Onoda always chased. Manami didn't have time to think, much less choose.
If there was an impact, they didn't feel it. Falling through concrete and fire alone.
"I stopped by the convenience store."
The light changed in Manami's apartment when Onoda would visit. Blank white walls looked sunny under lamp-light. The moon hung further away in its soft blue. His jacket, hung next to theirs, a little tattered in comparison. And bags - some plastic. Others cloth. Beset by cartoonish charms and badges. His presence carried an interminable weight, standing as a fact in a room with ever-mutable size.
"Ooo," they answered, just as they had when allowing him inside.
Minuscule holes marred the store bag, wrinkled and old. Even before how carefully he held the box inside. Manami could see through it.
"What did you buy?" They smiled. He did too. They didn't know why he lied. Making it mutual was a point of acceptance. "You can't eat out all the time, Sakamichi. That's no fun."
"It's not that!" he said, airy and overwhelming. Manami kept their hands firmly on their lap. "I thought I'd bring a treat to celebrate."
"What?" they asked - more genuine than they realized.
Chestnut candies. Soft breads. Agonizingly high quality, gently marked with strokes and signature. Toudou had something to do with this. Onoda wasn't the type to buy gourmet. High-class went so far as early arrival for lunch in his schedule. He wouldn't have known the difference.
"It's been a year since you got out of the hospital." Walls shrunk in, burning their skin. He didn't look at them - couldn't, maybe. Just as well. They couldn't blink. "So I thought ... it might be nice. Since I never got to celebrate with you then."
Manami hummed and took one of the candies. "It's been that long already?"
It was strange to think about. They felt like it was only yesterday that they had died.
"Have you seen Glasses?"
Manami glanced from their broken fingers. Toudou stood prim and unreadable before them. They looked back down and threaded metal back through a loose slot.
"No," they said. "Was Sakamichi late? That's unusual."
"So you haven't looked in the waiting room."
A joint came loose. Porcelain cracked between their nails.
"Whenever you're done," Toudou said. "I do believe there's a job you'll be interested in tonight."
Toudou's office was bigger on the inside. Everything was, but in this case, the walls did not threaten to fall in and crush them within impossible dizzying distance. Manami could find themself lost, and just as easily climb out any window they found to first floor back alley.
But they didn't get lost if they could help it. Not in Toudou's domain.
What Toudou called a waiting room was not very good for waiting. Mannequins, fashion cut between traditional and modern - curious creatures were strung to the walls with eyes for everything that entered. Some people called it a show room. Manami thought it was more of a watch room. Everyone needed a surveillance system in these times. There were too many creatures that liked to think they could sneak through with threats and danger in their hands.
Onoda laid asleep on the couch. Wrapped up in a thousand more things than he should have ever touched. Dozens of threads hung off his fingers - impossible refractions of color that made it hard to look for too long. And others that strung up along his legs, and arms, and neck. They couldn't see where they went. What he was connected to. That wasn't what their power was for.
But though lines were easy to cut, it was a simpler matter for him to tie them back together. They didn't pretend to understand how. Not when it led to this. After all. He wasn't like them.
"He seems to have made another friend," Toudou said when they came back to the office. Filing through paperwork and runes they couldn't read. "If you'll handle this, I'll even fix your hand for you! No need to thank me ahead of time, though I'm sure you'd love to."
Manami laid down their arm before Toudou had a chance to finish speaking.
"Could you give it a little more flexibility this time? It keeps cracking down through the wrist joint."
Flowers laid in a mess on the bed.
Manami wasn't sure whose it was.
The name on the tag was familiar, but last they checked - no one with that name was ever going to be in a hospital again.
Their eyes burned no matter where they looked. Lines full of sharp blinding splendor invaded the being of every blank wall. Tranquil portraits marred by jagged edges that held them together. Thin tubes running from the side, so fragile as to snap at a touch. Their hands. Manami avoided staring at their fingers. Every face that entered was a coil of thread wrapping in upon itself. That helped. They were sure of nothing. But there was that want to cut and clear it away to a pure nothing, and soothe the choking sickness encroaching their skin.
Hair clung to their shoulders. No one let them have scissors after the pillow.
What drew Onoda to danger, Manami didn't know.
Someone so alive had no reason to linger around death - no need to visit or push. But they'd learned it was useless to run from such things, and accepted it as a mystery of the universe.
