The shadows were too dark. That was the only way Shoichi could describe it. Every day this week he'd found himself hurrying, almost running, to the station. The shadows were too dark, and they seethed with silent menace. Even in daylight he felt as though they were blacker and deeper than they should be… as if stepping into them would be like walking into a cave. He avoided the worst of them, and rushed through the others, and all the time he wondered what the hell he was doing, what kind of madness had taken hold of him.
It had started with the dreams, he thought, as he approached the station and and increased his pace towards its bright lights. Weird dreams, horrible dreams… things he couldn't exactly remember, except there always seemed to be someone calling him, and somehow that unknown voice filled him with terror. He ran from it until darkness rose like a tide and swallowed him up, and he woke gasping.
Relief washed over him as he stepped inside the station concourse. Here, at least, there weren't many dark corners. The train home would be all right as well. At the other end… he'd have to walk fast, that was all. And maybe he should come home before dark for a while. It would mean missing extra study and his clubs, but maybe it was worth it. Maybe, the logical side of his brain pointed out, it would help - maybe the dreams were coming from stress, and this new fear of the dark was coming from the dreams…
Then he saw the girl, and felt himself tense again. There was nothing particularly sinister about her… except he kept seeing her. She was hard to miss with that bright red hair, and she kept turning up wherever he went. Any other time, he might have assumed she was plotting to ambush him and ask him out - something that had actually happened to Shoichi once, to his extreme embarrassment - but not this week. Not when looking at her made him think of the dreams, and the sense of dread that had been following him night and day.
He'd been trying to pretend he didn't notice her, but today something snapped. He stopped walking and glared at her. She appeared absorbed in reading a magazine, but sure enough, after a moment she glanced in his direction.
Their eyes met. The girl froze, clearly not expecting him to be looking back at her. She turned as red as her hair, dropped her gaze, and turned away to rummage violently through her bag. She was so forceful she managed to knock it off her own shoulder, whereupon it promptly upended itself onto the floor, spilling its contents everywhere. Shoichi could just about hear her swearing as she knelt down and started hurriedly trying to scoop everything back in.
He realised this was his chance, and walked quickly to the ticket gates, resisting the urge to look back over his shoulder. Although to be honest, he wasn't finding her nearly as alarming now he'd seen her throw her school stuff all over the station floor. As he stepped onto the train that was about to depart, he even wondered if he'd been right the first time, if she was just a random schoolgirl with a crush. Or just another person staring at his blond hair, thinking he was an exchange student or a tourist, even though he'd lived in Japan all his life…
The carriage wasn't packed, but the seats were all taken, so he grabbed a strap and leaned against the wall as the train pulled out of the station. He tried not to think about shadows, or dreams. He should be concentrating on the next exam, anyway. As he started reminding himself what he needed to study, his eyes strayed over the other passengers, until a jolt of recognition stopped him short. Wasn't that…?
The guy was looking back at him, with an expression that suggested he was having the same thought. It had been, what, two years? He'd grown his hair out a bit, which was… a really good look on him, and Shoichi had never seen him out of school uniform before, but all the same, there couldn't be any doubt. And now they'd stared at each other for long enough that it was just starting to get awkward, and Shoichi had the choice of flashing a quick smile and otherwise ignoring the guy, or saying something.
It wasn't a hard choice.
Just for a moment, Satoru's face was blank, as if he didn't recognise Shoichi after all, or didn't want to speak to him… but then he smiled, and it was like a passing cloud had drifted away.
"Shoichi?" Satoru moved down the carriage to where he was standing. "How are you doing? It's been a long time."
"Yes, hasn't it?" Shoichi couldn't help smiling back. "I'm fine. How are you?"
"Oh… fine." It sounded a little forced, but Satoru moved on quickly. "You must be coming close to entrance exams, right?"
"Yes. The teachers are all, um…"
"Cracking the whip?"
Shoichi laughed. "Yes, something like that."
"You'll get through it. Amazingly, it turns out there is life on the other side."
