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Last Boat Out of Hell (The Union of the Snake remix)

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Watari's day had started bad and gotten steadily worse. First, Tsuzuki had gotten in late, sneaking in -- as if Watari couldn't hear -- and reeking of cheap sake. He'd taken close to an hour to fall asleep, tossing, turning and sighing. Watari had bitten back his annoyance (Tsuzuki was his best friend; Tsuzuki had only gotten out of the infirmary a month ago; it would do no good anyway), but it didn't help him get back to sleep.

Then they'd been led on a merry chase in the morning by the maids, who despite their claimed desperation for a physician had yet to produce any breathing patients. It was late afternoon by the time Kurosaki led them down a long corridor, talking like he was guarding the secrets of the universe. (If you tell anyone what you see, the curse of this house will kill you. How melodramatic could you get?

Tsuzuki was looking at the man like he was familiar, which didn't help a bit. Just his luck that Tsuzuki had been between partners when this case came up, and Watari'd been the only one who wasn't busy.

Kurosaki Rui looked pale as a corpse, and her stomach was grossly swollen; her eyes stared upward, unseeing, indifferent. Watari wished he'd had some medical experience studying the living. "She's pregnant," Kurosaki explained.

"If she's pregnant, she needs a hospital," Watari said. "There's only so much I can--"

"She's been this way for eighteen months," Kurosaki said darkly, and Watari heard Tsuzuki make a little meep of surprise behind him.

"We're going to need access to the doctor's notes," Watari said.

"Impossible," came the reply. "They were destroyed."

Watari resisted the urge to throw up his hands in frustration. "Then leave us with her, Kurosaki-san. My assistant and I will examine her. Perhaps that will lead to a better course of treatment."

At least Kurosaki listened to that, his footsteps echoing as he walked away. Watari sat down on the floor and stared at Rui.

"Any ideas?" Tsuzuki leaned down, putting a hand on Watari's shoulder.

"I never studied gynecology," Watari said. "I suppose I could start now--"

Tsuzuki put his free hand over Watari's glasses. "Don't."

"You'll get them all smudged!" Watari shoved Tsuzuki's hand away and stood up, almost falling over Rui in the process. "It's bad enough I--"

Footsteps. Kurosaki returning? No, these were lighter, faster than Nagare's deliberate step, and coming from a different direction; Watari wondered who might be allowed as far back as this confinement room, whose secrets seemed so important.

The answer came soon enough; a young man, lean and angry-looking, clearly part of the Kurosaki family from his coloring and lean build-- though the crayon-bright streaks of color in his hair certainly weren't genetic. "New doctor?" he said, his voice cynical and unimpressed.

Tsuzuki started. Dammit. Watari knew that guilty body language.

"Hm," the kid said, sizing Tsuzuki up. "Guess I should've asked your name."

"Tsuzuki Asato." Because of course Tsuzuki would give out his real name. Watari searched his memory to recall what they'd told the maids. Maybe no name at all; they got in late last night, and assistant had worked well enough. Maybe they'd get away with--

Nagare's footsteps again, fast, hard. "What are you doing in here?"

"Just visiting," the kid (what was he, fourteen?) said. His voice was the edge of an icicle. "Surely I'm allowed to look after my own beloved family."

"Her condition is unchanged," Nagare said, matching his son's cold anger.

"I guess you won't be rid of me yet, then," the boy said, turning his back on them all. "I'll see you around."

He stalked back out, shoulders hunched under his black leather jacket. He was certainly pretty and volatile enough for Tsuzuki's tastes, Watari thought ruefully. And when you were Tsuzuki's age, anyone seemed young. But ...

"My son is at a difficult age," Nagare said, which was the nicest way of saying we can't stand each other Watari had heard in a while.

"Sixteen was rough for me too," Tsuzuki said, and Nagare's eyes flashed with irritation.

"He told you his age?"

"Uh," Tsuzuki said, and Watari could practically feel the blush, "I think one of the maids mentioned it."

Nagare shot him a suspicious look but let it go. "I'll leave you to your work," he said.

There was no sense in saying anything to Tsuzuki. He'd beat himself up enough over this. Maybe they could use this. Maybe.

“Green,” Tsuzuki said softly when Nagare had left, and Watari realized after a moment he was talking about the kid’s eyes. “I’d wondered.”

 

Mother seemed calmer this afternoon; probably whatever had kept Rui screaming the other night had satisfied her for a day or two.

Hisoka was never quite sure why he sat out by the lake. It wasn't to be close to her. Maybe it was because her ghost was relatively silent, or because he could remind himself that he was still there, still alive, when she wasn't. Maybe it was just that usually they left him alone out here, especially on cold days like this.

He heard the leaves crunch before the man approached; the guy from last night, Tsuzuki according to his words this afternoon, Honda according to the maids. He stood watching Hisoka for a while.

"So," Hisoka said, when he decided he was sick of being watched. "Who are you? Really?"

"I told you," he said, walking closer. "Tsuzuki Asato."

"Miya-san said your name was Honda," he said.

"I know." Tsuzuki watched him for a moment, testing his luck.

"Go ahead," Hisoka said, looking back out at the water. "Sit down." He kind of wanted to know how he got this guy to spill out his secrets with just a fuck and a glare.

"Thank you," he said, and sat. He felt guilty and unhappy; that could mean anything.

Hisoka pulled his knees up by his chin. "It's not that I like you," he said.

"I know," Tsuzuki said, shutting himself down the way he had last night.

"I didn't exactly think I'd be seeing you again."

"Me neither," Tsuzuki said glumly.

"If you're one of those ghost hunter types, there's nothing to see," Hisoka said. "It's all made up."

Tsuzuki started at that. "People say there's a ghost here?"

Like he didn't know. "They say Mother's spirit is in the lake." Hisoka nodded with his chin.

That did surprise him. "Your mother's not--"

Hisoka shook his head. "That's Father's second wife. Her sister."

"Oh," Tsuzuki said. After a bit he asked, "What was her name?"

"Kasane."

"I'm sorry," Tsuzuki said, and seemed to mean it. It was hard to tell with all the guilt he was already feeling.

