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mistaken for strangers

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The drive back to Tokyo occurs almost as if in a dream; the blue light of early dawn, the neon flash of billboards, vacancy signs, strafing long and illegible across the front windscreen. Akira dozes in the passenger seat, sickly looking, pulse beating a staccato in the tendon just beneath his jawline. Ryou watches him for a moment, one eye still trained on the road, and catches his own reflection in the rearview mirror – milky pale and translucent, something there for one moment and gone in the next, like mist blown across the surface of a lake.

His ribs still throb from the incident in the basement. He thinks, longingly, of his four-poster bed and of the mansion, desecrated now. Doubtless the infestation has moved on since his time spent in the hospital, demons being a transient species, but Ryou can’t bring himself to return there regardless. Something about the smell in the air – coppery and sharp, like an electrical fire – puts him on edge, makes his teeth ache.

Across from him, Akira snuffles in his sleep, eyebrows crinkling in pain. Ryou checks the time – six forty-five – and, not wanting to brave the inner city traffic, turns off of the highway and into a gas station, the Miata whirring to a standstill with a finesse that makes him smile despite himself. His lone comfort.

His passenger cracks an eye, regarding him blearily. ‘Where’re we?’ he rasps.

‘A few kilometers out from Misato.’

Akira groans softly, massaging his temples. ‘I feel terrible.’

‘Well, you did just have your arm ripped off.’

‘Yeah, I suppose you’re right,’ Akira chuckles, mirthlessly. He runs a hand over his forearm, the skin, for now, unblemished, tender. ‘It’s a little spooky.’

‘You’ll get used to it.’

‘I don’t want to get used to it,’ Akira says, and then, with great conviction, ‘Next time, I’ll be stronger. I swear.’

Ryou’s heart throbs with a familiar mixture of fondness and fear – fondness for Akira’s heroism, his determination, and fear for where it may take him, that it one day might vanish entirely. He does not want to be the one to have ruined Akira. This is not a sentiment of his unique to their crusade against demonkind. Ryou Asuka has always felt this way.

‘Come on,’ he says, and his voice does not betray his anxiety, ‘Let’s get something to drink.’

 

 

 

They fuck under a highway overpass where the winter snow has turned to sludge around their ankles, the pylons dripping condensation with a subterranean resonance. It is not the first time they have done this.

Satan hangs around, keeping tabs on the situation at hand. It’s not as if they have anywhere more pressing to be. The world should be winding down by now, they’ve surmised, its natural resources depleted; an inevitability only exacerbated by the efforts of their cohorts – not, strictly speaking, their fault. It is not unusual to see the corpse of a child sprawled on a street corner, ribs exposed, cheeks hollowed inward. Often a family member will lay comatose in the snow beside them, unable to muster the energy to drag the body to a burial ground. Satan’s presence will melt the frost away, and the poor thing will look up into the white-gold face above them and ask, ‘Are you an angel?’

Easily stirred to pity, Satan will reach down and finish the job their Father begun quickly and quietly, hands stained black with lifeblood.

They remember a peer of theirs who had done the same thing once, upon being asked such a question. Little girl, she had said, that is an insulting assumption to make. Satan cannot help but agree with her when they witness these people’s torment. Angels are cruel. Demons are merely savage.

Hope persists. There are rumors of a dark creature that stalks the rubble by night; wiry and hirsute, its rich pelt faded through in patches to reveal tawny, almost human skin. Some suspect it’s a mutation, born of the bombs they dropped many years ago, back when the city still had a name. A wolf from a children’s story. Lions and tigers and bears.

It cannot, the people say, be a demon. If it were, they’d all be dead by now. In many ways, it is, to them, a protector. A guardian spirit.

What they do not see is the pain in its eyes. They do not see it slink away to its hidden burrow, as the sun rises between crumbling skyscrapers, as it shrinks back into a form that, at least on its basest level, resembles a man. They do not see it finger its meager possessions as if searching for meaning in their curves and edges; a controller from a child’s video console, an unspooled cassette. An alice-band.

