When Shiranui left, you thought you’d finally wake up. It certainly felt like waking up. Your eyes opened, and slowly everything went from blurry to back in focus, the memories of what you’d just experienced still a mess in your head.
It was seeing Kazuma that made you start to wonder whether or not you had. You’d... you’d heard him. You remember that much. But still. He’s right in front of you now, all grown up and looking at you like... like he’s scared. Even though Shiranui’s gone. You don’t know who you’re trying to reassure when you reach up to touch him - him? Yourself? Both of you? - but it doesn’t matter because as soon as you get a look at your hand, you stop.
Your fingers don’t look right. It takes a second for you to realize it’s because of the nails - they’re long and sharp and and ash-black. Not just the nails, but the tips of your fingers are all that same color too. When you realize, you lurch back, on the vague fear that it might be dirty or contagious, or that you might hurt him with how sharp they are. But the shift in weight is greater than you expected, and you nearly fall over backwards, only staying up because he grabs your wrist and holds you up with an anxious, “Hey, careful!”
As your awareness of your body grows, you realize how much everything hurts. Your back is all knots and cramps, and you head is pounding with a dull but ceaseless ache. Absently you reach up to touch it, and feel something... something hard growing out of it. Like wood, maybe, but smoother. And then something twitches, you feel it, but it’s not your arms or legs. You’re watching them. Trying to piece together your body again. Until you see a tail coiling around you.
Oh, you realize with something like relief, as a shiver runs down your spine and you spot the tip of a wing unfolding behind you. Now you understand what’s happening. You didn’t wake up after all.
But before this thought can sink in, Kazuma says, again, “Hey? Look at me!”
You blink, and turn back towards him. It’s not the first time you’ve dreamt about seeing him grown. It’s not even the most realistic a dream has ever felt. Even without Shiranui, everything feels shrouded and far away. He’s right in front of you, but his voice feels so distant. It might have been funny, if he didn’t look so scared. With alarm, you realize he looks like he’s about to cry. Whether it’s a dream or not, you don’t want to see that.
He’s not holding your wrist anymore. Now he’s holding your hand, tight enough that it hurts a little. “I- look- it’s gonna be okay, alright?” He grabs hold with his other hand too, like he’s begging, “So don’t- don’t just disappear.”
Ah... right. You remember saying all that, with a flush of shame. If you’d known you were going to still be here, you wouldn’t have dared. He didn’t need to feel responsible for you. Still, you try to reassure him, and say, “I won’t.” The words don’t come out quite right. Your teeth are bigger than you remember. Sharper. They clip against each other when you try to talk. But you think it’s still understandable.
His eyes fix on yours, and you- you doubt again. There’s nothing vague or distant about the intensity in his stare, or the strength in his grip on you. His next words are both plea and command. “Promise me.”
You waver, a little, but you can’t say no to him. You never could, really. So you nod, again, and say, “I promise,” as carefully as you can. He finally starts to relax a little, when his eyes suddenly jump behind you. Before you can even turn, someone’s grabbing your arm and pulling you to your feet. It takes a moment to recognize him, and when you do you’re ashamed. He’s been your chauffeur for years, how could you forget even a second? You hadn’t even heard him come.
“Kazumi-sama, we need to leave right now,” he whispers, “I have the car in the back. We’ll get you out without anyone seeing you.”
“Wait a minute,” Kazuma says, starting to stand too, “I still haven’t-”
“Do you have any idea what would happen if this-” he shakes you a little with that word, “-gets out? Even Onimaru-sama just barely managed to crack down on the press.”
Kazuma wavers from the sound of your father’s name. Then he swallows and says, “Let- let me go with him then. Someone needs to make sure he’s okay.”
“His family will take care of that,” your chauffeur says, and has already started to turn you around and lead you away. A part of you is surprised he can - everything about you feels so heavy, he must be stronger than you thought.
But mostly, you try to focus on looking behind, and giving Kazuma as reassuring a smile as you can manage. “Don’t worry, I’ll be fine.”
He doesn’t say anything back, just watches you go. You hope, as your ushered out the door, he'll stop once you're out of sight.
The ride home is a blur, the steady rumbling of the engine and scenery flashing by jolting to a halt when you reach the house. It’s completely quiet inside. No one’s in the halls. Now you’re sure you’re dreaming, you don’t remember ever seeing it like this before. There’s always relatives and servants going about their business, with someone to greet you and direct you to where you’re supposed to be next.
Though, you suppose your chauffeur is still taking care of that. He half-pushes you down the halls, to a wing normally reserved for guests. For a moment you wonder if he’s taking you to see Verno, but the room he leaves you in is empty.
“Wait here,” he tells you, “Onimaru-sama will be here in a moment.”
You can’t even muster up enough energy to be afraid. At this point, it’s going to be a typical nightmare. You at least try to sit properly, though you have no idea what you’re supposed to do with the... with your... you don’t even know how to think of them. The tail coils around you, and looking at it more closely, you can see better how it resembles Shiranui’s. It’s not exactly the same - it feels rougher. Like it’s unfinished, somehow. But there’s still ridges along it, and it still ends in a blade, almost like a scorpion.
The fact that it looks so much like Shiranui’s makes it feel even less like a part of you.
Though another possibility occurs to you. Maybe you’re not dreaming. Maybe he just didn’t actually leave. Maybe he’s receded, the way you had been, so he could hide from Kazuma and... his teammates. You don’t remember their names right now. But any second, maybe he’d come back, and finish...
