Prologue: Monday Morning
It’s not surprising for everyone in the Summons Division to receive an invitation to one of the Earl’s little parties. They’re about due, Hisoka thinks as he takes the envelope from Watson: Hakushaku holds one of these affairs every four months or so, and it’s been at least that long since the last one. Nor is it surprising that the Earl has sent Watson to deliver them: that’s what he usually does, and Hisoka has long suspected that he does it so that no one will be able to claim that the invitations were lost in the interoffice mail.
What is surprising is that the invitations prove to be written in French. It’s a good thing Hakushaku has sent Watson. Hisoka can read his and Tsuzuki’s, but everybody else is going to need an on-the-spot translation. If Hisoka remembers his old Western novels correctly, this is an invitation to a French or English-style dinner party. He only wishes he knew what the Earl has been reading, or watching. Hisoka may not have been a shinigami for all that long, but he knows enough to be wary of Hakushaku’s notions of what will be amusing.
Sure enough, it’s a theme party. Hisoka can tell, because there’s a seating chart, correctly written by hand, in the hall on the way into the Earl’s drawing room. Tsuzuki, of course, has been placed at the Earl’s right hand. Hisoka himself is half way down the table, and Tatsumi is all the way down at the far end at Konoe’s right. If he remembers correctly, there’s a long tradition in Europe and the Americas of guests sneaking into a dining room and rearranging the place cards at the table, and he’d do it right now if he could. But he can’t; he can feel Hakushaku’s eye on him.
“What?” Tsuzuki asks him, pulling him aside. It’s a warning, in its way. If Tsuzuki can see he’s not happy, probably others can too.
He smooths out the muscles of his face, making his expression bland and pleasant. “’Why, this is hell,’” he mutters. “’Nor are we out of it.’” He doesn’t bother to translate, though, and Tsuzuki doesn’t ask him.
Dinner is served. By now Hisoka expects the place cards, and even the written menus at each place. He isn’t even that surprised by the menu itself, which indicates that the Earl is planning to serve all fourteen traditional courses.
Hisoka can sense his colleague’s bafflement, and he doesn’t blame them. He’d be baffled too if he hadn’t read so many old English and Russian and French novels. As it is, he only wonders how the Earl has come by quite so many silver forks and spoons and knives. And what makes him think that Watson will be able to manage service a la Russe.
They’ve reached the soup, and Hisoka is revising his personal Scale of Absolute Evil. It bears revision every so often; after all, he’s still very young. He may have more by way of emotional experience than his age would normally permit, but the world’s a big and complex place. Evil can still surprise him.
He would not, for example, have thought to include “Person Who Invented Office Parties” as a marker on his scale before his death, and the subsequent launching of his effective adulthood and career. In fact, he wouldn’t have thought of doing that until this very night. And now . . .
Now, he looks along the length of the Earl’s endless dinner table, at his colleagues arrayed around it, and the only question is where the marker falls. It must be an issue of deliberate evil he’s dealing with here, because if it’s not an active searching after pain and discord, what can the point be? Colleagues who enjoy one another’s company will seek it out without a command; those who don’t aren’t going to come to a new appreciation for one another because they’re forced to spend extra time together outside of office hours.
And everyone knows it. You can look down the Earl’s table and see that awareness at work: after all, someone has been very careful both to seat Tsuzuki where he can’t escape the Earl’s attentions and to place Terazuma far, far from Tsuzuki. Yes, the mandatory office party gives people an opportunity to drink a great deal of free alcohol, and yes, everyone but Hisoka is busy taking advantage of it. But that would be, come on, because they need to. If Hisoka could drink, he’d be doing it too.
On the other hand, it’s a petty kind of nastiness. Grinding, small-scale evil rather than comprehensively devastating evil. So, put it midway on the scale. The big markers haven’t moved much since his early childhood: they begin with The Indifferent Ones — complicit, but not malicious — and run from there through Father (bad, but conflicted about it, and capable of remorse), Mother (actively malicious), and then, marking the upper end, The Monster (and don’t tell him about monsters under the bed and childhood imagination, Hisoka knows damned well that The Monster in the Kurosaki house is real).
He’s added some important lines on the scale since then, of course; you learn things as you gain experience. Now there are Medical Personnel Who Tell Kids That Something Won’t Hurt When They Know Better. People That Hurt Tsuzuki (subset: carelessly). People That Hurt Tsuzuki (subset: deliberately). Muraki. Person Who Invented Office Parties, Hisoka decides, probably belongs somewhere between Medical Personnel and Father. The marker line can hardly go lower; there’s malice involved here.
With the part of his mind that’s paying attention to the party, he hears the end of a remark from the Earl’s end of the table, and perceives Watari’s internal shudder of embarrassed discomfort in response to whatever it was. Somebody looking at Watari probably wouldn’t have been able to tell, but Hisoka isn’t looking at him, just sitting next to him. Without a word, he reaches across the table and passes Watari more wine.