Satan has seen these things, and they wish that they hadn’t. It inspires in them an awful kind of tenderness as they now draw away, feeling the grit embedded in the palms of their hands, not at all resentful for it. Quite the opposite, actually.

Akira looks at them like they’re dirt on the bottom of his shoe. He wipes his mouth, that horrible, jagged gash, and spits red.

‘You didn’t have to hit me.’

‘You scared me.’

‘It’s hard to imagine anything frightening you.’

Satan shrugs, unable to explain. Neither of them look like themselves anymore. They’d surprised each other. Eventually their fighting had given way to something worse, Satan’s face pressed into a brick wall, Akira’s hands rough about their belt buckle. They’d climaxed embarrassingly quickly, touch starved, hating themselves, spitting out curses in their mother-tongue in the hope that the Old Man was listening. Akira had clamped a hand over their mouth, something in him intrinsically repelled by the sound of the language, its fricative sibilance. It’s as close as Satan’s ever gotten to a kiss in years.

‘I’ve missed you,’ they say, feeling sentimental, ‘You’re never far from my thoughts.’

‘I don’t think about you that often.’

‘Akira –’

‘Go,’ he says, waving an arm, ‘The Devilman Army patrols this route. They’ll be here any minute now.’ This is par the course with Akira. Shunning them. Seeking them out. Shunning them again. Satan thinks of the old adage: you can’t live with them… Their thighs ache and quaver. There is a ring of indents on their shoulder blade from where Akira had bitten them.

‘We don’t have much time,’ they say, ‘Soon He’s going to wipe the whole slate clean, start over. Come with me, Akira.’

‘Don’t do that,’ Akira barks, carriage rigid in anger, ‘Don’t – don’t talk like him –’

‘But I am him, Akira, and he is me.’ There’s a pale gash just below the wide plane of his pectoral, unfamiliar. Satan wants to press their lips to it. They reach out a hand; square palms, long fingers, not their own. Akira shrugs them off.

‘I don’t believe in any of that new age bullshit.’

‘You’re not understanding me.’

‘You’re right, I’m not. I’ve never understood you.’ Akira’s gaze is fierce, those terrible black eyes shining. ‘I cannot even begin to posit why you did what you did.’

‘Yes, well,’ Satan sighs, weary, ‘You never did have a great capacity for compromise.’

‘Cruelty, you mean.’

And Satan can’t help but smile at that, a quick and supple thing. ‘Sometimes it’s one in the same.’

Akira stares at them. His face is streaked with grease and ash, and there is blood crusted around his inner ear. His crinkled nose reveals the deep lines about his mouth and eyes, making him seem older, harsher. Still, he is beautiful. Satan doubts if that will ever change.

‘I’m leaving now,’ he says, turning away, ‘Don’t follow me.’

‘Of course.’

Akira’s footsteps echo in the silence; the harsh crunch of hard-packed snow, the thumping approach of the Devilman Army. Satan feels little remorse, and if they do it is only fleeting. They know full well that they will meet again.

 

 

 

There’s a bad taste at the back of his throat, coupled with a sour, brittle sensation that cannot be dislodged. He smokes to alleviate it, Pianissimo Peche, chocolate Sobranies. Leaning over the railing of his Kabukicho apartment, he watches the strangers filter past in the watery evening light, the clatter of the pachinko bars, girls dancing in the window displays of joshi-kosei clubs, and wonders at the depravity of the world. His father would tell him to stop being such a pessimist.

Ryou’s father is dead.

He will remember their time together in the songs that topped the charts that year; Live and Let Die, Killing Me Softly, Angie. Akira had been distraught when the Stones had cancelled their tour of Japan. He’s sitting in on Ryou’s couch right now, sifting through his cassettes, lamenting the absence of a television.

‘How are you supposed to know what’s going on in the world?’ he exclaims.

‘Read a paper.’

‘You sound like Miki’s dad.’

Ryou bristles at the mention of the Makimura girl, gritting his jaw.

‘There’s already a screen on every street corner,’ he mutters, ‘What’s the point of buying a TV?’ He doesn’t say, I find the world discouraging. He doesn’t say, I am frightened of humanity.