He was going for light-hearted, but there was still something in his voice that was off… like he knew it was true for others, but not for him. Shoichi wanted to ask if everything was okay, but that would be way too familiar, right? They hadn't really known each other well in school. They ran into each other sometimes in clubs, and for the year before Satoru left, they'd seen each other in the library daily, but… something had always stopped Shoichi from trying to start a real friendship. He realised all at once that he'd been regretting the missed opportunity.
"So are you visiting family?" Shoichi said after a moment. Satoru looked confused, and he elaborated, "I mean, you're back from Tokyo right now?"
At that, Satoru's expression faltered into something painful for just a second before he schooled his features into blankness. "Oh. No, I… didn't go to Tokyo in the end. I'm studying here in Osaka."
Shoichi was too surprised to stop himself from blurting out, "But you made it into the University of Tokyo! You had the highest score in the year!"
Satoru looked away, staring out of the window as if something about the passing tracks fascinated him. "I changed my mind. I decided it wasn't for me." Before Shoichi could ask any more questions, he went on quickly, "What about you? Where are you applying?"
"Oh… well… a few places…" He hesitated. "Actually, Tokyo is one of them." He didn't say that there had been a tiny part of him hoping he might run into Satoru again there. "I mean, if I get a good enough score."
"I'm sure you would," Satoru said at once. "And it's a great place, you'd love it. Especially if you want to study sciences, they have some of the best labs in the country. The campus is amazing, too."
He seemed to light up as he spoke, shaking off the emotions that had gripped him before, and Shoichi was struck by the incongruence, by how warmly he spoke of a place he claimed hadn't suited him. He wanted to ask Satoru what had really happened, why he'd ended up staying in Osaka, but he didn't want to bring back that painful look to Satoru's eyes. More than anything, in fact, he wanted to see if he could make Satoru laugh, so he plunged into other topics, like the ongoing rivalry between Toshida the chemistry teacher and Ando the English teacher, and the way things had changed - or hadn't - at their school in two years. He didn't quite get his wish, but Satoru was smiling, at least, by the time they were approaching Shoichi's stop. Shoichi made up his mind to do something he should have done back in school.
"Could I… get your email address?" he asked as the train began to slow for the station. "I mean, I'd like to stay in touch…"
"Yes, of course." The swiftness of Satoru's response banished any worries Shoichi had about asking. "I'd like that."
They just had time to scribble addresses on a hastily torn page from Shoichi's notebook before he had to dive off the train, turning to wave as he left. Satoru waved back as the train pulled out, and Shoichi carefully folded the paper and slipped it into his wallet before he headed for home.
For the first time in days, he barely noticed the shadows.
"That was so embarrassing," Akemi hissed into the medallion. She hadn't been able to make it to the train in time to catch up with the shard bearer, so now she was pacing on the platform waiting impatiently for the next one. "He was looking right at me! He'll probably call the police if he sees me again!"
"Then don't let him see you again."
"Ugh. I don't think I'm cut out for this stuff." Akemi checked the departure display. "Eight more minutes… what if he gets attacked while I'm stuck here?"
"I do not believe it will be tonight. For the obsidian knife to extract a shard, it must build a resonance with the soul it seeks. That is why they stalk their prey for some time before striking."
Akemi stopped pacing and glared at the medallion.
"You couldn't have mentioned that before? I've been thinking all week it could happen any second!"
"I did not want you to become complacent."
"There's a difference between 'complacent' and 'not spending every free second watching some boy I've never met'…"
Just then her phone rang. Akemi tensed as she reached for it. Her mother not yet forgiven her for being so late back the night she'd found the first shard bearer. But when she checked the screen, it was Hana's name, so she flipped the medallion closed and answered the phone.
"Where the heck are you?" Hana said. She sounded annoyed.
"I've been sitting here almost thirty minutes!"
"Sitting where-- oh my gosh!" Akemi stopped dead. "I'm so sorry! I'll be right there!"
Hana was laughing, the irritation gone. "Akemi, did you forget and just go home or something?"
"No! I mean, yes! I mean…" She was moving as she talked, hurrying down the steps and over to the other platform. "Sorry. It's been… the last couple of weeks have been really…"
She didn't know how to finish that sentence.
"Yeah, I've hardly seen you," Hana said after a moment. "Are you okay? If you don't want to go to the movie…"
"No, I do! I'll come find you, I can be there in…" She checked the station clock. "… fifteen minutes, we can grab something to eat and we'll be able to make it in before the trailers finish, I promise."
