more questions."

I know how that feels, Hisoka thought. Aloud, he said, "You want me to see if I can pick up more details with my power?"

"Yeah. That, and..." Watari glanced at him, looked away. "You're... good at this, Bon. You figured out the village, and Sargatanas - I need someone else's eyes on this, and you have good eyes."

Hisoka flushed, as much with surprise as anything. To cover it, he said bluntly, "You're going to have to tell me more about the fire. About what happened."

He felt guilty for the way anguish sang out from Watari's mind, but he couldn't let the topic slip away, not when for the first time he had a cast-iron excuse for asking questions about it. After a moment, Watari reached for the folder again and pulled out a sheaf of paper from the very back. Hisoka only had to brush it with his mind to know that these had been the original front pages of the case file.

"Read this," Watari said. "It should clear some things up."

He stood up from the table with unconcealed haste. "Keep the file. I'll see you outside the Bureau tomorrow morning?"

Only the faintest hint of the question made Hisoka realise that he hadn't agreed to help Watari yet. Not that he could refuse, if Watari went to Konoe and Konoe decided to assign Hisoka to the case. But Watari hadn't gone to Konoe. Watari had come here to ask him to help. He'd come here because he was lost and hurting and afraid on some deep level, and he didn't know where else to turn.

Hisoka had no experience of being anyone's refuge, but even his long-practised cold heart couldn't - wouldn't - ignore that.

"I'll see you there," he said. Watari's shoulders relaxed fractionally as he walked across the living room. "Watari-san?"

Watari paused with his hand on the door. "Yeah, Bon?"

"He gave you the cards, didn't he?" Tiny fragments of sense-memory and association had slowly built into certainty in Hisoka's mind, now that he knew the shape and colour of Tsuzuki's thoughts. "You were friends."

Watari didn't look around. His voice was low and uneven when he answered.

"He was my best friend.".

"I'm sorry," Hisoka said, suddenly ashamed of his intrusion. "I'll help however I can."

"Thank you."

The door closed behind Watari. Hisoka sat listening to his footsteps across the balcony and down the stairs, until he could no longer sense his presence. Then he looked down at the papers in front of him.

Tsuzuki's name was printed boldly across the top, but this wasn't a Summons Division case file. It was a Security document, very different in tone and style. Hisoka read quickly. A cold feeling began to grip him. Byakko and Rikugou had called Tsuzuki lost, but this report was far more starkly accusatory. It asserted that Tsuzuki had been involved in the deaths of a number of mortals and claimed he had been actively working to sabotage the Judgement Bureau. In collusion with a mortal, he had defied the will of the Judges and taken life and death into his own hands - mostly dealing death, or so the Security Division insisted.

Hisoka turned the page. The Security Division had believed... that the massacre at Maria Wong's concert had been Tsuzuki's doing, though they didn't seem clear on why. They also claimed he'd intentionally let Minase Hijiri die. There was something about a series of murders on a cruise ship, which Security also pinned on Tsuzuki. And finally, the report said, he'd gone fully rogue, abandoning Meifu and his Shinigami duties. He had committed his ultimate act of betrayal when he'd summoned the Shikigami Touda to attack his colleagues from the Summons Division, knowing full well that Touda's flames could kill them.

The next page was in a slightly different format. It was a mitigating statement, signed by Konoe and co-signed by the Count of the Castle of Candles, arguing that although Tsuzuki had been involved in the deaths highlighted by the Security Division, it had not been intentional, and there had been no conspiracy against the Judgement Bureau. The statement also made a note that both Watari and Tatsumi insisted that Touda had not been summoned to attack them.

The last page of the set was a simple summary of the damage in Kyoto, the lives lost, the people injured, and the destruction wrought on the city. It noted that both Tsuzuki Asato, Shinigami for the Kyushu District, and his mortal co-conspirator, whose identity remained unknown, had perished in the black flames.

Hisoka checked the back of the paper for any more information, but the report ended there. He realised he'd been holding his breath through the last part of the document, and let it out in a rush.

No wonder Watari didn't want to talk about the fire. The rest of the Judgement Bureau thought Tsuzuki was a murderer who'd tried to kill his own friends, and Hisoka couldn't say he had any evidence they were wrong... except the loyalty Rikugou and Byakko had shown, and Watari's simple, unqualified statement: he was my best friend. The rage and pain that were always ready to surge under Watari's skin were beginning to make sense.