‘I suppose you’re right.’ Akira appears behind him, two beer bottles clutched in his hand. The balcony is barely large enough to accommodate the two of them. He leans awkwardly against the doorframe, head tipped back, eyes half-lidded, appreciating the summer heat.

Angie… Angie… when will those clouds all disappear?’ he croons, ‘Angie… Angie… where will it lead us from here?

Ryou is enamored. ‘You’re not much of a singer,’ he snorts, trying to hide it.

Akira shoves him playfully before passing over a bottle. Ryou fiddles with the seal, then stops to examine the blackened scabs marring his knuckles, a remnant of their last battle. A reminder of the others sure to come.

‘We don’t have much time,’ he says, ‘I can feel it. It’s all coming to a head.’

Akira shushes him, still listening to his song. Ryou is surprised by the lack of concern he shows, though logically he knows that he must be afraid. He takes a long drag on his cigarette, perplexed.

‘Do you ever miss them?’

‘Who?’

‘Your parents.’

Akira looks at him, his expression pinched, yet not unkind. ‘Do you miss yours?’

Ryou doesn’t quite know. His father had never been a prominent presence in his life, but he longs sometimes for their late night conversations, when Professor Asuka hadn’t been off on some dig, and Ryou hadn’t been out drinking and practicing handbrake turns in abandoned parking lots. Philosophical debates that could carry on for hours and hours, about life and death and morality – the types he can’t have with Akira without frightening him away.

His mother he scarcely remembers. She had been an earnest, bohemian woman, if his memory serves correctly; longhaired and perpetually dressed like a student protestor, in bright sarongs and jangling necklaces. He’s been informed that she was beautiful. He resents her for that. Resents her for the doleful, admiring looks he’d receive from family friends, colleagues, before – well. Before. They would take his face up in their hands and they would say, oh, he looks just like his mother and Ryou would recoil, sickened. Ryou has scrutinized himself in the mirror. He does not look like his mother. Hair a shade too pale, mouth a touch too hard. A poor imitation. He looks cruel.

He wishes, abruptly, that he looked like Miki Makimura. He wants her apple cheeks, the gentle slope of her neck. Wants her long, supple legs. If he were Miki, then maybe –

He has been silent for too long. Akira has grown worried. He smiles sourly, swilling his drink. ‘If I ever stopped to mourn, we’d both wind up dead.’

It’s meant to be a joke. Akira doesn’t laugh. Instead, he covers Ryou’s hand with his own, a movement that simultaneously grounds and disorientates him.

‘I miss them,’ he says, softly, ‘But more than that, I miss how things used to be, back when we were kids. Sometimes I feel as if we’re strangers.’

‘Things can never go back to the way they were.’

‘I know that.’ Akira’s voice is thick. ‘I know.’

He looks so tired. Sometimes Ryou forgets, in the depths of his own suffering, that Akira suffers too, perhaps more so than he. Inexplicably guilty, unable to think of anything better to do, Ryou kisses him. Later, he will chalk it up to the alcohol, the impending sense of dread, his own feelings of dysphoria. But the truth of the matter is that Akira Fudou is very charming, and very lonely, and Ryou Asuka has been in love with him for a very long time now – longer than even he is aware of. At the twilight of humanity, he allows himself this one thing. His lone comfort.

In the near dark, he misses his mouth, colliding instead with a bruise-tender cheek in a flurry of shuddering breath. Akira winces, pulling away, and for a moment Ryou thinks that he’s blown it – that he’ll hate him forever now, will always wonder just how long this dirty little secret had been festering between them, just how perverted Ryou really is. A small voice in the back of his mind, sexless, whispers to him: it’s better this way.