I should've told him I was twenty, Hisoka thought ruefully. "Don't be. The only thing that surprised me was that she didn't try to push me in first."

Tsuzuki flinched. "Then I'm sorry about that."

Hisoka shrugged. "Whatever." It didn't matter. It might've been a mercy if she had done it. He realized, to his horror, that he'd been absent-mindedly scratching the scales on his stomach, and froze for a second before recovering.

"You're all right?" An undeniable warmth and worry from the man next to him. It felt strange.

"Yeah," Hisoka said. "Fine. What're you doing out here, anyway?"

"It's pretty out here." He wouldn't look at Hisoka.

"You're a rotten liar."

Tsuzuki chuckled. He looked at Hisoka then, a wry grin like a kid. "Yeah," he said. "I just wanted to talk to you." His eyes were still purple in daylight, such a bright, strong shade they were almost unnatural. He was good-looking, his features fine but strong, his hands big and broad. Hisoka felt desire curl in his stomach.

Last night hadn't been bad. Maybe--

No. Don't kid yourself. "Look," Hisoka said. "I'm sure you're a nice guy or whatever. Your wife probably misses you."

"Nice try," Tsuzuki said softly. "Never been married."

Hisoka crossed his arms over his chest. "If you want something out of the family, you shouldn't talk to me anyway. They're just keeping me around in case the spare doesn't work out."

Tsuzuki followed his gaze to the main house. "Rui's child?"

Hisoka nodded. "Abe-sensei said it was a boy."

"That's important?"

"This house is cursed," Hisoka said. "Didn't they tell you?"

"They've told us a lot of things," Tsuzuki said, and was that a hint of cynicism underneath all the smiles?

"What'd they tell you about me?"

Tsuzuki shook his head.

That sounded about right. They were usually happier pretending he didn't exist. If it wasn't for his Y chromosome, he'd probably be out under the tree next to his sister, screaming at shadows. At least his ghost wouldn't suffer under the illusion that someone was coming to save him someday. Poor kid. She still thought Mother was coming to help her.

Tsuzuki was watching him. Let him. To hell with him. To hell with all of it.

"You could have dinner with us," Tsuzuki said. "Couldn't you?"

He was going to have to start using smaller words with this guy. "I told you," he said. "What happened with us. It didn't mean anything."

"Doesn't mean we can't have dinner," Tsuzuki said calmly. "Besides, maybe you could help the doctor. Your father sure hasn't been much help."

What makes you think I want to help, Hisoka wanted to snap, but part of him knew that he did want to help. Even Rui, who'd ignored the bruises on his arms, who'd never asked where he'd been after he'd spent a week behind bars in the basement. Even Rui, who'd called him a freak when she'd finally learned the truth.

Maybe he was just tired of the screaming.

"I won't be much help," Hisoka said.

"Any help's a start."

"I'll think about it." He got up. At least it was an excuse to get away from Tsuzuki, with his pretty face and warm eyes and outsized emotions. It was starting to make his head ache.

"Thanks," Tsuzuki said, and let him go.

 

The thing was that they had nothing to work with. No alias, no information from the office, not even a preliminary theory. It'd been dumb luck they'd gotten in as physicians. He'd asked the Guoshin for additional information, but nothing was forthcoming yet. He could try accessing Mother -- part of him thrilled at the thought, an excuse to search for the information he'd wanted for years -- but Tsuzuki wasn't the best candidate to help him with that. He spilled secrets like a fountain. And Tsuzuki could little afford any penalty or punishment, not like Watari, who'd kept his nose clean for years just in case an opportunity arose.

At least Watari'd had the chance to set up his office properly; he could think better now. He turned his head as Tsuzuki opened the door.

"What's this?” Tsuzuki said, his voice edging with panic. "We can't -- what did you do?"

Watari resisted the urge to laugh. "Relax," he said. "It's a hologram."

"A hologram?" Tsuzuki looked skeptical. "But--" He reached out his arm.

"You forget," Watari reassured him. "I'm a genius. It's a tactile hologram, but that's because of our spiritual energy. Normal people's hands would pass right through it." 003, who had mostly kept herself in the room to avoid rousing suspicion, chirruped happily at one of the computer monitors, like she was attempting an explanation of her own.

"So what happens when normal people come in here and see this?"

Watari waggled a finger at him. "That's what the alarm's for. Someone trips the door and isn't one of us--" He demonstrated and the room returned to its normal state. "It's all gone. I work better in familiar surroundings, that's all. Isn't it nice to have something that looks like it's part of the twentieth century?"

Tsuzuki's eyes looked at the paper walls. "This reminds me of where I grew up," he confessed.

Normally Watari wouldn't ask, but ... "You all right?"

Tsuzuki nodded, curt, tight. He'd shut down completely if Watari wasn't careful. This case sucked.

"Well, um," Tsuzuki said hesitantly. "It's good you have the alarm, anyway."

Watari caught an undercurrent. "Yes?" he asked, as innocently as he could manage.

"I asked the young master to have dinner with us," Tsuzuki said, only blushing a little. "I thought he might be useful."

"You still haven't even found out his name, have you?" Watari raised an eyebrow.

Tsuzuki looked miserable.

"Well," Watari continued cheerfully, "you'll have your chance. Not a bad idea, anyway. Wonder if he can hold his sake?"

"You can't get him drunk," Tsuzuki protested. "He's only--"

"You said," Watari said, letting Tsuzuki pick up whatever inference he wanted to. "Sixteen. If it gets him talking--"

"I can get him to talk," Tsuzuki said, confidently, eagerly. "And he'll keep talking if he doesn't think he was coerced."

Watari shrugged. "Fine," he said, "have it your way." That would get Tsuzuki solidly back into protector mode, at least. Watari wondered if he could ask Tatsumi for extra hazard pay. Keeping Tsuzuki from suicidal ideation, three hours overtime per evening. Though then Tatsumi might ask Watari to keep track of all the personal projects he worked on during office hours. Better to leave well enough alone. "It's not like I got anywhere with the office."

"What do they want us to do?" Tsuzuki said helplessly.

"What they always expect," Watari said. "Save the day and try not to kill too many people in the process. Anyway, we'll have dinner. The food's good here, at least."