In his bag were news clippings. Transcripts of interviews. A beaten-up flip phone covered in stickers. Some of it was recognizable. Onoda was always looking around, curious with every new door opened to him. On the walk of the street, Manami could imagine the ghost of his memory - building up the courage at each corner to walk forward. Curious enough an image alone to follow down any rabbit hole.
When Onoda needed to find information, he'd bargain with just about anyone.
Manami had only one person for whom they would choose to indebt themself.
Miyahara was sharp with her hair cut short - a bob framing her face. The same lines that infected the scenery around didn't approach her. But her visage was overwhelmed with a stark speckled white. Staring made Manami's eyes burn and they refused to look away.
"I shouldn't be telling you about this," she said.
"I don't have anywhere else to turn," they said. Strange and sweet, the words weren't right for their tongue. "Please, rep?"
The echo of a ghost always caught her. Sometimes, they felt a little bad. In their head, unfamiliar eyes held snapshots of a girl whose shoulders would jolt at the title. A softer glow. None of this over-detailed sharpness, all the quality of a badly ported game screen.
They weren't the person she tried to save, but she let them in regardless. Even with the quiet wall of incessant bargaining.
"If you tell me," Miyahara said, "Why you need to find this building."
Manami laughed. "I can't find it otherwise."
"That's not a reason," she muttered into her tea.
From the opposite side of the table, Manami could feel a pane of glass sitting between them. Window sills and balconies, and all the staging of hospice sensibility. The heat of their mug seared their fingertips. That was being dead, they remembered.
It wasn't quite the same here, awkwardly stretched into someone else's skin.
"You only come around when you want something," Miyahara said. Matter of a fact. The hint of hurt she didn't want acknowledged. "So, I want to know what that is."
"I'd never say no to you, rep," they said. Blurted, more.
She coughed over the edge of her tea and pressed a napkin to her lips. Miyahara didn't answer.
Manami lied for her. "Too hot?"
"I boil the water too long for you. Such a bad habit." The edge of a smile escaped before she collected herself. "I'm surprised you haven't burned your tongue away."
They hadn't taken a sip of their own tea. "You know me, rep."
She had hummed.
And Manami stood outside the building, gauging what remained.
There wasn't much to fear from the gates. Faint bloodstains stained the sidewalks. To those who didn't know, it could have been excess oil clinging to concrete. They walked careful outlines, the ghosts of white chalk, and free-fall familiarity.
"It was abandoned. Perhaps the victims were drawn to the mystique of the place," Miyahara told them. "Deep in the city, few people are bound to question why they were out so late."
The gate had been properly locked down. Yellow tape only invited the kinds of people who were taken by the wind. But the feeling was still there. Long arms reaching through the gates. Manami ran their fingers down the iron to the chains. Open doors and broken locks were just as much of an invitation.
"Since none of the victims came from the same school, investigators assumed it was an online suicide pact. But they've not informed me of whether they found any information." Miyahara huffed. "They only told me to issue bans on sites and phone usage. As though that would fix the problem of curiosity."
Manami left the chains untouched and climbed over the wall.
Contributing to Miyahara's problems was a greater sin than most they could imagine.
"Is there any reason for that building in particular?" they had asked.
Onoda's papers had littered the table, cracking the thin glass between them. Her fingers running over thin print-outs, screenshots of sites she recognized from what investigators had put before her. Schools she managed and budgeted. Manami could lean over the table at what she pointed, and brush hands, and didn't jolt away.
"No," she said.
Her fingers lingered on a map a second too long.
"No," she had repeated, too firm.
Noticing the same hospital they did.
From the top of the gate, Manami stared over buildings cascading down a slope. Another hill rose up, rolling toward the sky. Close to the peak, the facility sat silhouetted by the setting sun. They knew it well enough.
"Will it help?" she'd asked.
All the papers thrown back into Onoda's heavy bag, Manami blinked. She looked young in that insecurity. The floor turned in beneath them.
"I know you've never been very sure about what happened that day," she went on. "But I don't believe knowing would help much at this point."
Manami didn't say no.
But lies were par for the course at this point.
"I know," they told her. "Don't worry."
On the inside of the gate, flowers cracked as their feet hit the ground. Fog floated up around their feet, the same fingers that had strained through the grating. Manami huffed a laugh against the cold, and took a deeper breath, freezing their lungs.
"You've done quite a nice job!" they called out.
Time had brought control, but the ice jolted an electricity through their body. Remembering they had blood. Remembering that was there. Remembering old wounds, the drag in their leg, their missing arm, their eyes lit up. With the memory that this could have been their body came the fact of death on all sides, wire and lightning to traverse, and Manami ran up the stairs two at a time. Stairs led to more stairs, climbing till teeth cut along their grin.