Put a headstone over your little infatuation and move on

And then Akira is kissing him back. No real movement to speak of, just a bare meeting of the lips. When Ryou opens his eyes, he is met by the sight of Akira staring back at him hazily, as if through some sort of gaussian screen. There’s a kind of stammering confusion in his gaze, as there was after he had awoken from his fight with Sirene, but there’s desire there too, in the widening of his pupils, in the lazy blinking of his eyes. It hits Ryou like a ton of bricks. Akira wants him – wants him in the way Ryou has for months – years – years within years – lives within lives –

Wants him back

Akira’s hand skirts his waist, feather-light, and he obediently draws them closer together, pushing his friend up against the balcony wall. It occurs to Ryou that Akira is taller than him now, a fact that is both arousing and a little humiliating. He tilts his head, licking into his mouth, and Akira responds with unabashed enthusiasm.

As matters progress, he guides them into the shelter of his apartment. Mick Jagger is still droning on and on, a heartsick whine.

Oh Angie, don’t you wish / Oh your kisses still taste sweet / I hate that sadness in your eyes…

Ryou fumbles with his belt-buckle, pressing the heel of his palm against Akira’s heaving stomach, feeling the hard muscle beneath it. Akira rubs his face, drowsily, against Ryou’s cheek, his breathing hot and damp in his ear. He’s mumbling something under his breath. It takes Ryou a beat to realize he’s apologizing, his voice hoarse with panic.

‘I’m – I’m sorry,’ Akira says, flushed from the cradle of his throat up to the tips of his ears. His eyes are filled with tears.

Ryou pulls away, filled instantly with regret. ‘No, it’s – it’s my fault, I shouldn’t have –’ Shouldn’t have pressured him, shouldn’t have guilted him – you knew you were in the wrong – you’re wrong wrong – wrong – you’re a monster

‘No, it’s not that, it’s –’ Akira runs a hand through his hair, steadying himself. ‘We waited too long,’ he croaks, after a while, and suddenly Ryou understands.

‘Oh. Well, I –’ He doesn’t know what to say. Akira’s right, of course. They waited too long and now there’s no time – no time left for lazy mornings, for dancing at clubs, for adolescence. No time for Ryou to enact his every fantasy. There’s just this.

He cups Akira’s neck helplessly and Akira, frightened, shivering, kisses him again. His mouth tastes like salt.

 

 

 

‘Did it hurt?’ he asks, ‘When you fell from heaven?’

Satan glances up from the dirt beneath their feet, wondering if he’s being facetious. But Akira’s expression is steady, his gaze fixed on the cool, silvery horizon. Tokyo is like a city built inside a snow globe, perfect and yet completely lifeless. Satan wonders how long it is until God comes down to reset the clock. A year? Three years? A decade?

They sigh.

‘No,’ they say, ‘Not in the moment.’

‘And after?’

‘A phantom pain.’ Satan shifts, wings ruffling in the cold. ‘At first, I didn’t even notice. But it got worse as time went on.’

‘Did Ryou feel it?’

‘He shouldn’t have.’ Satan purses their lips for a moment, thinking. ‘But then, he was always a troubled boy. Makes you wonder…’

They lapse into an uncomfortable silence. A wind coming in off the coast rumples the knoll they’re seated on, dust kicking up in little dervishes. Somewhere far off, a siren begins to wail, low and mournful. Radiation warning.

‘I used to think he was such a freak-show,’ Akira says, and his tone is warm, ‘My best friend in the whole world, and I worshipped him like some kind of hero, but he was a freak-show. Sometimes he’d…’ He scrunches his brow. ‘Sometimes he’d say things – do things to make me angry with him. I used to think he was punishing himself. But that was just you, wasn’t it?’

Satan is quiet, their eyes downcast. In their periphery they see Akira clamber to his feet, brushing the dust off of what little remains of his jeans. He moves like a predator, limbs unfolding, back a taut line. Satan half expects to feel claws when a hand latches onto their shoulder, gripping.

‘I hated you for what you did to Miki, and her family,’ Akira says, low, ‘I hated you for what you did to me. But most of all, I hated you for what you did to him.’

He retreats towards the bay, his pace lagging as if he were unable to support himself any longer. Satan feels the words bubble up between their lips before they can stop them, reedy and plaintive.

‘And now?’

Akira pauses slightly. ‘For you?’ he says, ‘For you, I don’t feel anything at all.’

And that’s the last Satan sees of him for a long time.