The first of the three dessert courses has been served, and Hisoka is keeping half an eye on Tatsumi. Even now, when he’s drinking almost as heavily as Tsuzuki, the division secretary is a model of propriety; he can be counted on to signal graceful regret that he must depart such a delightful gathering at the first moment that it is prudent to do so. This will be some time after strict courtesy would permit their departure, but not a minute later than is necessary to convince the Earl that his dinner party has been a pleasure, not an imposition. And because he is Tatsumi, his departure will release all the rest of them; if they pretend to be afraid to linger after he has seen fit to depart, no one will question it.
It won’t be that long now; it can’t be. Tatsumi’s an early riser, and a man of rigorously exact habits.
Meanwhile, there are sweets. And while there are sweets, Tsuzuki is happy; and while Tsuzuki is happy Hisoka can take refuge in the backwash of his contentment. He can only hope that the dessert courses last until Tatsumi feels it right to leave.
Every nerve in Hisoka’s body twitches, and then there’s a rumble of thunder outside. So much for hope.
Meifu’s weather is generally placid; even the rain is usually gentle and soft. But these rare storms are different. Harsh and cold and biting, with magic bound into them; you can walk through them, if you’re willing to be soaked and chilled, but you can’t teleport through them. Not unless you’re willing to have your arm arrive somewhere other than your leg, that is. And the greater your own innate power, the more uncomfortable the shifts and charges of power in the storms are, and the worse it is to be out in them. Hisoka isn’t sure that Tsuzuki can walk home through this safely. The rest of them could probably do it, with varying degrees of discomfort, but not if they have to leave Tsuzuki behind with the Earl. No: they’re all trapped here now until the storm ends.
His colleagues are going to get drunker, too. Being drunk seems to help; it deadens the nerves and cushions the mind and body from the effects of the storms. Everybody drinks when these storms blow through. Even Hisoka’s been forced to it a few times.
Maybe he was wrong to place Person Who Invented Office Parties between Medical Personnel and Father. Maybe the line belongs between Father and Mother. It may be petty malice, but pettiness is evil in and of itself, isn’t it?
There’s more thunder, louder; this one’s coming in hard and fast. The storm, the castle, set off something in his mind. “Dammit, Janet,” he mutters.
Next to him, a surprised snort of laughter. Too late Hisoka realizes that he’s said it aloud. Not only that, he’s said it out loud in the hearing of the only person here who’d get it. Watari looks up the table to where the Earl presides. “He could be wearing a corset and fishnet stockings,” Watari murmurs to him. “How would we know?”
Hisoka can’t help snickering. It’s true. It’s even horribly plausible. There’s just one thing wrong with it. “But, you’re the mad scientist,” he tells Watari.
Watari grins. He shakes his head, pulling out his hair ribbon as he does it, and his long yellow hair tumbles around his face. “No, I’m Janet. You said so yourself.”
Hisoka shakes his own head, emphatically. “I’m not Brad.”
“No,” Watari agrees. “But that’s all right, I’ll forgive you.” Hisoka catches a twinge of something, a self-mocking regret, in Watari’s emotions. Just a flash, and Watari shoves it aside. He looks around the table, and his gaze settles on Tsuzuki, innocently licking chocolate off his fingers. “I don’t think we have to ask which of us is Rocky, do we?” His voice changes a little, and now he’s singing, very softly: In just seven days, I can make you a maaaaaaan!!”
A flash of interest, from the other end of the table: Konoe. Watari hasn’t sung softly enough, Hisoka realizes with a lurch of horror. And sure enough, here comes the deceptively innocent question: “Watari-san! What’s that you were singing?”
“It’s a song from an old American movie, sir,” Watari says. Hisoka supposes he can’t blame him; he can hardly pretend not to have heard the question. “A musical comedy.”
Konoe brightens. “A musical?”
Hisoka hears Watari begin to answer, but the words sound distant and unreal. He wonders whether this is what disassociation feels like. They’re doomed now; Watari has walked right into it. It’s too much to hope that the Earl won’t have the necessary equipment. They’re stuck here until the storm ends, and now they are going to be stuck here with — “Kareoke!” Konoe concludes happily.
No, his earlier recalibration of the Scale of Absolute Evil was clearly wrong. Make that: Medical personnel; Father; Mother; Things That Hurt Tsuzuki (deliberately or otherwise, and not in that fun way that he secretly likes, either); Muraki; the depraved imbecile who invented office parties; The Monster.
“Let’s not do the Time Warp again,” he mutters, and buries his face in his arms.
They’re doing the Time Warp again. It’s a catchy tune; Hisoka supposes he should have known. At least he’s pretty sure that neither Tatsumi nor Konoe know any more English than Tsuzuki does. Tatsumi’s tie has come a little loose, but he probably doesn’t know that he’s singing about pelvic thrusts. He’d better not. Because that would be disturbing.
Almost as disturbing as the fact that Watson makes an eerily perfect Riff Raff. Or that the Earl’s hall makes a perfect setting for this, as if it were planned. And he’s just not going to think about his growing awareness that the Earl knows exactly what the words mean. And outside, there’s still lightning, and he can hear the rain beating against the windows.
