"Excuse me," Shoichi said, trying to hide how awkward he felt approaching a boy three years older than him for such a stupid reason, "do you mind if I sit here?"
The other boy looked up from his homework, and glanced around at the half dozen empty tables in the library in confusion.
"Can I ask why?"
Shoichi flushed, almost giving up on the whole idea, but desperation made him feel like blurting out the truth was the better option.
"If I sit by myself, this girl from my class will turn up in about five minutes, sit next to me, and just talk for the next hour. Nothing I say seems to stop her, and I really need to get my homework done. I thought if I was sharing a table with someone else she might not do it..."
The other boy looked momentarily taken aback, and then, to Shoichi's silent chagrin, deeply amused.
"She has a crush on you?"
Shoichi wasn't sure he could turn any redder, but his face seemed to be giving it a go. "I don't know! She just won't leave me alone and I don't want to upset her..."
The amusement turned sympathetic. "Of course you can sit here. Especially if you're not a talker. I come in here because I can never get anything done in the classroom, even though it's supposed to be quiet study. People throw notes at each other."
He sounded so annoyed by this minor aspect of school life that it was Shoichi's turn to laugh. He sat down gratefully at the table.
"I'm Shoichi," he said, belatedly. "Thank you for this."
"Satoru," the other boy replied. "You're welcome."
It almost worked, too. When Mariko sidled into the library a few minutes later she visibly hesitated before approaching. Not that Shoichi was watching out of the corner of his eye or anything. He felt bad, but at the same time, she'd followed him to the library after school every day this week, and if he didn't get some work done today he was going to be in serious trouble...
To his dismay, she sat down, glanced shyly at Satoru, and then began her usual breathless rush of, 'hi Shoichi what did you think of that thing in class where...' In a whisper, this time. Which was somehow almost more annoying.
Shoichi cringed, all too aware that she was now distracting Satoru as well as him. Reluctant as he was to say anything that could come across as mean, he opened his mouth to speak up... but Satoru beat him to it.
"Excuse me," Satoru said quietly. When Mariko looked at him wide-eyed, he went on, "I really need to work. Please don't talk."
"Oh! I-- I'm sorry--"
"It's okay," Satoru said, smiling and putting an almost apologetic note into his voice. "Thanks."
To Shoichi's amazement, it worked. Mariko sat there for a couple of minutes, clearly not sure what to do with herself, before finally pulling out some homework of her own and getting on with it in silence. Shoichi didn't even mind when she quietly asked him a question or two about the problem sheet. In fact, he thought, if she would do this every time she came into the library, he'd quite enjoy her company.
That thought lasted almost exactly a week of sharing a table with Satoru, at which point Mariko followed him halfway home so she could spring a date request on him in front of a group of their classmates. Possibly she thought he would be too embarrassed to turn her down in front of an audience, or maybe she was just clueless, but either way it didn't work out well for her: Shoichi was so stunned he said the first thing that came into his head, which was, "No, thank you."
So then she burst into tears and ran off, and the rest of Shoichi's class knew about it within a day, and the girls all glared at him and the boys all thought it was hysterical and Shoichi felt horrible and really annoyed at the same time.
There was technically no need to go and sit at Satoru's table now, but he did it anyway out of habit. He hadn't intended to say anything, but Satoru glanced at him, frowned, looked again, and said, "Are you okay?" and then Shoichi ended up telling him all of it in a rushed and miserable run-on sentence.
Satoru said, "That sounds unpleasant. I don't know what else you could have done, though. I mean, either you go on a date with her when you're not really interested, which is unkind, or you turn her down, which you did. Asking people out always means taking the chance they say no. She'll get over it."
Which was all sensible, helpful advice, but the thing that really, really mattered to Shoichi right then was that he didn't laugh at all.
Shoichi only got a good look at his back when he was undressing to get in the shower. The mess of healing scabs made him wince. No wonder there'd been so much blood on his costume: he must have taken half the skin off his shoulders when he scraped along the wall. Thank goodness for the magical healing... thing. Hopefully the injuries would all be gone by tomorrow. He watched closely in the mirror for a few minutes, trying to see them actually heal up in front of him, but if they did, it was so gradual he couldn't spot it.