"Okay. How about I order for you so it's ready when you arrive?"
"Thank you," Akemi said with feeling. Hana laughed, and hung up, and Akemi jumped onto the train that had just arrived heading back into the city.
She found a quiet corner and opened the medallion again.
"Sakaki, you're really sure he's okay for tonight?"
"Yes, I think so -- why?"
"I forgot I'm supposed to be seeing a movie with Hana. I can't let her down."
"I had thought you might use this time to investigate another Spectre haunt," Sakaki said. Before Akemi could protest, though, she seemed to catch herself. "I'm sorry, Sol, that isn't fair, is it? It should be safe enough for you to spend the evening with your friend. I will not attempt to contact you unless there is some sort of emergency, so if you sense me calling…"
"I'll know I have to answer. Thanks, Sakaki."
Akemi closed the medallion and tucked it away. How could she have forgotten about this evening? They'd been waiting for this movie to come out for over six months. They'd booked tickets in advance as their reward for getting through the start of the school year. Up until a few weeks ago, it had been one of the most important things in Akemi's immediate future.
And now… even with Sakaki's encouragement, she felt guilty. She thought of the boy who'd taken the train in the other direction, of the way he'd stared her down like it was a challenge, and the way he'd fled like he was afraid. Before long he would be lying in a hospital bed like the other girl, and there wasn't a damn thing she could do about it except try to get hold of his shard before the Multitude did. Even if he was safe tonight, it seemed so wrong for her to carry on as normal, try to have fun even, when his life was ticking down and he didn't even know it…
She rested her head against the window and closed her eyes. At least Hana would be there. Maybe… she should tell Hana what was going on. If she didn't believe it, Akemi could transform and show her. She could take her to meet Sakaki. Then at least it wouldn't be so lonely and strange…
… and then Hana too would carry the burden of the souls Akemi could not save.
Akemi took a deep breath, and began to practice acting normal. She tried to push away every thought except for thinking about eating her burger and watching the movie.
It wasn't too much to ask for just one evening off, was it?
Shoichi dreamed of the sound of the sea.
Later, he'd realise how strange that was. He'd never lived by the sea, not the kind of sea that rose and fell with a soothing, ever-changing roar against beaches and rocky shores. He should have had no idea what it sounded like, but in the dream, he knew it by heart, and it was home, the most comforting, familiar sound he could imagine.
His feet were bare on cool stone as he hurried through rooms and hallways with high ceilings and carved columns. The walls were painted with murals depicting a long history, but it was too dark to read them. He needed to find a light.
Behind him, as he left each room, shadows seeped up out of the gaps between the flagstones and covered the floor like ink. All he could do was hurry blindly through the next door and hope it contained some source of light. But it seemed as though every candle, every lantern, every spark had been extinguished, and there was no end to the rooms, no end to the rising of the tide of darkness…
"Shadows fear the blazing sun," said a voice.
Terror drove him ever faster through rooms and halls and rooms again until suddenly he was outside, running through a cool night towards the sound of the sea. There was no sun in the sky overhead; not even the stars could be seen. He reached a stone balustrade and stopped, seeing that beyond it was only air and a drop to the waves below. He turned. It was too dark to see the building he'd just fled, but knew in his heart that the shadows were welling out of every window and door. There was no escape.
"Shadows flee the rising moon," said a voice.
Silver light streamed past him. The shadows, seeping forth as he'd known they would, flinched back, and fled. Shoichi spun to see the full moon hanging in the sky, the last wisps of cloud billowing away from its remorseless light. Beneath it, the sea was as still as a mirror, and words seemed to hang in the air…
"I call upon the moon, my liege," he whispered… and then the sea shattered, the world shattered, a thousand echoes of breaking glass pierced him like a song for the dead, and he didn't even have time to scream…
… before he woke, the tears still sliding down his cheeks.
The red-haired girl was at the station again the next day. This time she wasn't in her school uniform; she seemed to be wearing what was either a dance outfit or cosplay. Probably the latter, going by the gloves and boots. Still shaken from the latest dream, Shoichi decided enough was enough, and walked straight up to her.