You close in on yourself, feeling yourself starting to shake and trying desperately to hold it back. You don’t want to doubt what Shiranui said, in the last fight. That he didn’t blame you anymore. That he’d go back to Cray and try to make things right. But- but this is his tail. His wings, his claws, his teeth, his horns. Your hand is trembling when you reach up to touch your face. Did your skin always feel like this? You can’t remember. You tried to think about your own body as little as possible even before, and now every part of you is different and you don’t know why . When did all of this even happen? It couldn’t have been like this the whole time, your father never would have let you leave the house if-
That thought brings everything crashing home.
Your father was going to see you like this.
You don’t breathe. You don’t even think. You just stand, turn, and bolt for the door, only listening to every nerve in your body begging to just get out .
He’s there when you open it. Like he was waiting for you to try and run. Was he? His face is stony, and you step backwards, somehow managing to sit back down instead of crumbling to the ground. Even then, the silence continues for a few seconds before he walks towards you and abruptly grabs one of your horns. He yanks it, jerking your whole head, and when it doesn’t budge, grabs the base with his other hand and tries to snap it off. You keep your teeth grit as long as you can, but your head already hurts, and whether this works or not you can’t help but cry out.
“...So this really wasn’t some kind of stunt,” he says, something between awe and repulsion in his voice as he lets go of you, “What the hell did you do to yourself?”
“I- I don’t know,” you answer, because what else can you tell him? “It just...”
“How can you not know ?” He snaps, yanking on the horn again. “Do you have any idea how much trouble you caused? That tournament was being broadcast live .” Finally, he lets go. You keep your eyes down. You don’t really want to see how he’s looking at you. “I’ve already spoken to the coordinators. They’ll explain it was part of the show. Special effects, that’s all. You better be grateful for their understanding.” You nod, still silent, still keeping your eyes fixed to the floorboards. Then, he slowly kneels down, and squeezes your shoulder. “And don’t worry about school. I’ll tell them you’re sick and need to stay home. You don’t have to go out anywhere while you look like this.”
You think he means that to be comforting. Hands still folded carefully on your lap, you ask, “...’While I look like this’?”
“It’s going to be expensive,” he says, picking up your hand to look at your claws more carefully, “But I’m sure I can find people willing to fix you and keep quiet about it.” He lets go, switching to running a finger along the length of one of your horns. “Cattle are dehorned every day. I don’t see why this should be any more complicated than that.”
You just stare, straight ahead, even as he moves around you, examining where your wings are growing out of your back and the base of your tail. “These might be more complicated... we’ll need an actual surgeon,” he says, but his voice sounds tinny and muffled. Actually feeling his hands on those parts of you drives home that that’s what they are. Parts of you . You can feel through them, little itching pricks as he runs his hands through your feathers, and a faint warmth and pressure as he squeezes your tail.
And he’s just talking about... cutting them off? Just like that?
...Your head hurts.
Finally, he stops touching you, and starts towards the door. You catch him absently rubbing his hands on his sleeves. “I’ll start making calls. Until we get this taken care of, you’re not to leave this room. Understand?”
What else can you do? You nod, and he smiles at you briefly before leaving. When the door closes, you can hear him latching it from the other side. You wonder if he’d have done that if you hadn’t tried to leave earlier. You suppose it doesn’t matter.
...It’s a good thing, isn’t it? That he’s actually going to get someone to help you, and not just write you off as irreparable. You should be relieved. Thankful.
You try to understand your hesitation. But all you can grasp is a vague unease, and that’s nothing you haven’t felt for years now. You sigh softly. You’re being stupid. It is a good thing, and that’s all there is to it. After all, you. promised Kazuma, didn’t you? That you wouldn’t disappear. And if you ever want to see him, you need to look normal again. Your father is right. You can’t go outside looking like this.
With a start, it occurs to you that you’re thinking about this like it’s all real again. Like it matters. But you don’t know how else to think of it. In the first place, you don’t even know when you started dreaming, or when you might have woken up. If you dreamed everything Shiranui did, or if this is a new delusion you’ve been thrown into to keep you quiet, or if... everything was real, right up to this moment.
Maybe you should call Verno. She was Diffridden too, maybe she can explain some of what happened to you. But when you reach for your phone, your pocket is empty. All of them are. Did someone take it...? Or did you not have a phone with you to begin with? You look through the same pockets, again and again, until tears start to form.
You can’t remember . You can barely remember anything . It’s all muffled and distant and overridden with feelings and memories that you know aren’t yours. And the one thing that stands out most clearly is the part that’s hardest to believe could have really happened.
You move back until you hit a wall. Having something solid behind you feels reassuring, even if the wings make it uncomfortable. Pressing your head to your knees, you try to keep quiet. You feel that tail coiling around you again, and for a second you think to jam your claws into it. To make it stop moving. But you don’t want to touch it. It’ll be gone soon. Better to think of it as little as possible until then.
Most of the time you spend waiting, you spend it alone. Your father doesn’t let the servants come near your room. He says the fewer people know what’s going on, the better. Your mother is the one who brings you food, fretting over you every time she comes in.
“Oh, my poor dear,” she says, touching your face and horns with fluttering hands that never seem comfortable in any one place. “Don’t worry, it won’t all be hard to fix. We can do something about your nails easily enough. And your teeth... well, maybe I can convince him to leave those alone. They aren’t so bad, really.” But the strained look on her face says otherwise. She’s trying, though.
But you find other things about you have changed too. You’ve never really enjoyed eating - it seemed like everything you eat at home tastes the same, no matter how healthy you’re told it is - but now you’re finding it even harder than before. Vegetables are the worst. You can barely swallow a few bites before you start feeling sick. Meat is easier, but it’s almost charred, they cook it so long here. When you try to ask your mother to bring you something more rare next time, her smile straightens into a tight line and she just says, “This is how you’ve always liked it.” You don’t ask again.