Dinner, when it came, was indeed delicious, but the young master never showed. Tsuzuki made a great show of appreciating the food -- the maids were delighted -- and Watari pretended not to notice the disappointment in his friend's eyes. They were both good at masks; that was one thing they'd always appreciated about one another.

"There's a festival tomorrow," Miya-san said when she came to remove the dishes, her cheeks coloring a little. "It would be our honor to take you to enjoy the sights."

"That sounds fine," Tsuzuki said. "You'll come, won't you, Watari?"

It would be good to try to get some information from the maids, but there didn't need to be two of them managing that. "I should probably stay here and do some work," he said diplomatically. He had taken a blood sample from Rui; perhaps that would get them somewhere. "But I think you should go and relax."

 

The club (such as it was) closed at festival time. Too many people wanted to go with their families, and it was easy to pick men up in the crowds. But where Hisoka always felt at home under the flashing lights, the music pounding hard enough to hurt, the bustle of the festival felt alien and strange. Too many different sensations, with no common purpose to bring them coherence and focus. Just chaos.

But with Father growing weaker every year, the Kurosaki heir had to make an appearance. The sacrifice, after all, must be shown to the crowd before the slaughter. That's right, he thought, as the umpteenth person bowed their head to him in greeting. Show proper respect. Your town's built on our corpses. He bowed back, but never as low or as long. Just another role to play. Just another night to get through.

"Kurosaki-san." That voice. The more he talked, the more it echoed in Hisoka's head. Warm and vulnerable, a taste of the emotions Hisoka could sense if he got close. "I'm glad to see you here."

Tsuzuki had Miya on his arm, looking proud of her companion but reluctant to be caught out with him. "Hello, Hisoka-sama!" she squeaked, and bowed low. She hadn't been expecting to see him. Hisoka wondered if that meant anything.

"Oh," he said. "Hello."Another moment and Hisoka realized the reason behind her discomfort; they'd dressed Tsuzuki in one of his father's kimono. Like he cared what they did with Father's stuff. Tsuzuki looked natural in the old-fashioned clothes, though the deep green color of the silk was more suited to Father than to Tsuzuki's dark hair and violet eyes.

"Would you like to walk around with us?" Tsuzuki asked. "It's a lovely night."

"I've got to meet someone," Hisoka said. "Thanks."

It wasn't a lie, really. Normally no one but tourists ever got near him, but Kinjo from the bar must've decided sixteen was old enough and the pickings too slim during the festival. They made eye contact, and Kinjo followed Hisoka away from the crowd. Hisoka braced his arms against the back wall of the temple, fabric hiked to his waist, and Kinjo whispered filthy shit in his ear as they rocked together. Hisoka was pretty sure the yukata was an antique. Of course, someone else had probably gotten fucked in it too. Maybe it was just like old times.

It was a dance, like all the other times, all the other nights. He didn’t think about Tsuzuki, those big hands and vulnerable eyes. He didn’t think about anything.

It was around eleven when he started walking back. Miya must've been waiting; she caught him up as his foot hit the ground of the estate. "Honda-sensei is an honored guest," she said. “And Kurosaki-sama said--”

"Of course," Hisoka said. She smiled her relief at him and disappeared back into the night.

He wondered where Honda-sensei had gotten off to. He knew which wing they’d put the guests in; you could see the light from their rooms from this part of the estate if you looked carefully.

The lake was disturbed tonight, for some reason, bubbles and agitation at the surface--
No.

No.

A body, just under the water-- his father’s yukata--

"Mother!" he screamed, panic overriding his better instincts. "Mother, let him go!"

Hisoka looked around; there had to be something. A tree branch, a rope--

How long could Tsuzuki hold his breath?

Hisoka's foot slid into the mud, wrenching his ankle. He gritted his teeth against the pain and kept walking. He couldn't see Tsuzuki's form any more, but the water was murky. He'd be all right.

He might be all right.

What would his father do, with another death on his hands? Maybe there were so many it didn't matter any more--

Hisoka shook the thought off. Tsuzuki didn't ask to be pulled into any of this. There was a branch right at the edge of the water, that would work.

Hisoka leaned down and reached for it--

A cold, wet hand on his wrist, and he was in, under, choking on murk and grime.

Mother.

She'd hated him more than his father after all.

 

The blood sample was promising. Watari was increasingly convinced Rui wasn't pregnant at all, or if she was pregnant, it wasn't with anything human. A possession would be relatively simple, and Watari let himself feel a faint bit of optimism.

A little more information about the sort of demon they were dealing with, and it'd be easy. The blood proteins weren't completely wrong for a pregnancy, but there were definitely some things there that did not belong, and--

The hologram blinked out. "Watari!" Tsuzuki called. "Help me, now--"

Watari hurried to the door, where a soaked Tsuzuki was holding something; someone, Watari realized, a bundle of sodden silk that turned out to be the Kurosaki heir. "What happened?"

"Something pulled me into the lake," Tsuzuki explained, pulling the heavy silk from Hisoka's face and throat. "I think it was Kasame. I'm not sure how Hisoka got down there; I think he was trying to help me."

Watari checked his pulse; slow but steady. His wrist was ice cold. "Get our towels," he ordered. Tsuzuki was always more useful when given clear instructions. "Why do you think it was Kasame?"

"She called me her husband," Tsuzuki said, handing Watari the towels, a few paper napkins, the spare blanket and a fresh yukata which probably would've covered three young Kurosakis. "Told me she’d made the yukata for me."

Well, fair enough, then. "Kid," Watari said, wiping grime off Hisoka's face. "Kid, you okay?"

The kid sat up abruptly and started puking. Tsuzuki came over and started rubbing the kid's back. At least vomit was a pretty good sign; most of the systems had to be working. "Shit," he said, when he'd finished spluttering. Tsuzuki held out a towel and he took it, wiping his mouth with a disgusted frown.

"So your mother's ghost really is in there," Tsuzuki said.

"Yeah," Hisoka said. He started peeling the wet yukata off. "You got out."

"Thank you for trying to help," Tsuzuki said.

Hisoka shook his head. "I should probably be thanking you ... you're cut." He reached up to touch Tsuzuki's ragged cheek.