Hisoka slowly squared the pages up and slid them back into the file. Then he began to read his way through the rest of the case notes. Watari had said he was good at this. And Watari had asked him for help. He couldn't see how any of these people were tied to Tsuzuki, Touda, and Muraki, but he was going to find out.

And... not just because it might help him uncover the truth about his own death. Not anymore.

Kyoto was beginning to feel the touch of winter, but the maple leaves were still a riotous red and gold sea lapping at the feet of the mountains, and the air was still warm enough to raise a sweat if you walked too briskly. It made flying across the city pleasant, since no physical exertion was required.

There was police tape around the Hashimoto house when they arrived. An officer was on duty at the front, but he couldn't see the two Shinigami who slipped past him in spirit form and made their way to the back door.

It was a small, neat, modern house with two floors and a well-kept garden. Even though he was braced for it, the shock of stepping through the door into a kitchen splashed with dark, dried blood hit Hisoka like a blow. He paused for a moment on the threshold, letting it pass.

"Not pretty, is it?" Watari said. "He killed his mother in here."

"Why haven't they cleaned it up yet?"

"I guess it isn't a priority, when there's no-one to come back."

Hisoka shivered. He followed Watari into a narrow hall. One door led to a living area without so much as a speck of blood anywhere to be seen. The other revealed a bedroom with traditional tatami mats and two futons, side by side. Here there was plenty of blood.

"This was his parents' room," Watari elaborated. "The police report says he killed his father first. His mother had time to run, but he caught up to her before she could get the back door open."

"How did he--?"

"Kitchen knife."

Hisoka reached out with great reluctance to find the traces left in the room. Murder left an obscene black stain on a place, and the fear and disbelief of the dead woman were as bitter as lye. He caught the ghost of a memory, of how she'd been jolted from sleep by a strange, strangled gasp from her husband and a warm splash of fluid on her face. She'd had no time to realise the attacker was her son, or that it was her husband's blood dripping down her cheek. She'd screamed, and run, and it hadn't been enough.

Hashimoto Shinji's thoughts were harder to find. He didn't seem to have experienced any particular pleasure, or even anger. The most Hisoka could read from him was an oily sheen of resentment, and an unpleasant, self-absorbed relief once the deed was done.

The upstairs rooms were worse, especially the children's. The bodies had long since been taken away, but Hisoka could sense where they would have lain. The children had died in their beds. So had their mother. The only slim comfort he could take was that none of them had woken. Shinji had been ruthlessly efficient at cutting their throats while they slept.

"He killed the dog first," Watari said as they stood looking at the master bedroom. "It must have been sleeping on their bed. Maybe he didn't want to risk it making a noise."

"Partly that," Hisoka said, swallowing sickness. "Partly, it was practice. He'd never cut someone's throat before. He'd... thought about it, planned it, but he wanted to be sure he could do it quickly. He didn't want any of them to have time to shout for help."

Watari grimaced. "That can't be pleasant for you to sense."

"It isn't." Hisoka frowned. "There's... something really strange about him, though. Or about his thoughts. It's like..."

He turned and left the room, crossing the upstairs hallway to the bathroom. There were bloodstains here and there on the floor and walls, and a pink rim around the drain.

"He came in here and washed himself off," Hisoka said. "Put some clean clothes on, but he didn't bother to pack a bag. There was nothing in this house he valued except the bank cards and account books that would let him access the family money."

He shook his head.

"If you hadn't told me the background, I would have thought these people were killed by a stranger. Except..." He let his senses expand further, probing into the longer memory of this room. "Except I can feel the residue of how he thought about it, again and again. He'd come in here, sit in the bath for as long as he could get away with, so he didn't have to deal with the rest of his family--"

Those brats. That bitch. Those stupid meddling old idiots. Hisoka could almost hear the words that had gone around and around in Hashimoto's head. How am I supposed live like this? Something has to be done.

"-- and he thought about it, over and over," Hisoka went on slowly. "Until it stopped being a fantasy and started being a plan. But it was always... secondary. Murdering them wasn't the point... it was just the means to an end."

"Like what? The money? Most of it was his anyway."

"Freedom." Hisoka said. "He... didn't want this life. He didn't want to be a husband, a father, even anyone's son. He knew if he just left, they'd search for him... he resented them, like they'd been forced on him without asking. He just wanted them gone, so he could do whatever he liked. He... didn't care about killing them, not really. He didn't particularly want to, but he didn't see any reason not to. He just gritted his teeth and got on with it so he could be free."