It does make you do worry, though, in all that time alone. What do your insides even look like now? Have they changed too? You don’t know. You can’t know, of course. Maybe you never will, if you’re careful enough. Whether that would be better or not, you can’t decide.
You try not to sleep much. Dreams only confuse you more. But when you don’t sleep, everything twists and blurs around you anyway. You lose track of time and words people say to you, and before you know it you wake up and realize you’d fallen asleep at some time without even realizing. There’s no way to just... be sure of whether or not that’s happened now. You want to drive your claws into yourself, to force yourself awake if it is. You don’t. Your father is already so upset with you. If this is real, you don’t want to give him another reason.
It makes it hard to keep track of the days, though. You’re not even sure how many passed before your father announces that he’s found someone willing to remove your horns at least. And for all your hesitation, for all your uncertainty, you’re glad to hear it. You don’t know if your promise with Kazuma really happened, but if it did, you have to get back to him soon. You don’t know how long he’ll be willing to wait, but every minute longer is that less likely.
When it’s finally time, you’re brought to one of the basement rooms. The more privacy, the better, you father says. Not that it’s not much different than the guest room. It’s well lit, and the floor and walls are all good wood. The only real difference is the the lack of windows, and the furniture. There’s a workbench off against the left wall you recognize, and a long, low table in the middle that you don’t. You do your best not to think too much about the straps fixed to it, and to look calm and composed when your father introduces you to the- the surgeon, is how you’re trying to think of him. It’s an older man, but younger than your father, you think. His eyes widen when he sees you, but when he speaks, it’s to your father. “I’ll be honest, I wasn’t expecting them to be that big. It’s going to take more time than I thought.”
“That’s fine. As long as it gets done,” he says.
The surgeon nods, and then turns back to you. “Would you mind sitting down for me?” You do as you’re told, your wings folding close to you more out of instinct than a conscious choice. You try not to move or think when he injects you with a sedative. “Don’t worry,” he says, “With the nerve blocker, you won’t feel a thing. It’ll be over before you know it. Now lay down.” But even as you do, the haze of the drug starts to set in. And as soon as he attaches the restraints to your wrists and ankles, your heart picks up. Your body feels too heavy again. You can’t move . You make a choked noise in the back of your throat and try to tell him to undo them, but the words come out thick and slow. He shakes his head. “No, no, I need you to be still for this. We don’t want any accidents.” Your tail moves, you think, but it’s as slow and heavy as the rest of you feels.
Another injection, then, this one closer to the base of your right horns, and then he steps out of view. Everything looks... gray. As promised, you don’t feel anything, but that’s not a comfort. It’s terrifying. You can hear and see, but you can’t feel, or move, or speak. For some reason, you desperately want to hear Shiranui’s voice. You haven’t felt him at all since he left. If you’re going to feel like this, you at least want him here. You don’t want to be alone with it.
Despite the drugs, you find yourself squirming. Thrasing, really, as you trying to pull out of the straps. Even crying, you think. Why did he have to leave you completely? If he were really sorry, why didn’t he stay with you, help you understand what he did to you? Instead all you hear is this stranger’s voice, telling you to stop, you’re making it harder, and then another needle and the fog deepens and you can’t breathe -
When you wake up, everything hurts. Your whole head is in splitting, blinding pain, spiking behind your eyes. But your horns are gone. All that’s left are four scarred circular patches and the hair around them cut shorter than you’d like.
“There,” your father says, and when did he get here? How long has it been? You don’t know, you don’t know, you can’t not know anymore. You can’t. “It’s like it never happened.” He reaches to pat your head, and you recoil.
“Don’t-” you say, still trying to feel for what was taken from you. Did you ever really get to see what they looked like? You don’t think so. You weren’t allowed a mirror. Parts of you are just gone, and you never even saw them.
“I believe a ‘thank you’ is owed,” he says, stiffly. “Now, I’ll let you rest for a day or so, and then I believe I’ve found a lead on someone willing to remove the... the rest.”
Your wings shudder, tightening to your sides. Your fingers keep running over the scars on the sides of your head, scratching, picking. These will heal, someday. And then there won’t be any proof this happened at all. It’ll be gone. You’ll be left to wonder, again, if it was real, and never know for sure.
And now he wants to trap you in the dark, again, and when you wake up you’ll be different, again, and you won’t have any way to know if you’re remembering anything that’s happened right. “...N-no.”
“I... I don’t want to do this,” you say, claws digging deeper into the side of your head, even though it only makes it hurt more, “I can’t, not right now, I-”
He grabs one of your wrists, twisting so you have to face him. “Would you think about someone other than yourself, for once in your life?”, he snarls at you. You’ve always had the same color eyes. You wonder if that’s changed too now. Shiranui’s were such a pretty blue. “Everything you’ve ever asked for, I’ve made sure you were able to do it. You wanted to put everything on pause for a few months to play some card tournament, fine. You asked to hold off on succeeding me until you were done with college, I allowed it. You want to fly all the way out to Europe on some kind of whim, no one stopped you. And now here I am, bending over backwards to get you help, and you want to drag this out even longer, for what ?”
‘Because I don’t know what’s happening’, you want to tell him. ‘Because even if you manage to mold my body back to the way it was, it still won’t ever really be the same as before. Because the more I try to bury it all, the less anything feels real, and I’m so scared nothing is anymore.’
But one look at him, and everything goes limp inside you. You can’t argue against him. You’ve tried, so many times, and you know it won’t work. And you don’t want to admit these things to him and just have them dismissed.
“...I’m sorry,” you finally say. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean it. You’re right.”
After a few moments, he lets go of your wrist.