Did the healing extend to infections? It seemed like a waste of time to douse the skin with disinfectant when it was already scabbed over. Anything that was going to get inside the wounds already had. So he'd better hope the healing extended to infections. What about disease? Could he get sick, still? What was going to happen the next time he caught a cold? And what if something really bad happened, like... losing an arm or something? It couldn't possibly grow back, could it? No, that would be... surely that would be beyond even the power of the Guard. And really, really hard to explain...
"I should probably try not to lose an arm," Shoichi said. He jumped at the sound of his own voice. He wasn't quite sure why he'd spoken the thought aloud, except maybe to drown out the part of his mind that was trying to get his attention with a continuous repetition of the phrase Satoru is Kestrel! Kestrel is Satoru! "Which is good life advice in general, I guess."
He started to laugh at his own comment, then realised the laughter had a hysterical edge to it, and hurried under the shower with single-minded determination to get clean and get into bed before he had some sort of meltdown. For once, both his parents were in the house. He didn't really want to try and have a conversation with either of them right now, so he'd just said he was tired from studying all evening, grabbed something to eat, and fled to the bathroom at the earliest opportunity.
He wished he hadn't found it quite so easy to lie to them.
"You're often here very late," Satoru observed one evening.
"So are you," Shoichi replied, confused.
"Yes, but I live here," Satoru said. "I'm a boarder. My room's five minutes down the hall."
"Oh." Shoichi hadn't actually realised that. He should have guessed. Most of the people in the library after school tended to be boarders. "It's easier to stay here and then pick something up to eat on the way home than it is to go back earlier, cook, and get back into the right mindset for homework, to be honest."
Satoru's eyebrows shot up. "Do you live alone?"
"What? No, of course not. Why would you think that?"
"Don't your parents cook?"
"Oh, they usually don't get back until after me. They're lawyers."
"It sounds like you should be a boarder too," Satoru said after a pause. "At least that way the school gives you meals and cleans your room."
"Well, I live too close. It would be silly," Shoichi said defensively. "Besides, I'd never see my parents if I didn't go home."
"It kind of sounds like you never see them anyway."
Shoichi flushed, and for the first time ever felt annoyed with Satoru. "Look, what's your point?"
It was Satoru's turn to look embarrassed. "Nothing. I'm sorry, I didn't mean to... I was just surprised, that's all." Before Shoichi could say anything else, he hurried on, "It's not like I can talk, my parents technically have a house in Kobe but they've been living in Hong Kong the last few years."
"My father's company is based there." Satoru scowled briefly at his homework. "I'm supposed to be studying business and economics at university so I can take over someday."
Shoichi glanced at him. "You don't want to?"
Satoru hesitated. "Not really. I'd rather study engineering, or maybe computer science."
"Are you going to?"
"I haven't decided yet." Satoru hesitated again, then went on, as if confiding a secret. "I'd like to go to Tokyo, if I can get in. I really like the look of the university, and my father will be pleased enough he might not kick up too much trouble if I switch course."
"Of course you'll get in," Shoichi said with total honesty. Now he knew Satoru by name, he'd realised that he was almost always top of the results boards for his year. "And even if you don't, you should study what you want to study. I'm sure your father will get over it."
"Hmm. You haven't met him," Satoru said, but he looked like he'd needed to hear someone say it anyway. He added, "Thank you," and the warmth in his voice made Shoichi blush again, although this time he had no idea why.
The rain had apparently settled in to stay for the rest of the week. Akemi wasn't looking forward to sitting under an umbrella again, even though she'd remembered to bring a good big one from home this time. She was preoccupied with making sure all her books were well inside her bag where they wouldn't get wet, and didn't really notice Hana hovering by her desk until she spoke.
Akemi looked up. "Hmm?"
"Is... everything okay?"
"What do you mean?"
Hana hesitated for long enough that she had Akemi's full attention by the time she went on, "I mean... I hardly see you outside class at the moment. You're always rushing off. You say you need to study but you're getting lower grades than you usually do..."
Akemi flushed, and snapped before she could stop herself, "Hey, I'm doing my best! You sound like my mom!"
"No, I didn't mean it like that!" Hana bit her lip. "Just... who's that boy you keep meeting up with?"
"Shoichi? He's a friend. We study together sometimes."