"Just a scratch," Tsuzuki said. "It'll be fine in the morning."

Hisoka narrowed his eyes.

Watari felt power flowing from the kid's fingers. He whistled. "Kid," he said, "you even know what you're doing?"

The kid shrugged. "Wasn't exactly a lot of training at this house. I only figured out I could do this a year or so ago."

"What did you know you could do?" Watari muttered under his breath, and he noticed Hisoka shooting him a glare.

Maybe the family really had killed a god. Looked like the heir, at least, was capable of more than they'd realized. Of course, he looked exhausted too. The water must've still been frigid, and who knows how long the two of them had been out there; Hisoka's legs were tattooed with cuts and debris, and Tsuzuki didn't look much better. The wet fabric Hisoka had discarded felt like ice.

Watari handed another towel to Hisoka so the kid could dry off. He used the dirty one to sponge off the floor. "So you knew your mother's spirit was in the lake."

Green eyes met Watari's, level, even. "Yes."

"Why'd you tell Tsuzuki it wasn't?"

A shrug as Hisoka discarded the towel and took the yukata Tsuzuki offered. "It's not like anyone can do anything about it. I don't want a bunch of people here with cameras taking pictures. It's bad enough as it is."

Watari smiled in spite of himself. "We look like we're part of a camera crew?"

A bitter smile. "Maybe you're the advance crew." Hisoka was clearly used to playing his cards close. "Look," he said. "I should get back to my room. There'll be enough gossip from this already."

"I'll walk you back," Tsuzuki said. "I want to make sure you're all right."

"I'm fine," Hisoka insisted, but he let Tsuzuki follow him out. "You can give the yukata to Miya-san in the morning," he threw back at Watari over his shoulder.

Watari watched them go. The kid might be a lot more help now. So why did he feel so nervous?

 

Hisoka's fingers ached from the cold, and his bare feet were uncomfortably damp. At least he hadn't puked on them. He walked slowly, and Tsuzuki kept pace with him. Hisoka was acutely aware of how Tsuzuki slowed his natural gait for Hisoka's lesser height. Tsuzuki was so worried about him it hurt a little. Not a bad hurt, really. “I’ll be fine,” he said.

“I know.”

“You’re not doctors,” Hisoka said. “You claim you’re not ghost hunters.”

They walked along for a bit in silence. “We’re kind of exorcists,” Tsuzuki said carefully.

“So you put the dead to rest?”

Tsuzuki nodded. Whether he had any spiritual power or not, he thought he was sincere. Interesting.

“Hold on,” Hisoka said, at the door. “I want to show you something.”

His sister wasn’t always awake, but she was that night, playing games with the shadows. Kagome, kagome....

Tsuzuki hadn’t asked any questions on the walk out. Once they reached the tree, he didn’t hesitate; he walked immediately to the right grave and kneeled down. “How long has she been here?”

“Before I was born,” he said. Tsuzuki didn’t need to know any more than that.

“Who’s there?” she asked.

“I’m a friend,” Tsuzuki said.

“Uncle Iwao said to wait.”

“You’ve waited a long time, haven’t you?”

“Where’s Mama?”

“She’s waiting for you,” and it hurt Tsuzuki so much to lie that Hisoka couldn’t feel any other emotions. “Everyone’s waiting for you. Do you want me to take you there?” He stretched his hand out.

“Will it be all right with Father?”

Tsuzuki nodded. “Of course. It’s very nice, you’ll like it. The cherry trees are in bloom, they’re so pretty.”

“Pink?”

The way Tsuzuki smiled could break your heart. “Pink everywhere. Want to come look?”

A tiny hand reached out of the grave and took Tsuzuki’s.

Hisoka let out the breath he’d been unconsciously holding.

“Come on,” Tsuzuki said, and they both shimmered and disappeared.

Hisoka’s mouth opened. He wondered if Tsuzuki had intended for him to see that.

Mother was screaming; she must have felt her daughter’s absence. “She’ll be happier now,” Hisoka said to the noise. “Don’t you want that?”

The ground shook. She’s in the lake, Hisoka reminded himself. She’s never gone out of it, she’s not--

And there she was, angry, roaring to life in front of him. Her body....

“Mother,” he said.

Even dead, her hatred of him was strong enough to be painful. Her hair was drenched with muddy water. Her face looked much as he remembered, her eyes wild and manic. But the strangest thing was her body. Underneath her kimono emerged the long, coiled body of a giant snake, scales that matched the color of the ones on Hisoka’s own stomach. The tail of the snake stretched into the distance, probably into the water. That was how she’d managed to move so far, in so short a time; how she’d managed to leave the lake. “You,” she sneered. “My daughter was perfect, and you--”

“I know, Mother. I know how disappointing I was,” he said, anger and bitterness overriding any fear. “I’m a freak. That's what you called me when you pushed me back in my cell, wasn't it? What did the doctor say when you told him I'd fallen outside? Playing?" Hisoka felt sick with rage. As though he’d ever played like a normal child. As though they’d ever allowed him friends.

“Stay back, kid,” a voice said from behind him. The doctor, long hair trailing behind him, something glowing in his hand. The cheerful, animated expression was gone, replaced by an intense focus. “I might not be able to stop her, but I can keep her back.”

Hisoka stood his ground. He might have been a lot of things, but he was no coward.

Mother lunged, and Watari brandished the glowing object like a weapon, stepping in front of Hisoka.

A flash of brilliant light, and Mother stopped as if she'd hit a wall.

“What was that?” Hisoka turned to look at the ‘doctor.’ Who are you really?

“Fuda,” the man answered, not taking his eyes off of Mother. “Protection. Pay attention, kid, it’s not me she’s after.”

“Don’t worry,” Hisoka said. He’d spent thirteen years dodging her blows.

Mother attacked again, and was again blocked from Hisoka, though Hisoka could feel the force of it this time. Hisoka could hear the doctor mutter something under his breath.

“Not much what left?” he asked.

“Fuda. These aren’t mine, they’re--” Another blow, another block. “We need to do something different. C’mon, kid.” The man grabbed his arm and pulled him away, scanning his surrounding as they ran. “Here--”

Behind a tree, out of sight. “Quick,” he said, and pulled something from his lab coat. Hisoka watched as he scribbled....a stick figure. It seemed to have a box on its chest.