"Why are you following me?"
She jumped like he'd shouted. "Wh-- what?"
"You're always here at the station, and on the train, too! I saw you by my house the other day." Shoichi hadn't realised he was angry until now. "Why are you following me?"
She was staring at him with her mouth wide open. It wasn't the reaction Shoichi had expected.
"You… you're not supposed to recognise me," she stammered after a moment. Then she seemed to pull herself together. "I mean… it can't have been me you saw before. This is the first time I've followed you like this. I mean, at all. I mean, I'm not following you--"
"Cut it out. Is this a prank? I'm tired of it," Shoichi snapped. Was she for real? She couldn't really think she was that sneaky, could she? "And of course it was you, you dropped your bag yesterday, remember?" He looked at the - costume? - she was wearing. "If that's supposed to be a disguise, you probably should have gone with a mask, or--"
"It usually works," said the girl in confusion. She nervously put her hand up to a locket or something that was hanging around her neck. "Um. Sorry. I'm following you because I'm trying to help."
… and now he was just thrown completely off balance. "What?"
"Well, there are these… shadows," she said, and Shoichi felt cold wash through him. "They're called Spectres. And they're following you, so I'm following you too--"
Shoichi took a step backwards, shaking his head even as his heart began to pound. "Okay, so it is a prank, fine, just stop--"
"Just leave me alone!"
He should have made a dash for the ticket machine, but sheer panic took over and drove him back out of the station and onto the street. He heard the girl shouting after him, then giving chase. Seriously? She was going to chase him now? Was she crazy? Maybe he should be going to the police, maybe she wasn't a harmless prankster after all…
She was faster then him and caught up before he could figure out where he was going.
"Wait-- just wait a second, would you?" She grabbed him by the arm and yanked him painfully to a stop. "Please! I don't want you to get hurt."
There was something about the way she said it, a miserable note in her voice, that convinced him all at once that he really could get hurt.
"Who are you?"
"Huh?" She blinked. "Oh, I-- I'm Guardian Sol."
It was Shoichi's turn to blink. "Guardian…"
"Sol." She grinned sheepishly. "It means 'sun', apparently."
Shadows fear the blazing sun, whispered the dream voice in his memory.
Before he could reply, she put her hand up to the locket again. "Hang on, I need to talk to Sakaki, she's trying to reach me--"
Behind her, the shadows rose, just as they had in the dream. Shoichi was frozen for precious seconds as darkness took form in a way that should be impossible, but struck a terrifying note of familiarity in his memory. This was more than a dream, it was…
He seized her arm and tried to drag her out of the way, but he was too slow, much too slow: long, sharp talons shot out of the rising shadows straight for them. There was no way to dodge.
I call upon the moon, my liege, whispered the dream in the back of Shoichi's mind, and he threw out his free hand palm first. Barely inches away from them, the needle-sharp tendrils slammed into a shimmering wall and were flung back. They made no sound, but from the way they reared up like snakes, Shoichi could easily imagine them hissing menacingly.
The shining wall flickered and vanished. Sol tore free of his grip and spun towards him, mouth open in shock, while Shoichi stared at his hand, which began to shake.
"How did you…" Sol breathed, and then understanding came over her face like a sunrise. "You're a Guardian. You're like me! But…" She was laughing now, delighted and disbelieving at the same time. "But you're a boy! How does that even work? I thought…"
"I don't… I…" Shoichi took a step backwards, but there was no escape. The shadows had pooled all around them. The street was eerily deserted. There were forms sliding out of the darkness, and the shadow serpents were uncoiling… "They're coming back!"
The shadows lunged again, but this time, even in the middle of her amazement, Sol was ready for them. A fountain of flame spilled from her hands and scorched clear the area in front of them. She spun and sent fire racing in all directions. The shadows tumbled back from it; those that did not escape caught alight and burned like paper. But there were more behind them, darkness in the form of unfolding wings…
"Do that shield thing again!" Sol shouted.
"I don't know how!"