Watari let out a breath slowly. "That's... horrible. Worse than if he'd enjoyed it, somehow."

"Yes." Hisoka shuddered. "What did you find out about him?"

"Nothing that makes sense, especially with what you've just said." Watari ran his hand through his hair distractedly. "I've set up a backdoor into the police database and I've been reading their interview transcripts. He was a normal guy. By all reports, he loved his wife and kids, got on well with his parents - the neighbours say he was friendly and spent as much time with his family as he could - up until the fire, anyway."

"Then he changed?"

"Yeah - well, first he was in the hospital for over two years. It was hard on the rest of the family. That's when his parents moved in. Then he woke up, and they thought it was a miracle, but he couldn't even remember his children's names, or his wife's. He made a full physical recovery once he was awake, but he had to relearn everything. He couldn't go back to work - he didn't even remember what a computer was, let alone how to write programs."

Hisoka nodded thoughtfully. "I can feel it... the frustration, the feeling of being trapped... the panic of not knowing basic things, making assumptions and having them be wrong. All these people so glad to have him back, and he couldn't be the man they expected, and he didn't want to."

"I guess that could be enough to drive someone to this," Watari said reluctantly. "I mean... can you imagine not even being able to remember your life?"

"Yes," Hisoka replied, then hurried on before Watari could voice the chagrin that flashed across his face. "But I... don't think that's the whole story. I can't explain why. There's just something... off about his memories. Something that doesn't add up. If I could talk to him, I might be able to work out what it is."

"I've got a flag set up in the police system to email me if they catch the guy," Watari said. "I've tried tracking him already, but I can't seem to pick up a trail."

"Even with the bird? The one you used in Kumamoto?"

"Yeah - I've tried three times, with hair from his comb and razor. She just flies in circles around the house. I've never seen anything like that before - except when someone's deliberately masked their trail. But I haven't found any evidence of sorcery."

"No," Hisoka agreed, "I don't sense anything like that either."

He left the bathroom, careful to put his shields back up before he got anywhere near the rooms where this poor family had been slaughtered. Watari followed him down the stairs and out of the house. The clear autumn daylight was a relief, washing some of the horror of that place from Hisoka's heart.

"The two coma patients who died - when did it happen?"

"Let's see..." Watari opened the case file and flipped to the relevant pages. "Sugihara Mamoru committed suicide two months ago. Ikeda Keichi was killed six weeks ago."

"I should still be able to get something from their homes, then," Hisoka said. "Especially Sugihara's. But Ikeda died in a public place, didn't he? Any traces there will probably be drowned out by now."

"Maybe, maybe not - it was a downtown bar with some shady stuff going on. The police shut it down after Ikeda's death and it hasn't reopened yet."

"That's good for us." Hisoka glanced at his watch, then let himself drift off the ground. "Let's go."

Sugihara's apartment was less awful than the Hashimoto house, not least because it had been thoroughly cleaned and redecorated since his death - though as yet no new tenants had moved in. Hisoka couldn't blame them. Despair and grief clung to the place as unctuously as the blood that was no longer there. Sugihara had committed traditional seppuku with a blade he'd purchased at great expense from a Kyoto swordsmith. The floor must have been awash when the police first found his body.

There was little for Hisoka to learn from his imprint on the place, except to confirm that he had taken his own life.

"He was a student at the university," Watari said. "He lost friends in the fire, they were all in the same dorm building. After he woke up, he lived with his parents for a while, but insisted on moving out as soon as he could manage by himself. He seems to have become a shut-in. Before this place was cleared out, he had piles and piles of books around, and he spent his time writing a lot of letters to all sorts of people around the country. There are pictures in the police reports - I can show you when we get back to the hotel room."

Hisoka nodded. "There's not much here. He was in pain. He saw no point in living. He... regretted living? Like it was a choice he'd made, only to find it was a mistake."

"Survivor guilt. That's not so strange, and it could prevent him from moving on."

"I can't sense his spirit anywhere. Where was he buried?"

"Not far from here. I've been to the cemetery. There's no sign of a ghost."

Their next stop was the bar where Ikeda had died. It was in the basement of a scruffy tower block near the river. Everything about it marked it as a haunt for criminals. As they went down the steps, Hisoka could sense the relief from the police that they finally had an excuse to shut the place down.