That was even kind of true. Stake-outs with homework were becoming a regular thing. Shoichi helped her with history and she helped him with maths, at least until they had to shove everything into their bags and go do Guardian stuff. But Hana looked sad and worried at the same time, and that was not okay, particularly when Akemi had to keep lying to her like this.
"I know I'm not doing so well at school," Akemi said. "That's why I'm trying to study more." Lies, lies, lies. "I'm sorry I haven't been around as much." At least that part was true. And at least she could think of something to sort of make up for it. "Are you busy this weekend? We could meet up for lunch and karaoke."
Hana smiled, relief replacing worry. "I'd like that! What time?"
After they'd made plans, Akemi hurried to the shrine, trying not to get too splashed by the puddles. The only thing worse than sitting under an umbrella in the rain was doing it with your shoes full of water. But when she reached the clearing, she found that Shoichi had beaten her to it.
"You found the tent!"
Shoichi poked his head out, got hit in the face by a large drop of water from one of Sakaki's branches, and immediately withdrew back inside.
"It was in our storage closet. Smells a bit like old shoes, but it doesn't have any holes in it."
Akemi quickly ducked into the small tent. It was only just big enough for the two of them to sit side-by-side, but just big enough was fine when it was raining this hard. Shoichi had set it up so the door faced Sakaki. There was a little pop-out panel that sheltered the door when it was open, and once Akemi was settled inside, she couldn't feel any rain reaching them. Shoichi had even brought along some dry cushions and an old blanket. It was positively luxurious compared to the last time they'd been here.
"You are the best," Akemi said. "Hey, Sakaki. How are you?"
"Damp," Sakaki replied, "and sadly I doubt I will fit in there with you. Luna has been telling me about your experience with the shard-bearer. I'm glad you were able to restore her soul: it gives us hope for the others who have already been targeted, if we can get their shards back."
"Right," Akemi said with a sigh. "Shards. We're not very good at holding on to them, are we?"
She had of course reported back to Sakaki that they'd lost the latest shard to Kestrel, but had saved the details for when they could meet up at the shrine. She gave a quick summary now.
"So you were right about Kestrel," Akemi finished. "He's after the shards too, and he didn't even try and help us fight Neikos."
"We know he has at least two of them," Shoichi said. He'd been uncharacteristically quiet so far, especially when Akemi got to the bit about him chasing Kestrel. She hoped he wasn't still feeling bad about it. "And we don't know where he's keeping them."
"He'll keep them close if he can," Sakaki replied. "If he isn't carrying them with him, he'll keep them wherever he lives. I've never been entirely sure of his exact powers, but he seems able to mislead and misdirect those who pursue him, so he will want to have the shards where he can take them and run if necessary."
"And then there's the Multitude," Akemi went on. "We don't know if Neikos has any of the shards. What would he do with them if he did? Does he have, like, a secret villain base somewhere we need to raid?"
"Unlikely," said Sakaki. "The Archdukes are... in general.... human. He cloaks himself in shadow when he does the Multitude's work, but he must have a place to sleep, and eat, and nurse his wounds. If he has kept the shards, they are likely to be in his home."
"Great, all we need to do is break into every house in Osaka then," Akemi muttered.
"What do you mean, if he's kept them?" Shoichi asked. "Why wouldn't he keep them?"
"The Archdukes always have a leader," Sakaki said, "who is the first recipient of the Multitude's power. It is clear that Neikos is not this leader, so he may be passing the shards on as soon as they are collected. However, they often mistrust one another and struggle for power within their ranks. From what you have seen of Neikos, I would not be surprised if he were one to keep the shards for as long as he can to bolster his own position."
"Why is it clear he isn't the leader?" Shoichi asked.
"You've met him, haven't you?" Akemi said.
Shoichi half-laughed, but he was still clearly focused on an answer to his question. "Sakaki?"
"The Archdukes take on names according to their rank and personality," Sakaki said after a moment. "The names vary, but the leader is always known by the same name, and it is not Neikos."
"What is it, then?"
It was like Shoichi couldn't quite let anything go today, like he had to drag out an explanation for every nuance of what Sakaki said. It sort of made Akemi uncomfortable, while at the same time, she was glad he was paying attention to detail. She knew she wasn't always great at that.
"The leader of the Archdukes is Demogorgon," Sakaki said. "Do not use that name lightly. It has the echo of three thousand years in its speaking, and rumour has always had it that speaking it aloud outside a place of safety can draw the attention of the Multitude."