“What are you--”

“Shh,” the man hissed. “Hold still and be quiet.” He reached into the paper and pulled out--

Hisoka.

It was him, down to the leather jacket he’d thrown on over his yukata. The duplicate boy ran out from behind the tree, Mother in pursuit.

“Come on,” the man hissed, grabbing his arm and pulling him toward the house. “We need to talk.”

You can say that again, Hisoka thought.

 

“What happened?” Watari asked as he led them away. He wondered how long it would take before -- before whatever she was figured out the deception. Best to get behind closed doors as quickly as possible.

“My sister,” Hisoka said. “She was buried out under the tree. Tsuzuki...took her away.”

“Her ghost was there?” How many ghosts were on this damn estate?

Hisoka nodded. “Tsuzuki said you were exorcists.”

“That’s part of what we are,” Watari said quietly. They were at the door now; Watari ushered Hisoka in first, then let him lead them down the corridor.

“Will Tsuzuki be all right if he comes back?” Hisoka had closed in on himself, pulling the leather jacket tighter around his slight body. Tsuzuki had the same trick, but Watari suspected bribing the kid with sweets wouldn’t be as successful.

“He’s been doing this a long time,” Watari said, biting his lower lip and listening for any slithering. “He’ll be fine.” Tsuzuki might even have felt the woman’s rage before he’d left completely. She’d certainly screamed loudly enough to bring Watari running; she’d been angry and powerful enough for him to not have time to care what the kid might see. He seemed to be taking it well enough; Watari had been ready for the now please tell me exactly what you are discussion since Tsuzuki had fished the kid out of the water. Watari knew it was coming, but that didn’t mean he couldn’t try to put it off as long as possible. “Let’s go back to our rooms,” he suggested. “I have my files there.”

Tsuzuki was waiting for them at the door, a fuda glowing in his hand.

 

Mother had stopped screaming, though it was hard to say if that was because she’d given up. Maybe she was just waiting until Hisoka ventured outside again. Maybe she’d taken out her rage on the double the doctor -- Watari -- had pulled out of nowhere.

“It’s like the healing you do,” Watari said. “Except my powers are stronger.”

“Because you’re trained?” Watari had brewed them all a pot of coffee; it wasn’t the best Hisoka had tasted, but it was hot, and that was enough.

Watari nodded. “Trained and....”

“And we’re dead,” Tsuzuki interrupted.

And he’d been stupid enough to think he was getting the truth this time. Hisoka put his cup down.

“No, wait--” Tsuzuki caught his wrist. “We are, really. We’re shinigami.”

Hisoka should’ve pulled away; he settled for glaring. “First you’re doctors, now--”

“We’ve been shinigami all along,” Watari said ruefully. “That’s why I’m a lousy doctor. We had orders to investigate your aunt, and when we arrived here, your maids assumed we were here to treat Rui.” A little animal appeared from the shadows; Hisoka realized it was a small owl. It settled on Watari’s shoulder and worried his hair with its beak. “They didn’t tell us we’d get attacked by a giant snake-ghost, though.”

“They didn’t tell us much of anything,” Tsuzuki agreed. “No cover story, no details on the case...we’ve been making a lot of stuff up as we went along.”

Hisoka looked at them both. They looked ordinary enough; handsome, kind of goofy, but nothing supernatural. How could someone prove they were a shinigami? Then again, what ordinary human could pull a virtually identical double out of a stick figure?

“Look, if you can’t believe us...maybe you could just believe that we want to help you.” Tsuzuki believed every word he said. It felt like Watari did too, though he was far more carefully shielded.

Hisoka sighed. “I can do that.”

“Okay,” Tsuzuki said, and released his arm. Hisoka’s arm felt warm where Tsuzuki’s fingers had been. Surely he couldn’t be dead?

Just believe that we want to help you. Right. “At the festival...did Miya tell you about our family?”

“She said your ancestor Ren saved the village by killing a god.”

Hisoka nodded. “And we were cursed.”

“You really think it’s a curse?” Watari pushed his glasses up his nose, startling the owl. “I mean, a lot of families have--”

Hisoka pulled his yukata open to expose the scales on his chest. “Maybe you saw these around my father’s eyes? On Mother’s body?”

Watari still looked skeptical. “A lot of skin diseases can get scaly. If they were contagious, it might just be coincidence, that--”

“These scales don’t just show up, Watari-san. I”ve seen him. He’s--” Hisoka took a moment to find the right words. “Only those of us who’ve been touched by the god have these. My father is almost completely covered.”

“Touched,” Tsuzuki said, with too much insight.

Hisoka looked at the floor. At the club he chose the men, he picked what they did, where they did it. He didn’t know their names. He didn’t have to look at their faces if he didn’t want to. Yatonokami was different. Yatonokami wanted to make sure Hisoka didn’t forget his name for an instant. “He takes our bodies over slowly,” Hisoka said. “Head of the family, firstborn son. We die young and covered in scales.”

Watari said into the silence: “What about your sister?”

“I’m not sure,” Hisoka said. “But the firstborns are supposed to be sons. I think Iwao -- my uncle, on Father’s side … she kept saying he told her to stay where she was. Maybe it was just her ghost but … my parents never stopped mourning her. They would never have hurt her.” They’d never stopped measuring him against her, and finding their defective son failing.

“Someone should have noticed her ghost by now and called us in,” Tsuzuki said. “Your mother, too. There’s something strange going on here.”

“I can’t find anything in Mother, either,” Watari said. The owl hooted in what sounded like agreement.

“‘Mother’?”

“Our mainframe. It should have files on everything. I know you’re out in the boonies,” Watari said (which was something of an irony, with that country accent of his), “but there should be something about this family, especially if your ancestor really killed a god.”

“The town’s whole summer festival is about it too,” Tsuzuki said.

“It’s a bribe,” Hisoka said cynically. “Remember, their family is the one who killed you. We were innocent. Take their blood and leave us alone.”

Watari sighed.

“Don’t tell me what a mess this is again,” Tsuzuki warned affectionately.