The bar itself was riotous in its leftover emotion, as loud in Hisoka's head as if it were still packed with people. He could sense the afterimages of the fight that had broken out, but they were such a chaotic blend of anger and hatred that he struggled to pick out any clear threads.

"What started it?" he asked.

"Ikeda did, according to witnesses. They say he went out of his way to provoke a gang of rough types, seemed like he was trying to start a fight. But the police are pretty sure the witnesses were lying to cover for the people involved."

"I don't think they were." Hisoka closed his eyes. He was beginning to get a headache from these constant attempts to sort out relevant information from the background noise. "I don't exactly know which one of these people was Ikeda, but someone started it on purpose, and it feels like one person against a group. He... didn't think about the consequences. All he cared about was the thrill of picking a fight. He was... surprised, when they beat him to death. Like it hadn't occurred to him that it could happen. He wasn't afraid at all."

Watari leaned against the bar with a frustrated noise halfway between a sigh and a groan.

"That sure sounds like brain damage of some sort," he said. "Lack of foresight, no impulse control... maybe we've got it all wrong. Maybe Security's jumping at shadows. Maybe these people were just traumatised or damaged to the point where they snapped. I guess there could be some other reason why these two didn't come back..."

"I... don't think so." Hisoka pressed fingertips to his temples to try and push back the pain. "There is something wrong here, Watari-san - I just can't quite tell what. I need to try and get a clearer reading on Ikeda."

"We can go to his parents' house," Watari said, "but are you okay? You don't look so good."

"I'll manage."

Watari shot him a pointed look.

"We're gonna be doing a lot of this, Bon. Better to pace yourself than end up blacking out or something."

Hisoka hesitated. He wanted to follow up on the traces of Ikeda's thoughts; he felt like there was a knot here that he could untangle if he could just find one stray end to pull. But the headache was getting worse even though he was already bringing his shields back up.

"You're right," he said, surprising himself almost as much as Watari. "Let's go and drink tea somewhere."

Watari blinked. "Tea?"

"Isn't that what people do in Kyoto?"

"Yeah, I just..." Watari shook himself, even managed a quick smile. "Sure. Let's get tea. I know a great place up by Kiyomizu Temple."

The tea helped ease Hisoka's headache, or maybe it was the proximity of the temple, which radiated a cool, calming aura like the pure water it was named after. The tea house didn't look like much from the outside, which was why the tourists seemed to skip it, but turned out to have a back terrace that overlooked the maple trees on the slopes. Red was predominant here, almost drowning out the golds and oranges. Hisoka found it peaceful and energising at once.

Watari, on the other hand, fell silent as soon as they arrived, an unmistakeable agitation seizing his thoughts. Hisoka ordered for both of them. The green tea had a pleasing smoky taste. The woman who brought it to them wore a yukata because it was expected, but was secretly longing for the end of the day when she could change into a skirt and blouse. Hisoka let the silence lie, curious to see whether Watari would break it on his own.

"It's been a while since I last came here," Watari said finally. "I used to find an excuse whenever I could, but..."

He trailed off, cradling his teacup in his hands as if he were planning to read the leaves once he was done with it.

"Kyoto has bad memories now?" Hisoka suggested quietly. He was making a point not to eavesdrop on Watari's thoughts, but it wasn't hard to finish the sentence.

"You... read the report?" Watari asked, still intently studying the depths of his tea.

"Yes." Hisoka considered and discarded several options for his next words, before settling on, "The Security Division certainly have their hearts set on making him a scapegoat, don't they?"

Watari's gaze shot to his face, startled. Hisoka sensed a rush of gratitude and relief before he looked away.

"This conspiracy theory they've come up with, it's crazy." Watari shook his head. "He wasn't... Tsuzuki wasn't like that. It used to... it was hard on him, doing this kind of work. Even if it was someone's time to die, he always wanted them to live. The idea that he could have gone out and murdered people is just..."

"So what really happened?"

"I don't know." The anguish and frustration bled out of Watari's voice like falling glass. "I just... don't know. Something happened, a case went badly wrong--"

"The Maria Wong case."

"Yeah... that one. He went to pieces. And there was this man... it was like he had some sort of power over Tsuzuki. It was him, I'm sure - he was the one to blame for everything that happened. But Tsuzuki... he wouldn't listen to us... to me... he wouldn't stop seeing him, and he wouldn't tell us what he was doing... and then he just dropped everything and left Meifu. We tracked him down to Kyoto..."

