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Helix, Unfurled

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Perhaps, Touko thought, it had been too much to hope that dying -- however temporarily -- would have made things any easier for her when the Deterrent Force finally got around to restoring the equilibrium that recent events had threatened to disturb. She'd been beaten, she'd admitted it, and that should have been the end of it. But in this instance, dying merely seemed to have qualified her for the singularly unrewarding task of having to be there to pick up the pieces afterwards. It was as good an explanation as any for the fact that even though she was the one who arguably had come out worst in the battle against Cornelius Alba and Araya Souren, it had nonetheless fallen to her to figure how to get two unconscious young adults into her car and away from the crumbling structure of the Ogawa apartment complex before the police arrived on the scene.

Correction: one unconscious young adult. For as she turned away from the last wisps of rising smoke that until a few moments before had been a fellow magus, she heard a choked, feeble gasp -- and she saw Kokutou, still propped mostly upright against the tree where she had set him down earlier, staring at her with wide, haunted eyes.

'Ah,' she said quietly. She had hoped to put this conversation off for a little while longer, but there really was nothing to be gained from delaying it further. The ash was creeping down her cigarette, so she let it slip from her fingers and ground it out under her heel, into the damp, snow-flecked dirt. 'You're back with us, I see.'

As she started to walk towards him, Kokutou's eyes grew even wider, looking too large and unfocused behind his crooked glasses. Bewilderment crossed his face, chased by disbelief, which in turn was followed by a flicker of pure fear as he tried to make sense of what he was seeing and reconcile it with what he remembered.

'Touko-san.' Her name came out in a weak exhale of breath. 'You...you're not....' His mouth attempted to form more words, but then his throat gave a convulsive lurch -- and Touko knew that it wouldn't be long before he lost control of his stomach.

'I'm not,' she informed him, which she figured would cover whatever sentence ending he might have been striving for. Dead. Decapitated. A zombie. A ghost. 'Not anymore, at least.'

Kokutou gulped, struggling to hold himself together. 'I saw him,' he said, and gulped again. 'He had...had your head...your eye....' The memory of his last sight of her finally caught up with him, and Touko reached his side just in time to grab hold of his neck and shoulders and force his head between his knees as he pitched forward, retching over the cold tangle of roots at the bottom of the tree. Thankfully for both of them, nothing came up.

She had done only a makeshift job of bandaging his head earlier, but the bandage held fast enough to stay in place even as a fresh wave of shudders wracked his body. Touko kept her hand on the back of his neck, and let him find his own internal balance again. Once Kokutou had finished gagging and was trying to wipe his mouth with a trembling hand, she crouched down beside him so that she was at his eye level, and could meet his gaze properly whenever he chose to lift his head.

'He's gone now,' she said. She let her hand slide down to rest on Kokutou's upper arm, just below the shoulder. To his credit, he mostly didn't flinch. 'I dealt with him -- with Alba, that is. He won't be back.'

Either Kokutou knew better than to ask her for details, or he simply did not have the strength to think about Cornelius Alba any more than he absolutely had to. Regardless, he nodded in understanding, and scrubbed at his mouth a final time. Only then did he look up -- and his eyes went wide again as he remembered the reason why he had been and gone and thrown himself into danger in the first place.

'Shiki.' He looked around wildly, and tried to pull his legs under him to get to his feet. 'Where's -- '

'Calm down,' Touko ordered, keeping her voice firm as he fought against her restraining hand. 'You'll reopen that head wound of yours if you don't.' She jerked her head back, over her shoulder. 'Shiki's over there. She's out cold, but she's fine. She'll be in a hell of a lot better shape than you are when she comes to.'

Kokutou peered around her, over her shoulder, and finally spotted Shiki on the far side of the faintly smouldering crater that Araya had left behind. In her soiled white kimono, still clutching the hilt of her broken sword, she looked as quiet and peaceful as if she had fallen asleep on the grass. Touko braced for a struggle as Kokutou shuddered again, but then he relaxed in her grip, or at least stopped trying to stand up. In the absence of panic and terror, the pain in his head seemed to reassert itself, because he winced and lifted a hand to touch the bandage on his forehead.

'And...Enjou?' he said softly. It was a question, but from the lack of hope in his voice it sounded as if he already knew the answer.

Touko sat back on her heels, and shook her head. 'There's no one left.' She glanced over at the Ogawa building, surveying the cracks spreading across the central tower and the ghostly sparks and flashes emanating from the torn and exposed electrical wiring on the exterior walkways. The entire structure would be far too unstable for the police to try to enter it right away, which was just as well for everyone involved. 'A pile of corpses -- and a bunch of puppets with their strings cut.'

Kokutou let his hand drop. 'I'm sorry, Touko-san,' he said suddenly, looking up at her with more grief and regret than she had ever seen in his usually mild face. 'I shouldn't have....' His shoulders slumped, and he leaned back against the tree. 'I'm sorry.'

Looking at him, Touko felt an unexpected pang of sympathy for Shiki and Azaka, and their frequent and vocal complaints about Kokutou's all-too-exasperating personality. She didn't want his apology. She'd been the one foolish enough to bring him with her on that trip to confront Alba, for one thing. There was a risk that he would have been targeted either way, considering Araya's original intentions for Shiki, but she hadn't needed to put him in the line of fire quite so directly as she had. Even if she'd ended up rescuing him from the outcome of whatever misguided impulse had led him back to the apartment complex, the whole situation had been the result of her bad decisions, not his. There was no good way to explain it to him, though -- not in a way that he would understand, let alone accept -- and what would be the point of it, anyway?

'All of this was a long time coming,' was what she said to him. 'Everything catches up with you in the end.'