And they laughed like bells. "I really appreciate your hard work!"
Open air greeted them with wind - enough to blink away. Something swished through their hair as they turned their head. Knives stood dug into the wall, still humming from the impact.
"Oh?" they said.
Down past the railing, the bottom of the complex was no longer visible. Dozens of floors spiraled down below them. Black fog overtook anything beyond, but a clatter echoed bottom to top. Manami caught a flicker in the darkness. The structure of the complex altered. Railing unwound itself from the stairs to spin out and up. Layer after layer began to rise and they started running up again. Their feet slipped against the steps, not bothering to watch where they were running, too enraptured by the show to pay attention.
Manami imagined it had taken quite a bit of time to plan the choreography.
They could relate to that.
Railing jammed into the walls behind them, closer with every step. They clapped their hand against the steps to keep themself upright. Laughter buoyed them forward till stairs opened up, hollow and wide, to a veranda. More than the metal dancing up outside, the lights caught their eyes. A chandelier stood upside down in the middle of the floor. Above them, they could see a room. Familiar. Every hospital looked the same. The bed was empty, but a figure took a visitor's chair.
"You're not going to greet me?" they called up.
From the center, something hung over the chandelier.
A lanky figure. The pale face, the light hair, it didn't match its voice, or its eyes. But it sounded young. Young as life removed could be.
"Or do you not appreciate as much as you say you did."
Manami couldn't gauge the threads that kept it here. The hint of a frown twisted deep into their gut before they brought a wide grin to the table.
"It was kind of cool before I got here. Pretty pale ghosts are a bit cliche, though. Guess you didn't think this through as much as I thought you had!"
Glass crashed. The chandelier turned inward, crumpling upon itself like molten ash.
"You're not going to ask why I'm here?" Manami asked, leaning forward - batting their lashes.
The figure's face warped in whirlpools on its face. They could see black hair. Straight white teeth. Yellow light overtook as much as it could, but there was the hint of annoyance, and threat beneath.
"Another fool," it hissed.
"It's a job," they shrugged. "But we could always make it a bit more fun, if you'd like."
"You don't have a clue what I am."
"Well ..." Manami tapped their cheek. "I don't know a lot of things, but I have heard about the suicides around here lately. But you know ... I also know a lot about monsters. They're pretty good at making things look like what they're not."
The hint of a sneer made it through the dying light. "I wonder how you would know so much about those."
Onoda hadn't been tricked. If he had, he would be dead. After years near people like Manami, he knew better than to take anyone at face value. Despite how he remained.
But something kept him asleep. They didn't care to ask why. Not when they knew this type as well as themself.
"I wonder," they echoed, wide-eyed stare.
They took a step forward.
But their foot didn't land.
Manami lost balance. Losing sight of the monster, their gaze landed again on the ceiling. Translucent figures stared down at them, the one waiting child not deigning to look. Railings sped past and scene shattered. All that was left was them, and their surprised face, and - the floor falling beneath them. The rest of the metal shredded past them and their hair, their jacket, dizzying speeds as they fell. They should have counted steps, they thought, blinking at the long flight down.
"Th-thank you for helping me."
Manami wasn't reserved. They simply knew what they had to be. Years of hospitals and empty rooms had chosen that for them.
Sangaku, though -
"It's alright! There's no need to thank me." A wide grin. Coming out in open air, taking twice the air for every breath, unfamiliar with starch and iodine. "So, did you take my advice?"
"What? Oh! Yes, I mean, I-"
"We should go out somewhere!"
So overwhelming that it was impossible to say no.
Manami observed from a distance, someone else's hand holding onto Onoda's. The two of them seemed a good match - Sakamichi. Sangaku. They liked that. Lively and joyful, cycling, ignoring the fugue of death always closing in.
Though Sangaku feigned concern and know-how, surviving and health, it was Manami who handled putting that into action. So it felt strange when Onoda insisted on the jacket.
"You always wait for me in the cold like that," he said. "I don't want you to get sick."
Sangaku had lied - "I won't get sick!" Sangaku had laughed.
Manami was grateful for that much.
Jealousy wasn't a knife they paid much attention.
Glass fell like light, glistening through closed lids. Manami couldn't sleep forever.
Shaking loose someone else's memories.
"Are you alright?"