"Oh." Shoichi glanced around nervously. "Er... this is a place of safety, right?"
"Yes, of course. These shrine grounds already have some protection in them from the spirits that were worshipped here. This clearing is guarded further by my power. We cannot be overheard and nothing can enter here, not even the Archdukes themselves, unless they first destroy me utterly."
"That's good to know," Akemi said, though she shivered at destroy me utterly. "So when we get the next shard, we bring it here, right?"
"Yes. It will be safe here. Neither the Multitude nor Kestrel will be able to find it or take it away."
"If we get the next shard," Shoichi said.
"Nope." Akemi elbowed him to shake the distracted look off his face. "When. We know what to expect now. We've got this."
Shoichi hestitated, then nodded.
"Okay. I hope you're right."
Most of the time they were in the library together, they didn't talk, but there was something very comfortable about the silence. Occasionally Shoichi asked Satoru for help with something he was stuck on, and sometimes, if there was no-one else around to be distracted by it, they'd talk a little. It never went beyond basic pleasantries, but Shoichi still found himself looking forward to those occasional interludes. He noticed Satoru around at school a lot more these days, in some of his clubs, and between classes. They usually smiled at each other, but neither tried to elaborate on the sort-of-friendship that had developed.
One day, Shoichi started to wonder why. The age difference was one aspect, he supposed. It didn't seem to matter in the library, but outside, it was always very clear that they were in different cohorts within the school. Maybe it hadn't occurred to either of them that they could be actual friends. Now, though, Shoichi found that he liked the idea. He had plenty of casual friendships in his class, but no-one he was really close to.
Acting on the thought was a whole other problem, of course. Anything he thought of saying that might indicate, 'hey, let's be better friends' seemed entirely too forward for a junior student to put to a senior.
He was still wrestling with the dilemma when Satoru unexpectedly solved it for him.
"I wanted to ask you something," he said as Shoichi was packing up to leave for the day.
"Would you..." Satoru seemed uncharacteristically hesitant. "I was thinking maybe we could go and get something to eat one of these evenings? After we're done studying, I mean."
Shoichi had to take a moment to get his breath, which had suddenly gone out of him in a warm rush, before saying, "I'd like that."
A smile broke over Satoru's face, and something about that made Shoichi's heart start racing.
"What about next week?"
"Sure," Shoichi said, hoping he sounded as casual as he was trying to sound. "I could do Thursday."
"That works for me."
"Okay." Shoichi finished putting his books in his bag. "See you tomorrow?"
"I won't be around tomorrow," Satoru said. "It's my birthday, and my parents are flying over."
"Oh! I didn't know. Happy birthday? For tomorrow."
"Thanks," said Satoru with another smile. "I'll see you on Monday, then."
"Seriously? This is it?" Akemi pulled a face. "Ick."
"I know." Shoichi had absolutely no desire to set foot in the seedy-looking strip club either, but even from across the street he could see how unnaturally dark it was inside. "I'm starting to feel like there's a pattern to the targets Neiko picks."
"What do you mean?"
"Er..." Shoichi tried not to blush. "Well, there were a lot of girls at the gym. Wearing shorts and things. And there was that swimming pool. And the massage place."
"Ew," said Akemi as the penny dropped. "That is so gross."
"He's stealing people's souls, did you think he was a nice guy otherwise?"
"No, but still..." Akemi shuddered. "I didn't set him on fire enough last time. I won't make that mistake again."
Shoichi hesitated, not particularly inclined to say anything on Neikos's behalf, but... there were other considerations.
"Have you thought about what will happen if you get him?"
Akemi blinked. "Huh?"
"Sakaki said they were human," Shoichi went on carefully. "So far every time you attack him, he uses the shadows to defend himself. But what if you burn all those away and hit him directly? Can you... imagine what your fire would do to a normal person?"
When Akemi didn't immediately answer, he glanced over. The stricken look on her suddenly pale face made him almost wish he hadn't said anything at all.
"I hadn't thought of that," she said in a small voice. "But... I can't not attack him, can I? Not when he's doing all... all this."
"No," Shoichi said, "of course you can't. He certainly seems happy to try and stab us whenever he gets the chance, and we can't let the Multitude just do what they want. I just... I don't know..."