“As long as you understand,” he says, “I’m sure this is all very upsetting for you. But it’ll all be done with in just a few days.”
You nod. When he leaves, you move to the futon and lie down. You don’t want to sleep, but you don’t want to have to keep yourself up anymore either. You just stare straight ahead of you, and before you realize it, you’re scratching at your scars again. The pain, at least, feels real.
When you’re brought down to the basement room again, you tell yourself over and over to just do the same thing as before. Stay composed. Just let them do what they’re here to do. It’s two people this time - a man and woman, already in full surgical garb. They must have been told what they’re here to do, but they still looked stunned when they see you. Your wings are still tightly folded, and your tail almost wraps around your legs. Your father whispers something to them first, and the man nods.
“Don’t you worry,” he says, as your father leaves the room, “You’ll sleep through the whole thing. When you wake up, everything will be fine.”
You step towards the table again and try to remember what you promised Kazuma. You try to tell yourself you can’t keep it any other way. You try to grit your teeth and take the next injection and let one more person tamper with your body.
You grit them, and grind them, and watch him fill the syringe carefully.
And when he touches your arm to roll up your sleeve, everything you’ve been telling yourself falls to pieces because you just can’t do this .
Your tail twists and lashes up, smacking the man’s arm away. You weren’t thinking- you didn’t mean to catch him with the blade. He hisses, dropping the syringe to grab onto the slash in his arm. He’s bleeding, you realize with a light-headed feeling. You didn’t- you didn’t cut him that badly, did you? Your tail is lashing back and forth behind you, like it’s anxious to strike again. Is that how you feel?
You’re so preoccupied with trying to understand what you’d just done, you don’t notice the woman running past you, out the door. She’s shouting something upstairs, you think. You feel a moment of relief when you hear the door open again, thinking she’s leaving, and this man will soon follow. What happens instead is, more people come. You recognize them in a vague, dizzy kind of way. Cousins, you think. Maybe one is an uncle. They grab you, or try to, and that same refusal surges, and you beat your wings back, just trying to stop them from getting any real grip.
You try not to use your tail again. You don’t want to hurt them, really, they’re only trying to help. They think they’re trying to help. But when one of them manages to lunge for the syringe that fell and tries to grab you, instinct kicks in, and your tail slashes an arc around you. Someone screams, and another gasps, and you take the chance to bolt for the opposite end of the room. With your back to the wall, you can see them clearly. You got one of them across the chest, you realize with revulsion. He’s not the only one hurt, but he’s clearly the worst. He must have been who screamed. There’s blood on them, and on the floor, and surely on you too now.
But despite how disgusted you are with yourself, how much you hate that you did any of this, you don’t budge from the wall. You’re not going to let them do anything to you. If nothing else, you can at least make sure of that.
Finally, they all clear out. Some scramble for the stairs, others back out slowly, eyes fixed on you. But they do all go. When the door shuts, you think you hear something thudding against it from the outside. Are they... blocking you in? You blink, and find yourself starting to giggle. Why not? There is something funny about it, that they expect you to go charging up out there when you had the chance and ran for the other end of the room instead.
You keep giggling, even as your legs give out and you slide down to the ground. When you notice all the tools the pair your father brought left down here, you think about them trying to sneak back down for them and giggle harder. It only starts tapering off when you do see the blood on the end of your tail. There’s a lot of it after all. You think you felt some get on your back... the thought of it drying in your hair or feathers makes you want to gag. Even the scent of it is trapped in the air with you.
You let out a breath, and let yourself lean back. Your tail coils around, settling across your lap. You just don’t know what to do anymore. Or what your father’s going to do to you, now that you’ve made such a mess. But at this point, you don’t think there’s enough left in you to care. Whatever it is, it couldn’t be worse than what he was already trying to do.
And... and as for what you promised Kazuma, well... at least, by now, he was probably expecting you’d disappoint him.
Even as you watched your older brother being hauled off, you knew it was a mistake. You should yell, make that guy let him go, convince Chrono and Taiyou to help get him away. But you were stuck watching, paralyzed by the way the guy threw ‘his family’ in your face. The rejection of your entire existence wasn’t new. But it still turned your heart and legs to lead, too heavy to even think about movement.
It was so ridiculous. You could face off against some evil alien dragon okay, but you crumbled over a few words from someone who just worked for those people. But however ridiculous it was, it kept you silent while your brother was forced to leave.
For the next week, you tried to keep an ear to the ground. See if there was any kind of news about him. But while the videos from the fight got up online, few stayed up long. Any articles about the finals glossed over the way his until-then subtle transformation practically exploded in those last two fights, simply referring to the ‘thrilling effects’ that highlighted the climax. Most people bought the explanation that it was all holograms and costuming, the occasional conspiracy theorist laughed out of the discussions. Even the most persistent posters wound up going silent with no warning. If there’s one thing the Onimaru family’s good at, you guess, it’s cover-ups.
Mostly, you wait to see if he’ll get in touch with you first. You didn’t have time to give him your phone number, but there’s ways he could find it anyway. It was on your registration form for the U20, he could contact them about it. Hell, you told Anjou to give Kazumi whatever information he wanted if he tried to ask.
When you don’t even get that much, you try reaching out to his teammate. Verno Fahrenheart should be freed from her Diffride, and the Onimaru family shouldn’t have any problem with her. But when you find her e-mail address and send her a message, she tells you she hasn’t heard anything either. She also sends you his cell number, which you appreciate, but no matter how many times you try to call it, no one answers. That’s when your worries start to flare into actual panic. Did they take his phone from him completely? Or are they screening his messages? It was made pretty clear they still don’t consider you worth having around him, you wouldn’t be surprised.