"There are words, like…" She dodged a shadow creature, kicking it as she went past. It was hard to tell if her foot struck anything solid, but the beast recoiled. "For me, it's, 'I call upon the sun, my liege--'"
She threw a fireball into a dense cluster of shadows. It rolled like a bowling ball through them. Shoichi was pretty sure fire wasn't supposed to do that, but hey, nothing else about this made any sense at all.
"Wait, it'll be different for you, but I don't know which Guardian you are…"
Shadows fear the blazing sun. Shadows flee the rising moon. I call upon the moon, my liege…
It wasn't just his hand that was shaking any more. Shoichi felt as though his whole body was going to come apart with the tremors. He was frozen in shock and disbelief, but… no. It wasn't disbelief, was it? Not really. He wanted it to be disbelief, he was clinging to the idea that this was impossible, that he should be unable to accept it, but…
… but the truth was, there was nowhere to run anymore. He was out of time. The dreams had caught up with him and he had to choose between fear of the dark and fear of…this.
On shadow tendril whipped past Sol's fire and lashed out at him. Shoichi stumbled backwards, but the razor-wire darkness sliced across his cheek and he felt blood trickle down towards his jaw. The silent shadows seemed to mock him, and at last, Shoichi had a target for the formless anger that had been building within him.
"I call upon the moon, my liege," he said, the words falling easily into place as though he'd memorised them long ago, "radiant queen of the night." A brilliant, ice-cold light flared all around him. "Grant me the power to turn back the dark!"
This time the shield was bright and strong, gleaming with the light of a full moon, and the shadows spilled against it like a breaking wave. Sol stared at the shield, and then at him, and then seemed to shake herself.
"Okay, my turn!"
The shield apparently didn't stop her from conjuring more flames outside. This time, with the shield protecting them both from the fire, Sol seemed to pour a lot more power into it. The street outside their protected circle became a roaring inferno, so bright it was almost as white as the shield. The shadows could not scream, but as they twisted and shrivelled in the flames, Shoichi took a grim satisfaction in their dying agony.
Then the flames ebbed away. The light faded from the shield, and the street slid back into darkness… but a normal darkness, one empty of threat. Empty of witnesses, too. Somehow no-one had come down the street while it was happening, no-one had seen…
Except the man getting to his feet some distance away, a cloak of darkness slipping from his shoulders like water. He looked deeply disconcerted, but not, Shoichi thought, because he didn't believe what he was seeing. He looked more like someone who had just had an unpleasant shock and hadn't quite had time to recover.
"What the hell was that?" he demanded.
Sol's eyes narrowed. "You again? Is that your real face this time?"
"Of course not," the man spat. He backed away from them, looking from one to the other. "You know I'll just come back for him, right? You can't protect him forever. You might as well just--"
"I would love to see you come back for him," Sol said with a wide, wild grin. Shoichi wondered if she was, in fact, as crazy as he'd first suspected. "Go on. Try it. Pretty please."
The man opened his mouth but seemed not to know what to say. He took another step backwards. He was afraid of them, Shoichi realised. Sol seemed to see it too. All at once, a stream of flame spilled down the street towards him. The man yelped, dodged, and took off running. As he ran, he wrapped the shadows around him again, and slipped into the darkness, gone before either of them could have thought of pursuit.
There was a long drawn-out moment of silence. Then Sol whooped gleefully and threw her arms around Shoichi in a hug that smelled faintly of charcoal. Shoichi was in too much shock to do more than stand there and let her.
"That was amazing! I'm so glad I found you! Um, listen, about the costume, I'm sure yours will be--"
"That building's on fire," Shoichi said distantly, looking over her shoulder. "Quite a lot, actually."
"Wait, what?" Sol let go and twisted to look. "Oh no… that's not supposed to happen!"
"The fire isn't supposed to set things on fire?"
"No-- well, yes-- but it's never happened before--" Sol turned back to him desperately. "Can you do water? Is that your thing?"
Shoichi stared back at her. Finally, he said, "No, I don't think so."
"Crap." Sol ran over to the building, which was definitely alight now, and reached out towards it as if calming an angry creature. "Maybe I can… get the flames to just… stop…"
Shoichi watched her for long enough to establish that nothing was happening, then put a hand in his pocket and took out his phone. He called the fire department, reported the blaze, and confirmed that he didn't think there was anyone in the building. By the time he was done, Sol had stopped… fire-whispering, or whatever, and was standing there with her mouth open.