A train thrummed beneath. Maybe if they cut off that leg - Manami brushed away the thought. It wasn't theirs to remove. They'd deal with it. It was a fact of what had happened. Even if it meant trains over bikes.
"Yeah," they murmured. "Sakamichi."
"That's good ..."
He yawned. Their hand twitched and they kept their eyes closed. It would be easier if they didn't have to see those lines. Manami wasn't as good with him as Sangaku had been. They weren't so good at conversation.
"Will you wake up soon?" they asked.
"Yeah," he mumbled. It was tension, tightening on the ghost of an arm, that told them he was holding on. "It just seems really lonely ... it keeps telling me to go, but I thought maybe I could convince it to come along. If I could just get a promise ..."
Nails like knives, they could cut it apart in an instant, if they let go. Manami forced themself to breathe. Reminded themself it was a dream.
"Some people don't keep their promises." The words were acid on their tongue.
Glasses cut through their jacket. Warmth, that far away, through ice and leather and death.
"But you try," he said.
They woke up.
Ghosts screamed in their ears. The cold wasn't new. Hospitals were always that way. Down the halls, through victims and unlocked doors, coming closer every day. Tempting.
Every line demanding something from them, tightening around their skin.
"So here you were."
Their gaze swiveled.
A pristine face. A boundary risen around someone with a headband so gaudy - they broke into hoarse giggling.
"It appears your family has been hiding your presence here for quite some time." A voice to brush off their shaking, a hand to wave away any concept or ridicule or danger. "Though such a thing would never be a problem for one such as I."
"Mhm," they said - more unused to their voice than they realized. "Did you know it's after visiting hours?"
"Now, now, investigations do have the right to trump such absurd rules sometimes. Especially when my assignment happens to be endangering a hospital!"
Manami didn't know what they had to do with anything of the rest of the world. Laying in a hospital bed, growing hair and ghosts to live in, born to nothing else.
"My name is Toudou Jinpachi. My clients have been quite concerned about your whereabouts. Thankfully, it was in my best interests to search for the heir of such a deadly family."
Manami woke up.
"It's fortunate you left your arm with me."
Manami - tried to move their head. There was a body of some sort there. Attached to them. All that moved were distant fingers, scratching along a desk.
"It would have been completely shattered in the fall," Toudou said, never crouching, never proffering a hand. Manami preferred that. "You do realize how rare the enchantments for those are, correct?"
They managed a hum.
"If I have to build one from scratch, I'll be taking one of your eyes."
A slight nod, that time. They would have preferred that. Less lines - and they never quite enjoyed having another person's blood mixing alongside theirs, thin as it was.
"I presume you have not handled your ghost?"
A shake, now. Needles were stabbing up into their feet. The complex was so much smaller now. Whoever it was, it was an impressive showing, even if some aspects were less than inspired.
"Hmph." Toudou spun a lock of hair in the moonlight. "Its source was never here to begin with. I doubt you'll have much longer. Unless you plan to let him sleep forever."
That made Manami's blood run cold.
"But perhaps you have a better idea of where it remains, now?"
They said, "It'll be finished tonight."
"This apparition appears to be attracted to you." Toudou stared through documents, and notes, their vague recollections and messy hand-writing. Their fingers still didn't move well. "The scent of death is strong in this room. It believes it is returning home. That's common within hospitals, but not to this extent."
Manami said, "I thought so."
"That happened before," they said. Not to them. That wasn't them. Whoever it was, they weren't there anymore. "Someone else handled it for me."
"I see," Toudou muttered.
They'd been asleep for 20 months.
It was a little funny. If Sangaku was there, they'd have laughed.
Manami, for who they were - and weren't - huffed an attempt.
"It will have to be you," Toudou concluded.
They stared straight ahead. The lines made a little more sense now.
"Of course it'd be me," they said. "Who else?"
Getting into hospitals after-hours was more difficult than Toudou had made it seem, over a year ago. Manami was not so inconspicuous, armed with a knife to a single limb. But they knew well what a perfect place to sleep a hospital made.
So they kept their eyes open, and broke into a neighboring office building.
It was easier to keep track of people like that. The mind was a greater window when someone was that desperate to see more of the world. Embracing that made an old ache come back, settling heavy in their ribs.
But they could feel the bruise of Onoda's glasses.
Over-priced left-overs sat in their tiny fridge.
There was something to look forward to, so Manami kept forward, and used what they had.
"Why would he want to return to you."
Manami hummed. "I couldn't really say."
"Even you must know it's better to sleep. Better than living around such death. Around such murderers."
They laughed. "That's true!"