He took a deep breath.
"Maybe we have to kill him," he said, the words terrifying in their starkness. "Maybe that's what we have to do to save the world. I just didn't want... you to do it by accident, without even realising it would happen."
Akemi nodded, staring at the ground between them. "Thanks. You're right. I... I need to be aware of that... as a possibility. It's... easy when it's just shadows, you know?"
Akemi shook herself, stood up straighter, and forced a smile.
"Maybe we can get him in a choke hold and hand him over to the police or something," she said lightly. "Come on, let's go get rid of this haunt so Creepy Uncle Neikos can't perv on the strippers any more."
Shoichi managed a laugh that wasn't much more convincing than her smile, and followed her lead towards the building, silently hating himself. It wasn't a lie, was the thing, he really had thought she needed to hear it, and by her reaction he had clearly been correct, but his motives...
His motives had little to do with Neikos, and far more to do with the horrifying thought of what Guardian Sol's fire would do to Satoru if it hit him. And he still hadn't told her, or Sakaki, that he knew Kestrel's true identity. He felt like a traitor for keeping quiet, but he didn't know what else to do.
Sakaki had said Kestrel would keep the shards close to him - in his home, probably. And Shoichi had his real name, his email address, a scattering of details about his life. He might be able to use those to find out where Satoru lived. And then... what? Would they go and break in? Confront him? Fight him? Set him on fire?
No. Shoichi couldn't even consider using his knowledge against Satoru that way. In all honesty, he still couldn't entirely accept the idea that Satoru was Kestrel. He kept thinking about the time they'd spent in the library together at school, and how soft-spoken and polite Satoru had been about everything. Shoichi couldn't imagine how that same quiet, hard-working boy could be the man now willing to leave an old woman to die without a soul.
There had to be something he was missing, something Sakaki didn't know. And until he found out what it was, he couldn't bring himself to blow Satoru's cover. If he could just get Satoru to talk to him...
He'd sent an email, eventually, after agonising over it for days. There had been no reply. He'd sent another one since, and then a third, each a variation on 'could we talk?'. Satoru hadn't responded to any of them. Shoichi wondered if he'd even read them. Maybe he'd blocked Shoichi's email address, deleted their conversation, and was busy getting on with being Kestrel, hunting shards and dodging the Multitude and the Guard alike. Maybe he'd already moved on.
It... wouldn't be the first time, after all. Shoichi still remembered vividly the week he'd come to the library every day and found no sign of Satoru anywhere. They hadn't exchanged numbers or emails at that point, so he had no way of finding out what was going on. He didn't see Satoru for days, until almost a week after the day they'd agreed to hang out after studying, when they bumped into each other briefly at a club. Satoru had barely seemed to see him. He'd apologised for vanishing, but said he wouldn't be in the library much now as he had so much to do that he preferred to work from his room. He'd said nothing about hanging out, and Shoichi had fallen far too easily into the position of respectful junior, politely wishing him luck in his exams and... letting it go without asking any questions.
The sting had taken a long time to fade, longer than he would have expected, even though he had been able to see with his own eyes in the weeks and months that followed just how stressed and harried Satoru now looked, and how obvious it was that he was spending every waking minute working as hard as he could. Eventually, some time after Satoru had left - to go to Tokyo, Shoichi had thought - he'd put it behind him and moved on. It was nothing personal, he told himself. Satoru just hadn't had time to hang around with a junior student once he got that close to his exams. And when they'd met again on the train, and Satoru had seemed as eager to resume their friendship as Shoichi, he'd taken it as proof that he'd been right, that it hadn't been about him.
But now... silence, and once again Shoichi could only guess at what could be going through Satoru's head. It hurt a lot more this time. Maybe because he'd felt like he was being given a second chance. Maybe because somehow in a few weeks of emailing he had begun to feel even closer to Satoru than when they had been in school.
Maybe because he kept seeing the look on Satoru's face, the moment he'd recognised Shoichi, and couldn't pretend it wasn't the look of someone who had just been betrayed in a way Shoichi didn't understand and had never intended.
When the clock ticked over to 3AM, Akemi figured she just wasn't getting any sleep tonight. Or possibly ever. So she got up and tried to do some homework.