Of course, there’s another possibility - that he’s ignoring you on purpose. But if you start thinking that way, you may as well doubt everything he said in those few minutes he was actually himself. And when you remember how hard he was straining during the fight to talk to you, and how empty and lost he looked after, even you can’t really believe that was all just some elaborate act. Besides, Verno said she hasn’t been able to reach him either.
So. He can’t contact you, or anyone else that you know, for whatever reason. Which leaves you with two choices. Either you can keep waiting around until he shows up somewhere again, or you can go see him yourself.
There’s no choice at all, really. You’ve wasted too much time sitting around and waiting for him already.
Chrono and Taiyou both offer to go with you when you tell them what you’re planning, but you turn them down. You’ll be outnumbered either way, and at least if you go alone, you should be able to sneak around more easily. Chrono’s stoplight hair doesn’t exactly lend itself to stealth.
That’s the excuse you give, and it’s all true, but... there’s other reasons, that you can’t explain as easily. You’re not sure who you’re going to run into there, what they’ll say, or how you’ll react to any of it. It’s nerve-wracking enough just thinking about going back to that house. You don’t want to be worrying about what either of your friends will see the whole time on top of that.
Finally, they agree to stay behind as back-up, though they make you promise you’ll call one of them if you need help with anything. You roll your eyes while you agree, but it does make you feel a little more secure.
You still remember the address, of course. The first apartment you lived when you and your mom were forced out was still kind of close to it. Like she was hoping that guy would change his mind if she waited. But these days, the two of you live much further. It’s gonna take you over an hour by train to get back to that part of the city.
The closer you get, the harder it is to make yourself move. Every familiar landmark - a park you’d played in with some kids from grade school, a store a few blocks away you’d never quite dared go in by yourself, even a bump in the sidewalk you’d always trip over - reminds you how little anything has changed here. You make yourself keep moving anyway. Even if this place hasn’t, even if that house hasn’t, you have changed. That’s gonna have to be good enough.
There’s a fence all around the Onimaru property. It had always loomed over you as a child - you’re a little surprised now to see it’s not that much taller than you are. You follow along it, looking for a spot out of sight from the street, and something to help you climb over. Fortunately, there’s plenty of trees around here. You just pick one closest to the fence and start climbing. The larger branches have been carefully pared away from the property, but after all the training Kanzaki put you through, it’s not hard to make the jump into the yard once you’re high enough.
It still smells the same. That’s what hits you first, once you’ve recovered from the landing. There’s so much green here, leaves and grass and wood in the height of summer. It’s a heavy smell, that covers any sign of the streets or cars that are just on the other side of the fence. Just like back then, you may as well have crossed into a different world.
You shake your head. No time to get caught up in stuff like that. You had to find Kazumi.
The first place you look for is the veranda the two of you always played on. It’s the room you remember best, after all. And... you don’t think you can look anywhere else first. You don’t even think you could leave without seeing it once. And even though it’s still midday, when you find it, you can’t help seeing it cast in the sunset. All gold and orange, and a little too bright. You step up onto it, and take just a quick look out into the garden. The pond, the trees, the rocks. They’ve barely changed. You wonder how much time Kazumi spent here after you were sent away, and swallow down a lump in your throat.
Your hand brushes the doorframe as you step inside, and you feel the two straight grooves still marking it. But you only pause a moment. There’s too many memories here. If you let yourself wallow in all of them, you’ll get caught and thrown out before you know it. And Kazumi’s room wasn’t far from here, assuming it hasn’t changed. Most of this wing was reserved for him - it took forever until you had the nerve to come down here yourself.
If you’re honest, you’re surprised you haven’t heard or seen anyone yet. It was usually pretty private here, but these weren’t ordinary circumstances. You expected him to be holed up in his room, while the family kept an eye on him and tried to find a way to make him better. But the whole wing is empty and silent. You still move as cautiously as possible - listening carefully before you open any doors, keeping all your movements slow and deliberate - but it feels like a lot of wasted effort. Even when you do find his bedroom, there’s no one there. Not even Kazumi.
A cold sweat starts to break out over you. Where else could he be? You chew the nail on your thumb as you try to think. He has to be in this house somewhere. You feel pretty sure of that. The old man would want Kazumi somewhere he could keep an eye on, and sending him away increases the risk of other people finding out. Maybe he’s keeping Kazumi in his own room... but that’s just a guess, and going right there to look would be a pretty serious risk. You can’t... you can’t even imagine running into that guy on your own. Just thinking about it makes your breath shorten.
Maybe... if you could just find a conversation to listen in on, you might overhear something about him. It can’t be as quiet everywhere else in the house as it is here. Weighing your options quickly, you decide to head further into the main building. Having a plan, at least, makes you feel a little more sure. Even if it’s one you’re making up on the spot.
Sure enough, it’s not long until you start seeing people and needing to hide. But it still seems like less than you expected. And most of them look like servants, not the actual family. There’s an unmistakable tension in the air - everyone you spot looks distracted and on-edge. You wonder if they’d notice you even if you weren’t trying to hide. Not that you’re about to put that to the test.
Finally you start hearing voices. A lot of them, from a place you vaguely recognize as a meeting hall. Sometimes Kazumi had to sit in with the adults, maybe he’s with them now? But everyone’s talking so loud, it’s hard to pick out individual words or voices. You creep closer, staying low and close to the wall, and strain to listen in.
“-can’t just leave him down there forever-”
“-well I’m not going anywhere near that thing-”
“-hasn’t eaten, he’ll pass out eventually if we just wait-”
“-can we even trust him again? The family doesn’t-”
The last voice comes from right behind you, and you have to clap a hand over your mouth to keep from yelping from surprise. You turn around quickly, ready to shove whoever it is away and bolt if you have to, but when you actually see them you hesitate. It’s one of the servants, a little older than your mom, you think. It’s hard to read her expression, but she doesn’t look angry with you. She just looks right at you, and asks, quiet but direct, “You’re Shouji-san’s son, aren’t you?”