Watari trailed off again. Hisoka sipped his tea and waited.

"He didn't attack us," Watari said, quietly but passionately. "He didn't even know we were there until after he'd summoned Touda..."

"Then why did he do it?"

Watari closed his eyes as if to ward off the memory that was filling him with such pain.

"He wanted to die."

Hisoka jerked involuntarily, spilling a few drops of tea over his hand. "He--"

"He killed himself," Watari said. "Whatever had happened, whatever he was involved in... it drove him to suicide. And I... couldn't stop him."

Watari's emotions were a torrent, loss and rage and helplessness as bright as the flames had been black. Hisoka sensed a cold, hard certainty beneath it, one with a shape he dimly recognised.

"And Tatsumi-san?"

Watari exploded into fury and fear and outrage, an assault on Hisoka's mind that sent him reeling.

"Tatsumi could have saved him," Watari snarled, barely keeping his voice down. "He didn't. He let him die. He stood there and let Tsuzuki die!"

And it broke him, Watari's thoughts whispered, barely acknowledged, twined inseparably with the anger, it destroyed him and he's slipping away and I can't lose him too...

Hisoka stood up abruptly, walked a few paces away and leaned on the railing, looking out at the leaves without seeing them. Watari didn't try to follow. After a couple of minutes working through Rikugou's defensive techniques, Hisoka came back to his seat.

"Sorry," Watari said.

"I asked," Hisoka countered. "It's okay. I'm... getting better at shutting things out. I just needed to catch my breath."

Watari nodded. Hisoka could feel him making the effort to keep his emotions in check, though it was like holding back the tide.

"You... tried, though," Hisoka went on after a moment. "Didn't you? You tried to save him, but the flames..."

Watari shuddered. "I don't remember blacking out. The next thing I knew, I was in Meifu, in the infirmary, a week later. The burns took months to fully heal."

Another echo of pain washed over Hisoka, this time physical, a brutal agony he knew all too well. He moved on quickly.

"What do you know about--" He almost said Muraki, caught himself in time. "--about the man with Tsuzuki?"

Watari's expression darkened.

"I'm not sure he was a man. There was something about him... he had power, far more power than a mortal should. I thought... he might be a demon, or someone possessed by one. I never had the chance to find out. He died in the fire as well. I think..." Watari sighed. "I believe... that Tsuzuki intended it that way."

There was something about him... The hairs on Hisoka's neck stood on end.

"You met him?"

"Once, briefly. I... followed Tsuzuki." Watari clenched his fists on the table. "I was trying to help... but I only made things worse."

Hisoka didn't ask if Watari would recognise Muraki again. It would give too much away, and besides, he was sure no-one who'd seen the man could forget him.

"Do you know why they were here? In Kyoto, at the university - anything?"

"Only guesswork, and most of it from afterwards, when I was trying to find something to show Security they were wrong." Watari picked up his now-cold tea and sipped it without apparently noticing the temperature change. "The university had a private research lab funded exclusively by a handful of rich donors, and they were close-mouthed about what they were working on there. There were plenty of rumours - preventing aging, curing cancer, human cloning, genetic engineering to create the perfect human - and when we found Tsuzuki, it was in the middle of a huge lab complex underground. Gods know what could have been going on in there. I didn't have time to look around, and of course, it all burned down - and there were no records of any of it."

Hisoka frowned. "That stuff sounds pretty far-fetched."

"You bet. Chances are they were just working on the perfect lab-grown steak, or something. Or at least, I would have said so, if Tsuzuki hadn't ended up involved with it." Suddenly, unexpectedly, Watari half-laughed. "Although, maybe that makes the steak more likely. He loved food."

Aching fondness followed the words, immediately subsumed again by loss and grief. Hisoka was seized all at once by the nearly irresistible impulse to tell Watari that Tsuzuki was alive. He forced it out of his head, forced himself to focus again on the case they'd come here to solve.

"Did any of the people we're investigating have links to the research lab?"

"Not as far as I could tell." Watari finally seemed to decide he was done with the tea, and pushed it to one side. "I haven't been able to find a single common thread between them. I even pulled a map out and marked their positions when the fire broke out, in case they were in the same area, but they were scattered all over. Other people near them either died in the fire or survived. There's no pattern."

"There has to be a pattern." Hisoka was surprised by his own certainty. "We're just not looking in the right place." He signalled to the waitress for the bill. "Maybe we'll get lucky at Ikeda's house."