"They'll be here in three minutes," Shoichi said. "The fire station's right around the corner."
"Why didn't I think of that?" Sol asked. She shook herself. "We should go. I need to bring you to Sakaki."
She grabbed his arm again and this time he let her lead him back towards the station.
"Um… that's kind of hard to explain. I think I'd better just show you. You probably wouldn't believe me if I told you."
Out of everything that was wrong with the scene he found himself in, Shoichi kept coming back to the clock. It was hanging from the branch of a tree. It was also upside down and inside a plastic sandwich bag.
Of course, there was also the fact that the tree was talking to him, but somehow, the clock was bothering him more.
"It's so Sakaki knows what time it is," Sol said when he asked. "Otherwise things get confusing."
"But… why the bag?"
"So it doesn't get wet in the rain and stop working."
"And… why is it the wrong way up?"
"That was the only way I could get it to stay in place. It's not like it makes a difference to her."
"My sight of the world is different from yours," Sakaki said. "As is my sense of time."
So… the tree was talking to him. Maybe, in hindsight, he should have kept wondering about the clock. It seemed like the safer option.
Shoichi looked at the object Sakaki had invited him to take from her branches. It was black from age, but clearly the same size and shape as the crest that Sol was wearing around her neck. He could see a faint hint of blue beneath the grime. Sol had started babbling about stepping through doors or something, but Sakaki had gently suggested she let him get used to the idea first.
"You didn't exactly give me time to 'get used to the idea'," Sol complained.
"You were being attacked by Spectres. Besides, you two are quite different."
"I don't see how you can know that already."
"It's as clear as night and day," said Sakaki serenely. "Appropriately, since this is Guardian Luna."
Sol took a deep breath, like suddenly everything was different.
"Ohhhh," she said. She almost looked like she might cry, but if so, it was with relief. "So now we can… we can save them?"
Shoichi decided it was time he took a more active part in the conversation. "Save who?"
"The shard bearers," said Sol. "Like I thought you were, before you did that thing with the light." She frowned. "Wait, Sakaki, didn't you say we'd know if it was another Guardian?"
"I did know," Sakaki replied with mild exasperation. "I sensed it as soon as you spoke to each other. I tried to contact you, but you didn't answer."
"Hey, I was busy chasing him! And then there were Spectres!"
"And why exactly was he running away from you in the first place?"
"Uh..." Sol looked at Shoichi.
"I thought she was a crazy cosplay stalker," Shoichi offered.
It sounded rather weak when he said it aloud. He couldn't have put into words the rest of it, the fear and the desperate need to run... He wasn't even sure he understood it himself now. Strange and unbelievable as all this was, somehow, the moment he'd called on the moon, the dread had vanished. Some wisp of something in the back of his mind had sighed with regret, and flown away, and in its place acceptance had blossomed.
"Oh, right," Sol jumped in. "That's the other thing - he recognised me even after I was transformed! I thought that wasn't supposed to happen?"
"The magic that disguises you does not deceive the other members of the Guard," Sakaki said. "Which is another way to identify them, should the opportunity arise."
"That would have been useful to know," Sol said, but she was looking at Shoichi again. "Wait, 'crazy cosplay stalker'?"
"What else was I supposed to think?"
"Fair enough, I guess." Sol smiled. Then she put her hand up to the crest that hung around her neck, and suddenly there was a blinding light that Shoichi had turn his face away from. When he looked back, she was wearing her school uniform again. "Hi. I'm Akemi. Shimada Akemi. I'm sorry for stalking you, it was for your own good."
"Tsunekawa Shoichi. It's, uh, nice to meet you?"
"Sound less convinced, why don't you?" Sol - Akemi - said, but she was still smiling. "Um, look, I know this is all really weird and confusing but I'm... I'm really glad you're here."
The simple sincerity touched him, and felt... familiar. He couldn't explain why, but like the sound of the sea in his dream, this was... right.
"You've been fighting those things by yourself?"
"Yeah." Akemi leaned back on her hands, stretching her legs out with a sigh. "I mean, not for too long, really, just a few weeks, but..."