Kokutou still looked upset, which made Touko feel even more irritated with everything and everyone. She leaned forward and pushed herself to her feet, dusting off her hands as she did so. 'Speaking of which, we shouldn't stay here much longer. Can you stand?'

Judging by the sirens in the distance, they had a little time before the police arrived, but it wasn't the local law enforcement that had Touko concerned. The countless shields and barriers that Araya had erected around the apartments would have dissolved with his own dissolution -- if Shiki hadn't cut through most of them already -- and the Mages' Association would have Enforcers sniffing around the area before too long. She'd have to leave the other vehicles behind for now; it would be difficult for anyone to trace any of them back to her. Right now, she needed to be far away from this place. She was craving the peace and quiet of Garan-no-dou, where something was telling her that she had left important work unfinished.

(Her left eye ached. For a phantom pain, it was remarkably corporeal.)

Kokutou, stubborn as ever, politely refused the hand she offered to help him up, and instead chose to use the tree as a support as he got to his feet. Once he was on his legs, he looked much more confident in himself. So confident, in fact, that his gaze immediately went to the three cars, parked one behind the other, on the street facing the apartments. 'Do you want me to...?' he began, with a small gesture in the direction of the cars.

Touko almost laughed at him. 'You're not driving,' she said flatly. 'I'm driving, and you're in charge of Shiki. I don't want to think about what she'll do if she wakes up and you're not the first thing she sees.'

That prompted something closer to a smile, as she had intended. 'That's fair,' Kokutou agreed. Carefully, he let go of the tree and took a few steps towards her. But just as Touko was about to turn and lead him over to where Shiki lay, Kokutou stumbled, and she had to step forward and catch him before he ended up hitting the ground face first.

She expected another embarrassed apology, a quick protestation that he was fine, he really was, he'd just lost his footing, he'd be all right in a second -- but Kokutou didn't pull away from her. In fact, he seemed to be leaning into her, and then a heartbeat later his arms were around her in a desperately tight grip.

'Kokutou?' she said, uncertain. He didn't seem to be fainting, but with the way he was hanging onto her she couldn't support him easily if he was.

Kokutou had his face buried in her shoulder, and Touko felt as much as heard the words he mumbled into the fabric of her coat. 'I thought you were dead. I thought he'd killed you. I thought...oh, Touko-san, I'm so glad you're not....'

As his words trailed off into silence, Touko closed her eyes. She occasionally forgot that for all that he'd seen and all that had happened to him during their time together, Kokutou wasn't much more than a teenager still. And now he was reminding her that it was normal to be frightened when you saw someone die. It was normal to be relieved, even overjoyed, when you found out that they weren't dead after all. It was all so simple for him, in a way that could not be and had never been simple for her.

(Looking back, later on, she would come to realise that that was the moment she knew exactly how much she had lost when Araya had plunged his hand into her chest.)

'I'm not so easy to kill,' she said at last. It was probably for the best that Kokutou couldn't see the expression on her face as she said it. 'Though I suppose you've probably learned that much by now.' She gave his back a quick pat, and eased out of his embrace. 'Enough of that, all right? Let's get out of here.'

In spite of Kokutou's willingness to help, she wasn't about to saddle him with anything too physically strenuous. Over his protestations, it was she who picked Shiki up and hauled her over to the car, coughing a little from the dust that continued to settle over the building's foundations. Kokutou followed her with unsteady steps, holding Shiki's broken sword in one hand and gingerly carrying the snapped-off blade, wrapped in a handkerchief, in the other. When they reached the car, she made Kokutou toss the pieces of the sword in the front seat and settled him into the back seat on the passenger's side. Once he was seated, she took hold of Shiki and unceremoniously slung her across the remaining length of the back seat, allowing Kokutou to rest her head in his lap. It was an awkward and cramped arrangement for both of them, but it would do for the drive home.

'You're sure she'll be all right?' Kokutou said, as Touko opened the driver's side door.

Touko sat down and glanced in her rearview mirror, eyeing Kokutou's worried face. 'Of course,' she replied, as she slid the keys into the ignition. 'Like I said, she'll be in better shape than you are when she comes round. You'll probably get an earful from her when she sees what's happened to your head, so enjoy the moment while it lasts.'

Just as she started the car, she heard Kokutou murmur, more to himself than to her, 'I'll enjoy it more when she's awake.'

A light dusting of snow had fallen on the car windows, turning the world outside vague and foggy in the light of the streetlamps and the surrounding buildings. Mindful of her passengers, Touko drove more sedately than usual, but inside her head was a mess of scattered, fragmented thoughts. Kokutou probably would need to see a doctor about his head. She'd left her suitcase behind in the building's lobby, and that would have to be taken care of sooner rather than later. That broken sword of Shiki's was still too dangerous to allow it inside most of her warded boundaries, not unless she wanted to spend hours rebuilding them. Something would have to be done to arrange for proper disposal of the human remains inside the Ogawa apartments. She really should drive Shiki home instead of taking all of them to the office. There was no reason for her to keep that photograph any longer. She wanted a cigarette.

Kokutou. Shiki. Alba. Araya.

She glanced in the rearview mirror again. Shiki had not stirred. Kokutou's arm was draped protectively over her waist, and his head was nodding gently as he dozed in fits and starts, trying and mostly failing to stay awake enough to watch over her. Watching the two of them, Touko was suddenly seized by a wholly irrational urge to pull the car over, kick both of them out onto the wet street, and simply drive away from them, from her workshop, from Mifune, from everything.

Not now, she told herself sternly. Not yet. And in that moment, the terrible desire faded.

Not now. Not yet. But soon.