“It is a mess,” Watari said, waving his hands vaguely. “I can’t remember the last time I had a case like this.”

“You’re in Kansai, though,” Tsuzuki said. “The cases are easier.”

Watari rolled his eyes and refilled Hisoka’s coffee cup.

 

The kid eventually fell asleep on Tsuzuki’s shoulder, and soon Tsuzuki was snoring over his book. Watari put a blanket around them both and hoped they’d manage to crawl over to the futon at some point.

He’d managed to get the results of the blood tests back to the office; Tatsumi should be able to run the additional test he needed, he’d sent clear enough instructions. A little more research combined with the new information, and they might get somewhere.

He’d brewed a new pot of coffee and was halfway through it when he heard the maid’s tentative footsteps. Breakfast. Good, he was getting hungry--

“Sensei?” Her voice was tentative and nervous.

“Come in,” he said, before he remembered that Tsuzuki and Hisoka were still together. He walked quickly to the door to block the view (and look at that, they had managed to wander over to the futon, still cuddled together like kids). “Wait, actually, my assistant isn’t dressed-- Yumi-san, what’s wrong?”

Her eyes were red-rimmed. “Kurosaki-sama....”

“Is he all right?”

“We don’t know,” she sobbed, “and we can’t find the young master -- that’s not so unusual for him, but Kurosaki-sama should be--”

“We’ll get dressed,” Watari promised, “and be right out. Perhaps the young master will come in soon.”

Tsuzuki and Hisoka both looked a bit abashed to be woken up; Tsuzuki found fresh clothes quickly, and Hisoka snuck away with a promise to meet them in his father’s rooms. Watari and Tsuzuki followed Yumi, still fighting back tears, across the estate to Nagare’s bedchamber; the room was a chaotic mess, clothes and papers scattered across the floor, the bedclothes torn and dirty. There was a slick trail of water leading from the futon to the window.

“It’s her,” Tsuzuki said. “Isn’t it?”

“Yumi-san,” Watari said carefully, “if something were to happen to this family, what would happen?”

She swallowed hard. “I’m not sure what you mean, Sensei.”

“I think you know exactly what she means,” Hisoka said sharply from the door. “He says that if our bloodline dies out, he’ll return to the world of the living. That’s why you all worry so much about us, right, Yumi-san?”

She flinched at his harsh words, but she didn’t argue. “Do you think the master....”

“I don’t know,” Hisoka said.

“We’re searching the estate,” Yumi said. “Miya’s looking out by the lake--”

That was all Tsuzuki needed to go running, Hisoka at his heels. “Be careful,” Watari said, though he knew they wouldn’t listen. He turned his attention back to Yumi. “Has anyone checked on Rui-san?”

 

Hisoka realized that his ankle was throbbing. He shoved the pain aside to follow Tsuzuki, already calling Miya’s name. He made good distance with those long legs, and Hisoka was out of breath by the time Tsuzuki had stopped.

Miya was at the water’s edge; Tsuzuki was leaning down, with a hand on her shoulder. “It can’t be,” she said. “It can’t-- Grandfather said it would be years--”

He’s dead, Hisoka realized, before he saw the watery fabric floating in the water.

He wished he could feel something more than hollow. “We’ll need to tell Uncle Iwao,” he said. Am I the only thing left standing in Yatonokami’s way? Or does Uncle’s family have to die too?

“Young master,” Miya said, pulling her face up toward him, hope and fear mixed in her expresson and emotions. “Someone has to--”

“Call the police,” he said, well aware of how callous he sounded. “It might not be safe for us here. What did your grandfather say, Miya-san? Do you think Iwao’s enough to save you all, or is it down to me?”

“I don’t know,” she said. “But there’s Rui-san, too. The baby--”

“I saw Kurosaki-sama before we went out to the festival. He said--” Tsuzuki stopped abruptly.

Hisoka could feel the weight of the secret. “Said what?”

“He said the child wasn’t his,” Tsuzuki admitted.

“But that--” Miya’s emotions switched abruptly to panic.

That would mean, Hisoka thought, that it’s down to me.

 

Rui was sweating and panting for breath. She looked, if possible, paler than she’d been when Watari first saw her. She didn’t respond to his presence or his footsteps; instead, she stared at the window, eyes unfocused.

He put a hand on her shoulder; she didn’t react. She’d been sweating so profusely her robe was wet to the touch. He examined her to the best of his training. Her pupils were heavily dilated, temperature, respiration and heart rate elevated, no response to stimuli. Whatever was in her womb was disconcertingly silent, though he could detect a heartbeat.

“What are you doing in there?” he murmured. “What are you?”

“Tonight.” The word was such a low hiss that for a moment Watari thought it came from Rui’s womb, rather than her lips. “Tonight,” she repeated, in a voice rough and weak from disuse.

“What’s tonight?” He didn’t really expect a response, and he didn’t get one. She was as still and silent as she’d been when he first entered the room.

Tonight. That might be the only hint they’d get.

 

The police had come and gone. Father looked bloated and ill in death, and even the police had noted the red mark around his wrist (no doubt Rui had grabbed him in one of her fits, Hisoka suggested helpfully, and they had gotten the hint in a hurry).

He might’ve been strong enough to fight Mother off in his earlier years, but the snake had taken too much from him.

Hisoka could almost feel sorry for him now. He knew all too well what this life was, what Yatonokami had taken. But, he supposed, that was also why he couldn’t forgive him. No monster, even a god, made you lock your child in the basement for being what he was. No god had stood by when his arm was broken when he was four, or ignored the screams when the pain from his empathy grew too great.

Father had been only human. Maybe that had been the problem.

Tsuzuki put his hand on Hisoka’s back. “Are you all right?”

“I’ll be fine,” he said. Fine, fine, fine. The Kurosaki family is a strong and noble family. We take care of our own problems. There’s no need to worry about us.

He gave the servants the rest of the day off after they had covered the family shrine and prepared the table at Father’s bedside; a request at first, then an order when they grew too insistent. “I need privacy to mourn,” he explained. “The doctor and his assistant can care for my aunt.”

“Your dinner,” Miya said through her tears. “You’ll--”

“We’ll be fine,” Hisoka said. “Go home, Miya-san. You’ve had a difficult enough day.”