"Okay." Shoichi looked back at the blackened crest. "Can you explain it all from the beginning, please?"
She did, in the rushing, tumbling over herself way that seemed to be fairly normal for her, although Shoichi thought relief was playing a part in just how disorganised her explanation was. Sakaki stepped in once or twice to correct or clarify, but mostly let Akemi do the talking, at least until she got to the part about the shard bearers. Then Akemi faltered, and Sakaki quietly took over, outlining Akemi's first attempt to retrieve a shard. Shoichi noticed that there was no reproach in her account of Akemi's actions. Shoichi got the sense that she understood all two well how impossible it must have been for Akemi to stand by and watch.
"And she's just in hospital now?"
"Yeah," said Akemi softly. "She'll be okay as long as they look after her body, but her soul..."
"Is in the shard." Shoichi frowned. "So we need to get it back, and get her soul out of it. And you said I can do that?"
He looked at Sakaki for confirmation. Her branches dipped in what he was beginning to recognise as a nod.
"At least, I believe it may be possible," Sakaki said. "I am not sure if it has ever been tried, once the shard has been extracted. But you certainly have the ability to anchor souls at the moment the knife does its work, so I must hope that you can do something similar with those already removed."
Shoichi nodded. He had already, privately, made up his mind that no-one else was going to end up in the hospital, and that he was not going to allow anything else to make Akemi so quiet and sad. It was painfully obvious that she wasn't supposed to be like that, ever. Of course, that meant figuring out how to do the thing Sakaki said he could do...
He held up the disc in his hand. "How do I use it?"
"It's sort of like stepping through--" Akemi began, but Sakaki interrupted.
"Close your eyes and remember the moon on the sea," she said.
A chill went through Shoichi, a ghost of the fear that had been haunting him all week, but it was brief, and he knew... he suddenly remembered that sensation from his dream. He stood up carefully, closed his eyes, and thought of the moon breaking through the clouds. Even with his eyes closed, the brilliance of the light that sprang up around him was palpable, and the rush that went through his body was like a gasp of breath taken in wonder at the sight of something astounding.
"Oh wow," said Akemi, "that looks even cooler from the outside!" She laughed, then went on, sheepishly, "And it doesn't look quite so much like a dress on you..."
Shoichi opened his eyes. The first thing he saw was the crest, now brilliant gold without a trace of tarnish. Inset in its face was a crescent moon in blue glass. He pressed the catch to open it, and looked into his own eyes in the mirror within for a moment before closing it again. Then he took a good look down at the rest of himself.
There was no denying it, the costume he was wearing wasn't really any different from Sol's, except in the colours. And although the main part of it could charitably be called a tunic, there was a certain... style to the rest of the outfit that was undeniably, well...
"You weren't kidding about the magical girl thing," he said with resignation.
Akemi started giggling helplessly. "I'm sorry! I didn't mean to!" She jumped to her feet and grasped her crest. With a flash of light that Shoichi knew to look away from this time, she was back in her own Guardian colours. "It's not quite the same, is it, though?"
They spent a few minutes comparing costumes. The broad strokes were the same, but there were minor details that separated the two of them.
Shoichi peered at Akemi's hair. "Your ribbons changed colour."
He pointed. "Your hair ribbons. Weren't they green a minute ago?"
Akemi put her hand up to where one pigtail was tied off. "They're always green for school."
"They're orange now."
Akemi tugged on the dangling end of the ribbon, unravelling the bow, and pulled it out of her hair. She stared at it with her mouth open.
"That is so weird."
Shoichi stifled laughter. "Weirder than everything else?"
"Yes!" Akemi waved the ribbon in front of his face. "Somehow this is weirder than everything else!"
Shoichi gave up trying not to laugh. Then, as Akemi moved to tie her hair back up, he had a thought.
"Wait, don't do that. Try transforming back without re-tying it."
"I want to see what happens. I mean, is it the same ribbon? Is it a new ribbon? What happened to the other ribbon?"
There was a sound from Sakaki's direction that was hard to interpret, until Shoichi recognised it as a snort of laughter. He wasn't sure how anyone could snort without a nose. Maybe that was why it had a sort of wooden sound to it.