You don’t really trust yourself to speak with what sounds like the whole family on the other side of the wall, so you just nod. The woman relaxes at that.
“I thought so. You look a lot like her, you know.” She looks down for a moment, before straightening herself and asking, “Would you mind coming with me?”
Immediately, you hiss, “I’m not leaving without seeing him.”
To your surprise, she smiles a little. “Don’t worry - I know where he is.” She looks to the door. It’s shut tight, but you still feel nervous. “I don’t think they’re going to settle this soon. We should have time.” And then, without waiting for an answer from you, she turns and heads back down the hall. You hesitate, but only for a moment. You don’t have any other ideas, and she actually remembers your mom’s name. That probably puts her above most of the people here.
Once you’re far enough away from the room, you ask, “You sure you wanna do this? If you get caught-”
“It’s fine.” She fiddles with the edge of her sleeve briefly. “There’s a lot of strange rumors going on right now. After that tournament, we were all told that Kazumi-sama had fallen ill, but none of us were told to take care of him. And then yesterday, suddenly...” She pauses. “I still... haven’t seen him myself. Maybe they are doing what’s right. But I- I can’t believe that’s the case. He was always such a nice boy.”
The door she takes you to is blocked up by side table and a couple of chairs, some small marks on the floor showing how forcefully they were pushed up against it. Quietly and quickly, she starts moving the furniture away.
You blink. “They’re keeping him behind all this stuff?”
“Yes. I don’t know what happened exactly, but there was some kind of incident. We were told Kazumi-sama was going into fits because of his illness.” She gives you a look of ‘how stupid does he think we are’, and you can’t help snorting a little before helping to move the table out of the way. It’s surprisingly dense for its size. When you’re finished, she sighs. “I’d like to stay and keep watch, but I think standing around here would just attract more attention. So please, be careful, and try to be quick.”
You nod, opening the door and heading down the stairs behind it. It’s kind of dark, but the room at the base seems lit at least. As you get closer and see more of it, though, you notice the dark red stains on the floor. It takes you a second before the smell hits. Your alarm shoots back up, and you hurry the rest of the way down the stairs. “Kazumi?” you call, right as you reach the floor. “Are you okay?”
When you see the shape at the other end of the room, you don’t recognize it right away. His wings are kind of sloped around his sides, like a pair of shields, and it throws you off. But it is him. Same white hair, same gold eyes, and still the same empty, uncomprehending look on his face when he sees you. “Kazuma...” The word comes out of him slow and a little hoarse, like he hasn’t talked in a while. You hurry towards him, ignoring the smell or darker spots on the floor. But the closer you get, the most he pushes himself back, and he starts shaking his head. “No, I... I have to wake up. I can’t-”
You pause. “What are you talking about?” Now that you’re closer, you can see him better. There’s blood on the tail coiled tight at his feet. His hair is even choppier than it was last time you saw it, and you think- you think there’s blood in it too.
He doesn’t answer you, just presses his head to his knees and clutches the sides of it. You realize, feeling kind of stupid, that he doesn’t have the horns any more. “Please, p-please, just wake up,” he mutters, claws slowly digging in deeper, “They’ll come back, I c-can’t be asleep, hurry...”
“H-hey,” you say, carefully taking a few steps closer before kneeling down in front of him. “Listen, you’re not dreaming, okay? I’m really here.” You swallow, not sure what else to do. You want to do something to reassure him better, but he’s so on-edge, you don’t think touch would do that.
He doesn’t move or react for a couple of seconds, and then his head jerks up and he finally looks at you again. “...They made you come back here?” His voice breaks, his eyes fixated on you, wide and horrified, “I’m- I’m so sorry, I should have realized they would. I didn’t think, I didn’t mean to-”
“What? No,” you interrupt him quick, before he can start spiraling again, “No, I came by myself. When I didn’t hear anything from you, I got worried, and- and obviously, I was right to.” You try, again, to take in the sight of him. His tight, pale face. Dark bags under his eyes. Scars show through his hair, still red and raw-looking. “What the hell did they do to you?”
“...They were trying to help me...” He looks down, tail coiling even tighter around him. “I know they were. Even Father. But even though I know, I- I still couldn’t... I couldn’t let them.” His eyes shift away, turn unfocused. “So... I made them leave me alone. If they try again, I’ll do the same thing.”
They’re words that should sound determined, but from him there’s only resignation in them. If you hadn’t already made up your mind, that would have done it. “...Okay. Then, let’s get out of here before they do.” You pull out your phone, quickly tapping on Chrono’s contact.
He looks back at you, blinking. “Huh?”
“Someone’s gonna notice the door’s open eventually, but if we at least get outside first-”
Chrono picks up on the second ring. “Hey, what’s the problem?”
“Do you know anyone with a car?”
Before you can get an answer, Kazumi grabs at your shirt, eyes wide and desperate. “Kazuma, I can’t ,” he tries to explain, “They’re right, I can’t go anywhere like this. I h-hurt people. Badly, I think. It isn’t safe, and I know that, and I still can’t- I can’t handle anyone changing me again.” He tries to hold your gaze, but after a few seconds he drops his eyes and says more softly, “Please. You should go. If... I ever hurt you, I’d-”
“Oh, bullshit. Do you seriously think I’m gonna be okay with leaving you here like this?” You pause, pressing your cell phone to your chest to keep Chrono from overhearing. And to give you a second to force out, “You... have no idea how much it hurt. Not seeing you. Not knowing what was going on.” You want to be angry with him so badly. He can’t have forgotten already, could he? How hard you fought to get him back. But when you see the plain confusion and distress on his face, all you can feel is an old, tired ache. “Look, just,” you say, trying to ignore how your voice cracks, “For once, could you just let me help you?”