"Then why do you insist on pushing me?"
They stopped, door to the roof, and pushed it open. Winds cut through to frame them, and Manami stared straight at the hospital - through curtains, one window, to a sleeping form.
"Because I don't care," Manami said.
"You don't care for his safety?" A voice echoing. "I could do anything I pleased to him. Like those he insisted on investigating."
"Of course I care!" They didn't tend to feel much. Anyone who could have had long since left them. But unpracticed as they were, it was a spark of insult and quiet pride, and it made them smile. "I'm just too selfish otherwise."
Sangaku was the one who let them be free.
Manami was enough of a person, when they'd share blood and blades like the breeze.
As long as no one saw.
Sangaku smiled, even when he could see. Scarlet trickled down through stones, ruby river down the cobbled slope to Onoda's feet. His face - confused and beautiful and more dangerous than anything they'd ever seen.
Anyone who saw had to die. Alive or dead, it was only supposed to be one way or the other. That was a rule. Monsters had no other way to survive.
The one who ran -
It took a long time for Manami to admit it was them.
Toudou gave them a knife.
But they didn't need that for much.
"Hospitals are a bit too confined for us, don't you think?" they asked, waving fingers and hair. The breeze burned and Sangaku would have loved it. Manami didn't know how they felt about it. Not yet.
The apparition didn't speak, a fog of darkness, hiding its lines deep within.
"Well," Manami said. "Whenever you're ready!" Fingers winding up through their hair. Raking the knife through, uneven strands falling against their ears. The wind carried away what it could, and their hands fell empty.
Their fingers didn't just break.
Their left hand warped in on itself, as they pushed back, skin crawling up and away, muscle splitting and - they grinned. Bone could cut. Anything could cut. Manami twined its threads around their splintering bone, and pulled.
Darkness ripped itself to nothing. Manami fell to the ground. It was hard to breathe.
But they were alive.
Letting their eyes close -
They wouldn't run again.
Manami could recognize the ghosts. They had the same faces as the dead attached to those flowers - the newspapers Onoda had been gathering for weeks. They could see so much, but never acted soon enough.
But maybe he'd forgive them.
Or maybe that was why he liked them.
Manami couldn't tell.
It was one line to cut to nothing. Their fixed arm cracking again. And ghosts fleeing as though they remembered who they were. If it had no followers, it didn't have much power. In the distant hospital room, they could almost see a twisted boy glaring.
"Taking everything from others," a quiet hiss on the horizon. "What right do you have?"
"Only at much as you do," they said.
He didn't answer that.
Manami pulled out their phone. There was already a text. Hours past.
Toudou said you'd gone out on a job? Buzzing in their hand in the next moment. If you want to we can get together another night!
They wondered how long he'd slept. If he'd broken free on his own. They shook their head. They were here because they were selfish.
we ll have them tonight ^^
They turned it off.
Those words didn't bother them too much. Manami made a living out of taking.
"I was so scared."
Those words had sunk into their skin a dozen times. It was a fact of his stare. Something they couldn't understand. Something they knew too well - why he always retied all those broken threads, how he could hold onto so many without being torn apart by their pull.
The two of them laid out across Manami's floor to avoid the heat. Lights turned out to the moon flooding the room. They didn't bother to mention how cold they were.
Of me? But they never asked that. They asked, "Of what."
Onoda sounded so surprised. "That you'd die." Speaking as though the answer was obvious.
"I did," they thought aloud. Too blunt.
He stared at that. They couldn't move. Frozen in unfamiliar fear. Terrified of how much he could care, about anyone and everything. He reached out. Across the floor, till his knuckles brushed their cheek.
"I'm sorry," he whispered.
He couldn't have believed them.
"It's okay," they said.
Sometimes, when they put on his glasses as a joke, it felt like some of the lines around died away. Looking through those lenses - it meant his eyes were always clear. Terrifying and safe to meet.
Onoda didn't ask why they ran away. Why they fell. Maybe he could figure it out. As much as they could.
He'd gotten better at investigating, after all. Working for Toudou and other magicians without a hint of magic for himself, saying it was only to pay off that debt between himself and Miyahara. It hadn't made him any better at lying. Warmth burned down through ice and left them sweating.
Sangaku would have liked this. Of all the strange things that happened, of all the oddity that meant existing, they were sure of that fact. Manami closed their eyes to his warmth. Maybe it was enough that they'd given the chance to run.
"I'm glad you're still here," Onoda said.
They mumbled. "I am too."