"What?" he asked the tree.
"Nothing," she replied with barely contained amusement. "You are just being... very you, Luna."
Shoichi was still trying to work out what on earth that was supposed to mean when the light of Akemi's transformation distracted him. When he looked back in her direction, the half of her hair that had been loose was re-tied with its green ribbon, and the orange one she'd been holding was gone.
Akemi put her empty hand up to her hair and said, "Weeeeeeeeeeeeeird."
"Okay," Shoichi said thoughtfully, "now try untying that one and transforming back..."
Several minutes later they had established that if Akemi untied her hair before transforming, the green ribbon did not vanish, but her hair was miraculously retied with the orange one. When she switched back to normal, her hair was still loose on that side. The green ribbon didn't seem to go anywhere when it wasn't attached. Shoichi was trying to work out the logistics of that ("Does this mean you can never change your hairstyle as Guardian Sol?") when Sakaki cleared her throat.
Well. Again, she didn't have a throat, but that was certainly what it sounded like.
"Perhaps we could return to discussing the shard bearers," she said gently, and still with that undercurrent of amusement. "There will be time for experimentation later."
Some of the bubbling curiosity that had been filling Shoichi drained away. "Oh. Of course. What do I need to do?"
"First, can you summon the shield?"
Shoichi held out his hand and concentrated. "I call upon the moon, my liege, radiant queen of the night," he said softly. "Grant me the power to turn back the dark."
A gleaming dome of light expanded around them like a soap bubble. Shoichi watched faint rainbow patterns wash across its surface, like the colours that haloed the full moon on a frozen night, and found he was smiling. He let the shield fade.
"That is so pretty," Akemi said wistfully. "Sakaki, can I do anything else apart from set things on fire?"
Sakaki laughed. "Well, that isn't entirely true. You have other powers, but the flame runs through all of them."
"How do I do the other things?"
"The knowledge will come to you in time as you learn control."
Akemi pulled a dissatisfied face as Shoichi turned back to Sakaki.
"So do I use the shield on the shard bearers?"
"No, except to protect them from the Spectres and keep them out of the grasp of the Archdukes. The soul anchor is a different power." Sakaki rustled her leaves and sighed. "It is more complex. Ideally, it would come to you gradually, just as all Guardians slowly learn the full extent of their power. But with things as they are..."
"We can't wait around," Shoichi finished. "How do I learn it, then?"
"I... cannot teach you," Sakaki said quietly. "It is not a power I... fully understand. You must seek deep within yourself for the way to summon it."
Akemi was staring at her in dismay. "But-- I thought--"
"It has been described to me," Sakaki hurried on, "as casting out a line. I have seen... Guardian Luna in the past move his hand as if throwing something invisible. He has always called it an anchor, as if there is a weight to it that pins the soul in place, though he seems to throw it lightly, like spider silk."
Shoichi tried to wrap his head around the concept. He briefly tried seeking deep inside himself, but mostly what he found there was that he really, really needed to go home and think about all this for a while, while drinking a lot of soothing tea in his pyjamas. Under a blanket. Possibly with one of the stuffed toys from the box under his bed that he couldn't quite bring himself to throw out.
"I'll figure it out," he told Akemi with more confidence than he really felt. "I promise."
"Okay," she said quietly, then seemed to rally herself. "Hey, do you want to go get a soda or something?"
"Not right now. Right now I think I'm going to go home, if that's okay with everyone?"
"Sure," Akemi said. "You don't want to get your parents started asking where you've been, trust me."
"Well, that part isn't a problem," Shoichi said with only a faint grimace. "They don't pay much attention."
"Lucky you," Akemi said with a sigh. "My mom's usually working in the evenings but when she isn't..."
It wasn't the first time someone had said he was 'lucky' to have so little parental oversight. Shoichi hadn't often felt that way, but he supposed, in light of today's events, that he should be at least a little grateful.
"Shall I walk you to the station?"
"Huh? Oh, no, I live around here."
Shoichi paused, trying to remember the route they had taken to get to the shrine. It was a blur.
"Er.... can you walk me to the station?" he asked sheepishly.
Akemi jumped to her feet with a grin. "No problem."