“Young Master,” she said, “I mean--”

“Go home,” he repeated, with enough force that she obeyed.

He took a shower and got some fresh clothes on. He made himself lunch, for the second or third time in his life, Tsuzuki following him to the kitchen like a devoted puppy. Hisoka did manage to convince him to run a plate to Watari, who’d installed himself in the confinement room with Rui. While Tsuzuki was gone, he dug out one of the recipe books he’d enjoyed as a child (in the basement, it was easy to imagine a feast) and found a slow-cooking roast for dinner. Tsuzuki tried to help and destroyed a 28,000-yen bottle of sake; Hisoka used a cheaper kind instead and made Tsuzuki mop the floor. Once it finally settled in that no one was there to insist the work was beneath him or scream at him for doing anything wrong, it was oddly relaxing.

Tsuzuki watched him, mostly in silence, as he washed the dishes and cleaned the counters. “Lunch was good,” he said.

“Thanks.” He put the last dish away and walked over to Tsuzuki, leaning against the wall. Funny how things felt so tentative, with a man he’d already fucked. Wasn’t that what he’d said that night? We fucked. It doesn't mean anything.

But maybe this did. He stretched up to kiss Tsuzuki, and Tsuzuki’s pleasure overwhelmed him as he leaned down to kiss Hisoka back. It felt so different than it had outside the club, in the confines of Tsuzuki’s car. Maybe it was because he was freer than he had ever been before (not free yet, maybe never free, but still). Maybe it was just Tsuzuki, calmer here in the house, tall and pretty and smart enough to keep his mouth shut at least some of the time.

“You’re so beautiful,” Tsuzuki murmured by his ear, his arms tight on Hisoka’s shoulders.

Hisoka just shook his head. He wondered if he could just keep this moment; no snake, no death, no mad, ill aunt hidden away. Just a man. Just the two of them, together, warm.

The answer came soon enough. “Hisoka,” a voice called, heavy footsteps, anger perceptible from yards away. “Hisoka!”

“Uncle Iwao,” Hisoka said, disentangling himself quickly from Tsuzuki’s arms. “I’m here,” he called, bracing himself.

“Hisoka!” Iwao came bruising in like a cyclone, his poorly-hidden anger and decades of resentment roiling around him like storm clouds. “The police called to inform me of my brother’s loss. You didn’t contact me--”

Hisoka bowed. “My apologies, Uncle. I had intended to send for you once I had finished my lunch; as you can imagine, the morning has been upsetting. The dishes have been done, and--”

“You’ll need to get married as soon as possible,” Iwao continued. His emotions felt like needles against Hisoka’s skin. “One of your cousins might be suitable. With your father dead, we’ll--”

“Wait a second,” Tsuzuki said. “You can’t be serious--”

“Who are you?” Iwao glared at Tsuzuki like he was a particularly disgusting insect. “You have no right to speak to me like that. This village relies on our family. With no heirs, their stability is threatened.”

Tsuzuki’s mouth opened and closed, but he said nothing. Hisoka wondered if someone had explained to him why Rui’s pregnancy was a secret; perhaps Father had, when he’d confessed the child didn’t belong to him. I guess Uncle’s line doesn’t count, as far as the curse is concerned. Hisoka didn’t know if he was annoyed or relieved; he wouldn’t wish Yatonokami’s attention on his cousins, but it left him holding the responsibility alone.

“I understand, Uncle,” Hisoka said, pulling every formality out of his mind. “Your concern is much appreciated. However, for the sake of appearances, it would be best to discuss this matter after Father’s funeral. Perhaps I could rely on your assistance for choosing the most appropriate date.”

It didn’t mollify Iwao, but he couldn’t find a way out of it, so he nodded. “I hope you’ll listen to my counsel more carefully than your father did,” he huffed.

“I am sure I will rely on you,” Hisoka answered. After all, the Kurosaki had elevated lying into an art.

After a few more insulting questions about the funeral, whether or not Hisoka would be following traditional mourning customs (of course) and the state of Nagare’s beloved wife (too overcome with emotion to receive visitors), Iwao stormed out as he’d come in.

“So the looks went to your dad’s side of the family, huh,” Tsuzuki said, when the footsteps had faded beyond hearing. Hisoka thwacked his arm. “Watari thinks something’s going to happen tonight with your aunt,” he continued. “He wants us there, to keep an eye on her.”

“We’ve got a few hours, then,” Hisoka said. He looked at Tsuzuki; hopeful, caring, emotional Tsuzuki. I wonder if I’ll regret this, he thought, then realized the answer was no. “Come on,” he said.

Two hours alone in Hisoka’s room; they ignored the scales and pretended that night wouldn’t fall. Hisoka laughed at Tsuzuki when he got out a condom; Tsuzuki, more beautiful still out of his suit, shook his head and insisted. “I don’t get sick,” he said. “I might pass something on and not even know it.”

“All right,” Hisoka said, and Tsuzuki talked him into topping, and the heat of Tsuzuki’s perfect body was almost more than he could stand; he was grateful, then, for the condom, for the darkness just outside Hisoka’s room, anything that could distract him, that could make the unbearable pleasure last. Tsuzuki kissed his hands and his face. Tsuzuki told him he was perfect and refused to listen when Hisoka told him otherwise.

After, they lay together on the futon, Hisoka feeling disconcertingly small and strangely content in Tsuzuki’s arms. “It’s empathy,” he said. “Strong emotions can hurt. My family … they thought I was a freak. I guess I am.”

Tsuzuki’s laugh was hollow. “They should’ve seen me,” he said darkly, and Hisoka caught a glimpse of years of pain, of another tiny village, of anger and death. “You’re practically normal.”

Hisoka just shook his head.

Tsuzuki woke him, gently, as twilight fell outside the window. They dressed quickly; Hisoka sent Tsuzuki to the confinement room while he checked on dinner. The roast smelled good; he grabbed some vegetables for a salad and was ready to pack boxes for them all when the screaming started. Rui.

Normally you couldn’t hear her screaming from the confinement room; tonight her shrieks grew louder and shriller as he got closer. When he finally reached the room, Rui’s screams had turned into one nonstop, wordless cry; she was writhing on the futon, her skin hideously white and distended.