Her school wasn't the kind that went running to a student's parents the second they failed a test, but the three papers with their terrible, accusing grades were burning a hole in her conscience from where she'd stuffed them into a drawer. There were others that she'd barely passed. Even in her good subjects, the lack of work she was doing outside school was starting to show. It wasn't that she wasn't smart - she wouldn't boast about it, but Akemi knew she was pretty smart - but no amount of inborn intelligence could make up for the fact that all her tests required her to have memorised very specific facts each week. Sometimes she got lucky and hit a topic she knew already, but more often recently she'd found herself staring at the paper, a cold feeling in her stomach, and wondering who the heck cared about the exact dates of the reign of Emperor What's-His-Name anyway.
She set herself doggedly to learn her English vocabulary list, which she'd always found pretty easy, but after ten minutes, she realised she'd just been reading the same word over and over again and she still hadn't the faintest idea what it meant.
She let her head fall onto the desk with a soft thud and a groan. After a moment, she lifted it, and looked over at her Guardian crest, lying by her pillow.
It... wasn't supposed to be like this. Finding out you were special, finding out you had a purpose, finding out you had actual magical powers... it was supposed to fix everything. It was supposed to make your life better. It was supposed to be fun.
It wasn't supposed to wreck your grades right before you needed to get into University, or leave you lying awake thinking about whether or not you were going to have kill another human being.
She'd made that joke about the police, but after they'd cleared the haunt - after she'd waved goodbye to Shoichi and rushed home to try and get a bit of homework done before bed - she'd realised there was nothing the police could do. What crime could they charge Neikos with, whoever he was? Even if they believed all the stuff about the Spectres and the Multitude, which... Akemi wasn't particularly convinced they would. They would have no reason to put him behind bars. And would that even work, on someone with the power of the Multitude behind him?
What could she and Shoichi do with Neikos if they caught him? Tie him up? And put him where? Leave him in the clearing with Sakaki? Bring him sandwiches and make him sleep in Shoichi's tent? How would they stop him escaping? What if the other Archdukes came looking for him, and got through Sakaki's guard because he was already in there, and destroyed her utterly...
But then what other options did that leave? Could they frighten him off? Hurt him badly, scare him so he decided not to pursue the shards any more? Akemi felt sick at the thought. But even worse... what if they had to kill him, as Shoichi had so bluntly suggested? It... wouldn't be pretty, if she burned him alive. She didn't want to burn him alive, even though he was working with the Multitude.
Sakaki had said the Archdukes were human, but Akemi hadn't thought about what that meant, not until Shoichi had pointed it out. A part of her resented him for that. It had been better not knowing, better not thinking about the consequences as she flung fireballs at the mass of shadow that hid Neikos's true form.
But it wouldn't have been better to only find out about the consequences when it was too late. Shoichi was right. She couldn't hold on to any anger aimed in his direction. And he'd been so quiet this last week, since losing the second shard. It was obvious he blamed himself for letting Kestrel get away.
Kestrel... he was human too, according to Sakaki. Akemi had just been throwing fire at him without even thinking about it. Thank goodness he'd dodged. Except... they were supposed to stop him, too, weren't they? They were supposed to get the shards. She had to choose between attacking him and letting him get away...
"Why don't I have the power to just fix it?" she whispered aloud, staring at her uncompleted homework. "It's all magic, isn't it? Why can't I just make Neikos not evil, or wave a wand and put him in prison? Why can't all the enemies just be Spectres?"
Her homework didn't have an answer for her. For a moment she was tempted to pick up her crest and contact Sakaki... but this didn't feel like the time for another conversation about what powers Sakaki did or didn't have. And Sakaki knew... Sakaki knew what the Guard had to do. Akemi was pretty sure Sakaki didn't like it either, but she had not relented in her assertion that they must fight the Multitude no matter what.
Her next impulse was to grab her phone and message... who? Shoichi? She didn't want to make him feel any worse than he already did. She was supposed to be the leader. She had to deal with this stuff.
Hana? But oh, no, the thought of telling Hana... the thought of laying this on her, of saying, "I might have to kill someone"... that was just unbearable. Impossible. That wasn't going to happen. It wouldn't be fair.
"I guess it's just me, then," Akemi said. She closed her eyes for a long breath in, and out, and then she picked up her pen and started copying out the words she needed to learn by heart.