He doesn’t say anything. You don’t know what you’ll do if he refuses again. You don’t want to- to force him out, there’s no way you can leave him here. You guess you’d just have to stay as long as it takes to convince him... or until they realize you’re here and force you out. But then, slowly, he lets go of your shirt, and starts to reach for your free hand instead. You let him take it, feel him trembling through it. And, looking at your hand instead of you, he nods. A few times, without speaking, before he finally whispers, “Alright.”
Even though this next part’s probably going to be a lot harder, you feel a weight lift off of you. “Okay,” you say, and then put your phone back to your ear. “Yeah, it’s fine. We’re both fine. Do you know anyone or not?” Chrono tells you he’s sure Mamoru or Shin could help out with this, and you confirm the Onimaru’s address with him. “We’ll try to get off the estate and lay low somewhere, but we probably won’t go too far.” You pause, and add, “Try to get Anjou if you can. Since he already knows what happened.”
“Got it,” he says, “I’ll pass your number along, so he can let you know when he’s close, if that’s okay.”
“Yeah, thanks.” With that settled, you hang up and slip the phone back into your pocket, before standing and helping to pull Kazumi to his feet. He wobbles pretty badly, and needs to hold onto you to stabilize.
“Sorry,” he says, “I’m just... a little dizzy.”
“Don’t worry about it. Do whatever you have to - getting out quick’s most important.” And you feel more secure like this too. Actually touching him. You won’t let him get pulled away from you so easily.
He nods, letting you support him across the room and up the stairs. It’s a little awkward to hold him with his wings drooping the way they are, but you think you can manage. He’s trying to keep them from getting too in the way, you think, and you can handle the weight at least without a problem.
You can’t help glancing at the room again, before you start up the stairs. “Did they seriously not feed you or anything?”
“...Someone tried to leave a plate once.” He looks embarrassed to admit, “I was... worried they might have drugged it. So I didn’t eat.”
Oh. You give him a small squeeze. The door opens easily, to your relief. No one noticed and locked it behind you or pushed the furniture back against it. Kazumi’s wings catch on the frame, but other than that nothing gets in your way. With a quick sigh of relief, you start walking him down the hall. “So, know what the quickest way out from here is?”
“...The first left, I think,” he says, “And then...” He starts reaching up for his head, then abruptly pulls his hand back down. “There should be a door to the annex, a few to the right.”
You nod, and try to not to move too fast. He’s not complaining, but it’s obvious what terrible shape he’s in right now. His face is tight and strained, and his legs are shaking badly. You wonder if he could evenstay up without you holding him. His breath even sounds kind of wheezing already.
It makes you sick. This couldn’t have all just been the result of a couple of days.
You just make it out to the yard, when someone spots you. A young woman, who freezes and barely seems to see you, her eyes fix directly on Kazumi. Then she screams, and runs in to the main building. You shift your grip on Kazumi and say, “C’mon, we gotta hurry.”
At this point you feel you’re more dragging him than really helping him, but he just can’t move any faster on his own. There’s no point trying to go around the fence, it’s just too long, it’ll take too much time. But you think you can boost him over, and at least on this side, you’ve got the backrails to grab onto. It might be tricky, but you’re pretty sure you can use them to pull yourself over. Kazumi looks kind of nervous at that ‘pretty sure’ when you explain it to him, but he doesn’t argue.
Besides, you can hear footsteps and voices already. You’ve both gotta move. Kazumi grabs the top of the fence, and with some effort, you manage to get him up and over the side. You’re surprised to see his wings flapping as he starts to fall - could he actually fly with them? Are they even the right size for that? - and you just manage to avoid being whacked with his tail as it trails after him. You’re really going to have to remember how long it is. But there’s no time to dwell on it. You step onto the lower ledge, push up with as much force as you can, and manage to pull yourself high enough that you can get your feet onto the top backrail in a kind of crouch. From there, you twist yourself around and drop onto the other side.
Kazumi, trying to prop himself up against the fence, blinks at you. “When exactly did you learn to do that?”
Despite the situation, you grin a little. “Well, I didn’t waste all my time the last few years, y’know?”
He doesn’t look especially satisfied with the answer, but you can hear the footsteps on the other side getting closer. You grab Kazumi’s wrist and start pulling him away while someone says, “Who was that?” There’s fewer trees in this area than where you came in, but hopefully there’s enough to at least confuse them if they try to spot the two of you.
The street’s pretty close, you realize. And you can see people out on the sidewalks. You pause while there’s still some cover, to try and think. You look back at Kazumi, and ask, “What do you think? Should we try to find somewhere further away from the house to hide?” If a stranger takes notice of him... even if you could explain the wings and tail as just costumes or something, he still looks like he stepped out of a crime scene. Hell, he pretty much did.
But once he finishes considering it, he says, “I think... we should. As long as there’s other people around, the Onimaru family will be less likely to make a scene.” He looks back over his shoulder. “If we’re on our own, there’s nothing stopping them from using force.”
You nod. He knows them better than you do at this point, so you’ll trust him. Besides, you’ve gotta find a place for him to rest soon. He hasn’t complained, but you can feel him shaking pretty badly. You pull him out towards the sidewalk, and start looking for a closed store or something. Somewhere you can hide, but where you could get attention easy if you need it. There were a few places you used to sneak into as a kid while you were trying to put off actually going home from school, but it’s been years, you can’t exactly count on those all staying the same.