And then her body broke.

There was no other word for it. The screaming stopped as abruptly as if a switch had been thrown, and while her chest and stomach distended still further, she no longer appeared to fight the transformation. Her eyes went white, then black, and Hisoka heard a sickening, ripping noise. The baby, he realized. It’s fighting its way out.

It tore through her body first, and then her clothing.

And then it looked at Hisoka.

I know that face.

Hisoka died with Tsuzuki's scream ringing in his ears.

 

At least Watari had been right about one thing; it had been a possession, and there it stood, standing over Hisoka’s body. A lance of bone (one of Rui’s, perhaps? she had gone limp as a jellyfish) protruded from the kid’s chest. Watari hadn’t even seen the creature move. “And so,” it said, stretching up to a terrible height, “Yatonokami has returned.”

“You monster,” Tsuzuki said. Watari had heard that tone a few times. Usually before things started exploding. He took a step back. “How dare you!”

“How dare I?” Yatonokami laughed. “This family murdered me. I merely took back the life that was mine.”

“How?” Watari challenged, hoping to buy some time as he backed away. He could hear Tsuzuki beginning his summons; best to draw the god’s attention away from that.

“Easy.” The snake reared up. “After Iwao murdered her beloved daughter, it was easy to convince Kasane to join me. I understand she had more … difficulty with her sister, but no matter.” If a snake could shrug, Yatonokami would have done it. “I knew I would triumph. I’ve waited a very long time for this.”

“I’m sure you have,” Watari said, as Suzaku roared to life behind Tsuzuki. “I hope your death won’t be too much of a disappointment.”

Watari had never been much of a fighter. It didn't matter in Kyoto, most of the time; he could pull resources from the temples and priests nearby or call in backup in a pinch, and there wasn't much trouble anyway. But Tsuzuki....

His anger was something to see.

Most of the time Watari could forget why Tsuzuki was really in Meifu, why he worked, year after year, at a job he hated and that kept him depressed and fragile. But not now.

Maybe Tsuzuki had done something, a century ago. But a power like his was too great to contain, too much to be left to its own devices and the uncertainties of rebirth. Meifu was Tsuzuki's cage, and sometimes Watari remembered what was really hidden between the bars. Yatonokami was a god. But maybe Tsuzuki was too.

Suzaku screamed a battle cry at Yatonokami and attacked. Tsuzuki himself seemed to glow like a flame, and Watari couldn't tell if it was from Suzaku's flames or his own inner power. Yatonokami ducked the first blow, and shafts of bone -- ribs, Watari realized -- flew at Suzaku like arrows. She incinerated them and fought on.

A second summons from Tsuzuki; not Byakko, as Watari had expected, but Touda. Tsuzuki wasn't screwing around this time; he wanted Yatonokami dead, for good this time. Watari felt the heat singing his eyebrows."You won't hurt anyone else," Tsuzuki seethed.

"Hurt?" Yatonokami taunted. "Most of them begged for it by the end. How sweet, how precious, to be loved by a god. Could little Hisoka really ask for more?"

Watari ducked, and felt the flames singe his hair. He heard Tsuzuki mutter something about a sick excuse for love, and Touda burned brighter and hotter still.

Thank goodness Hisoka had dismissed the servants and he’d left 003 back in their room. They’d be lucky if the house was standing by the time this was over.

Touda’s voice was low and fierce. “You want us to kill him.”

“Don’t leave as much as a scale,” Tsuzuki commanded.

Watari thought he saw Touda smile. “Been a while since I had a good fight,” he said, and his mouth opened further to breathe fire. A rush of water, and Yatonokami had joined them both in battle, Suzaku attacking from the air, Touda from the ground, his great wings beating, spreading a dark fire that dwarfed Suzaku’s. The heat grew more intense, hissing into steam as it struck Yatonokami. The god cried out with irritation; he clearly hadn’t expected a fight like this. Watari’s glasses were fogging over; he wiped them on the sleeve of his lab coat, and when the world went back into focus, Yatonokami was lunging at Suzaku’s wing.

Touda cried out in triumph; the attack had left Yatonokami’s neck wide open. Touda’s wings beat against the water, their sheer force blowing Watari’s hair back and only increasing the intensity of the heat.

That vulnerability was enough: they ripped Yatonokami to shreds, the snake’s scream loud enough to make Watari’s ears ring.

The walls were destroyed, smoking and shredded. Tsuzuki’s face was streaked with grime and tears.

“We did the best we could,” Watari said.

“You did well,” Tsuzuki said to his shiki. “Thank you.”

“We were too late, though,” Suzaku said. “Weren’t we?”

“That was my fault,” Tsuzuki said. “It’s all right.”

“Don’t blame yourself,” she said, before they shimmered back into the imaginary world.

“We failed him,” Tsuzuki said. His eyes were fixed on Hisoka’s body. “We should have sent him out of the room. Do you think he’ll forgive us?”

“He’s got a lot of people to blame,” Watari said, walking over and putting his arm around his friend. Tsuzuki’s rage had disappeared, replaced by grief and recrimination.

“We’ll have to meet with him,” Tsuzuki said. “Maybe I could take him to dinner.”

“To hell with that,” Watari said. “Let’s give the kid a job.”

 

Konoe had handed Tsuzuki the file with his morning coffee; their work was never done. Tsuzuki walked it over to his partner.

“And the deaths are all from blood loss?” Hisoka asked, his eyes focused on his monitor. He’d stopped dying his hair, though his clothes still shaded toward the club kid Tsuzuki had first met; Tsuzuki could see bits of blond now at the roots.

“Looks like a vampire.” Tsuzuki had dealt with them before; he’d certainly faced worse.

“What do we do, then?” Hisoka closed his laptop and got up from the desk. “Just … stake them, or shoot them through the heart or something?”

“Not exactly,” Tsuzuki grinned. “C’mon, I’ll tell you on the way. They should have fresh rolls at Cinnabon by now, I don’t want to miss them.” He walked away, the thought of cinnamon and sugar quickening his step.

“You and your sweets,” Hisoka muttered affectionately, and followed.