Saya and Yuma are strangely innocent and adorable as Magenta and Columbia, though. Hisoka supposes that’s something.
Hisoka’s not sure, but he thinks they may have gone through the entire score of the movie now. He doesn’t know who or what put all the songs on the machine, but he’s increasingly sure that this is no ordinary kareoke machine. No, this is one of those special Meifu artifacts. The horrible thing probably has every song ever recorded available, the same way the Hall of Candles keeps track of all human lives. At least it doesn’t translate. At least it’s only the audio.
At least they’re not trying to make Hisoka sing.
“Hey, Watari,” Tsuzuki calls across the great hall. “Can you go on the Internet and get us the video for this? We could do the whole thing, it would be awesome!”
“Shut up, shut up, shut up, you idiot,” Hisoka mutters. He doesn’t dare say it loudly enough for Tsuzuki to hear it. But Watari catches his eye, and it doesn’t take an empath to pick up the commiseration and reassurance.
“Can’t do it,” Watari calls back. “Not without a computer, and a good big screen.”
It’s the wrong answer. The Earl gestures to Watson, and a laptop emerges from a sideboard. It seems clear that the Earl’s just as capable of conjuring up a big high-definition monitor. There’s nothing for it: Watari hunches over the laptop and begins typing. Behind him, the Earl is back at the kareoke machine calling up — no, there’s no escape, is there? — “I Can Make You A Man.” Tsuzuki’s having fun now, but he’s going to be sorry about this video thing, and that will have to be Hisoka’s only comfort.
Maybe the demon that invented office parties outranks The Monster. Hisoka could be misremembering the evil of The Monster, it’s a long time since he’s been exposed to it, and anyway young children don’t always remember things accurately.
“I’m sorry,” Watari announces. “It can’t be done.” He’s lying, and Hisoka is suddenly willing to forgive him for any number of cups of doctored coffee.
“Are you sure?” the Earl asks plaintively. Oh, yeah, he knows this film, the conniving lecherous bastard.
“Of course he’s sure,” Tatsumi says. Hisoka looks at him. His jacket is off, his tie is askew; his glasses are sitting crookedly partway down his nose; and some of his hair is uncharacteristically sticking straight up. But none of that matters, suddenly, not compared to the glacial certainty in his voice. He radiates authority. Hisoka can see and feel his colleagues respond to it, for all that they can’t feel, as he can, the fierce protectiveness behind it. Protectiveness — oh, and yes, a good bit more. Close to the surface, now: the same drunkenness that shields the Secretary from the worst effects of this storm makes his feelings vividly apparent, easy to read.
Interesting. There’s that thing he picked up from Watari earlier, and now this . . . Oh, hell. They deserve his help, don’t they? Besides, he knows them too well: otherwise they’ll just moon around the office being gloomy and angst-ridden for years, maybe decades, doing nothing, all hopeless longing and doom; and it will give Hisoka a headache.
He nudges Watari in the ribs — and no, he’s not wrong, there’s the wash of desire and fear and hope and hopelessness, so thick he could bite a piece off and chew it. He gestures to Tatsumi. “That’s Brad,” he says.
Surprise and delight, now, strugging with caution. Watari laughs, a little too hard, and then he sobers. “I think it’s the tie,” he tells Hisoka, in a very good imitation of analytical indifference. “And the glasses.” It’s not hard to interpret the caution: Watari wants to be sure Hisoka is really telling him what he’d like to think he’s telling him.
“But not just the tie and glasses,” he tells Watari, and turns a little to look him full in the eye. “Trust me on this one, okay?”
Watari gives him a long look, his eyes slowly widening. Hisoka feels his smile for a long time before it makes it to Watari’s face. Then Watari nods. “Okay,” he says. His voice is very sober. And then, in a good imitation of one of his lightning shifts of mood: “I think the rain’s stopping.”
Hisoka listens. Watari’s right. The hammering of the water against the windows has softened and gone gentle, and there’s no thunder. The thrum of loose magic against his nerves has eased too. They’ll be able to leave soon, even if they have to hold each other up to walk home.
All right, it’s probably a little excessive to put The Idiot Who Invented Office Parties up next to The Monster on the scale of absolute evil. Oh, The Idiot has a place there, no doubt about that. Say, somewhere between Medical Personnel and Father: that seems about right.
And now here’s Tsuzuki, leaning over him and just managing not to fall. “It’s late,” Tsuzuki says reproachfully, as though it’s Hisoka who’s been keeping them here. “And I can’t find any more wine. Do you think it would be polite to go home now?”
Hisoka doesn’t need to look to know that across the hall Tatsumi is already making graceful apologies for needing to leave the Earl’s splendid party so early. He could argue about whose fault it is that they're still here, but maybe, just this once, it wouldn't be spoiling Tsuzuki to let it go. “Yeah,” he tells Tsuzuki. “Yeah. Let’s go home.”