You catch a couple of people looking your way, and one or two start to say something, but no one really goes after you. And no one you recognize from the house.
Finally, about a block and a half away, you spot a small breakfast place already locked up. You give it a quick look, but you don’t see anyone inside. You lead Kazumi around the back. There’s a place for outdoor seating, surrounded by a short wire gate and some flowering bushes. It’s far from secure - there isn’t even a lock on the gate, you can just reach over and unlatch it - but it’s quiet, and if you sit close to the building, the bushes should keep you from being immediately noticeable to anyone coming from the main street.
Kazumi nods when you tell him your idea, though he looks worn out enough you think he’d have agreed even if you suggested hiding out in the sewers instead. You let yourselves in, making sure to close the gate behind you, and he’s finally able to collapse against the building.
“Sorry,” you say, sitting down next to him, “That was pretty rough, huh?”
“I’m... fine,” he insists between gasps, refusing to say otherwise despite your flat stare. Well, whatever. You quickly text Chrono the name of the restaurant you’re hiding behind, and he replies quickly that Mamoru Anjou is already on his way to you.
You let out a sigh of relief. At this point, even if the family finds you, you’ll fight them off yourself if you have to. “Okay... now we can just wait.” Kazumi nods, slowly calming down, though his breath still has a wheezing sound to it. You see, again, the scar tissue through his hair. Without thinking, you start to reach towards it, only catching yourself at the last second. “They really just cut those horns off?”
“...It wasn’t like that,” he says, quietly, lacing his fingers together in his lap, “I mean, it was a... proper surgery. More or less.”
“...Did it hurt?”
“Only afterwards.” He looks like he wants to say something else, but for a while his mouth just moves without saying anything. You wait until he finally says, “I couldn’t. I couldn’t move. The- the surgeon had to restrain me. I- I tried to... ask him not to, but...” He trails off, lowering his head until you can’t see his expression through his hair. Listening to him makes your teeth clench and you can’t respond. You don’t know what the right way to talk about these kinds of things even is, and you’re so angry - at Shiranui, your father, everyone in that house - but you don’t think that would exactly be comforting for him right now.
Instead, you reach over, and put a hand on his shoulder. Carefully, to give him a chance to shake it off if he wants. He does stiffen a little at the touch, but when he moves, it’s to shift closer to you, not further away. Taking the encouragement, you reach around and pull him into a loose hug. It feels kind of awkward, even to you, but... he’s relaxing a little, so you must be doing something right. “It’s okay,” you say, “They’re not gonna do anything like that to you again. I won’t let them.”
He hesitates a little before nodding, but that’s fine. You’ll convince him from now on.
Finally, your phone vibrates in your pocket. You check, and the message is from Anjou, reporting he’ll be there in about ten minutes. When you let Kazumi know, you ask, “Do you remember him?”
“...Not really,” he admits, looking down for a moment, “But you think he’s safe, right?”
You nod right away. “Yeah. He was one of the coordinators at the tournament, and he already knows about the Diffriding and all that.”
Kazumi frowns a little. “I really... have to apologize then. I caused so much trouble.”
You snort. “ Shiranui did. You didn’t do anything.”
He looks for a few seconds like he’s trying to decide whether or not to say anything. But whether because he decides you’re right, or because he’s too tired to disagree, he changes the subject. “If... he ran the tournament, would he have recordings of the fights?”
“...Do you,” he falters, lowers his head again, “Do you think... he’d let me watch them?”
You’re not sure why he’d want to watch all that again, but you nod again anyway. “I don’t know why not. There’s some clips up online, though, you don’t have to ask him.”
He keeps his eyes down, and just says, “Maybe.”
You want to ask what he’s so unsure about, but you hear a car pulling up nearby. You stand and push through the bushes far enough to look around the side of the building. Anjou’s already out of the car, looking around for you. You give him a quick wave to catch his attention, and once you’ve got it, you help Kazumi up and hurry back out of the enclosing.
“Nice to see you again, Onimaru-kun,” Anjou says, only pausing slightly when he gets a good look at the state your brother is in. Kazumi smiles a little, and tries to bow politely, but he’s dizzy enough that he stumbles a little. As soon as you get him home, you decide, you’re gonna have to get him something to eat. What do you even have in the refrigerator...?
“Are you planning to stay anywhere in particular?” Anjou asks, once you’re both seated and he gets back in to the driver’s seat. The fit is a little awkward with all of Kazumi’s new appendages taking up space, but you figure it’s probably more uncomfortable for him and don’t complain. “Ibuki-kun’s offered his apartment, if you need it.”
“My place is fine,” you say, and give Anjou the address.
They both seem a little surprised, and Kazumi outright jumps at your answer, asking, “Are... you sure? What about your mother?”
“I already said, it’s fine. She’s not home right now anyway.”
“...If you say so.” He doesn’t say anything else, and when you take a closer look at him, you’re not surprised. Being somewhere the family definitely can’t reach him must be even more of a relief than you expected; his eyes are starting to droop already, and after a few minutes, he winds up slumping over onto your shoulder.
Right away, he jerks back up and starts to apologize. You think you catch his nails digging into his knees for a second. You shrug and say, “I don’t mind. It’s gonna be a while, you can sleep if you want. I’ll wake you up when we’re there.”
For a long moment, he just looks at you. “...You will?”
He doesn’t agree right away, and he still tries to stay awake, eyes forward and as alert as he can manage. But whether it’s the hum of the engine or how warm it is in here, he starts to slip, bit by bit, until his head is back on your shoulder. Before you know it his breathing has evened out, and he lets himself rest.