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For The Future I Want To Take Back; For The World I Want To Destroy

Chapter Text

 Help me.

 Ichiro can’t think anything else as he runs through the ruined halls. He has to run. He has to escape. He has to get away.

 Someone help me.

 He doesn’t want to die. He doesn’t want to die here! There’s so much he still has to do! He has to tell his mother he thinks shes mean and he doesn’t like wear bow ties! He has to find some cute girl and have his first kiss! He has to tell Maasa he thinks he’s perfect no matter how he looks and he’s sorry he didn’t realise he was hurting!

 Please help me!

 There’s movement around the corner ahead. Ichiro nearly calls out but the shadow has horns. Another one! He swings around down another clear hall, no idea where he’s going but he needs to find help. He needs to find a way out. He needs to find his friends. They can’t all be dead. They have to get out and go to school and have fun together!

 There’s light above him and Ichiro stumbles aside with a terrified cry as a monster slides through the ceiling. He runs on blindly, staggering out into the twilight. He’s safe now, right? He’s out? He’s safe.

 “Please-”

 He stops.

 This isn’t safe. This isn’t outside. This isn’t somewhere adults will wrap him up into a tinfoil blanket and whisk him away to recover with his friends.

 He’s come out on the floor of the main concert hall. He’s surrounded. He’s trapped. Ichiro staggers and turns, desperately trying to find a way out. There’s nothing. He’s completely trapped. He’s going to die. But he needs to do stuff still. He needs to do so much. He needs to find that boy he met buying glow sticks and t-shirts he thinks he’s cute- he’s pretty- handsome, handsome is definitely the proper word, and scary and he wants to be his friend. He said his name was Taishi, right?

 He’s going to die…

 

 Ichiro collapses to his knees, tears spilling over and quiet sobs wrack his body. This can’t be happening. He can’t die here. He can’t die like this.

 Please. Someone please. Help me.

 The ground vibrates as the monsters come closer. He can feel them coming closer. The strange, high pitched trilling cries echoing around him. The stadium crumbling around him. Rubble and debris and planes overhead. He lifts his head to the blinking lights of the planes.

 Save me.

 The monsters in the sky twist and the small blinking lights explode into clouds of fire and twisted metal debris. One piece falls faster than the others and Ichiro smiles through the tears. It’s coming straight for him, glowing with heat as it plummets. That’s better than being the monster’s victim, right? He smiles and shuts his eyes.

 “I wanted to be your friend, Taishi.”

 There’s a metallic clang and Ichiro doesn’t even feel pain as something slams into him. Hits the ground hard with a wet thud. He struggles to breathe, listening to the monsters screaming around him as metal snaps and whistles around.

 

 Ichiro opens his eyes, darkness closing in around him. The world is red and black. Blood and death creeping in around him. But standing there in that chaos is a goddess. Silver and white. Sword in hand. She turns and smiles at him, hair whipping around her face.

 “Look after that gift, little one,” she says softly, voice echoing around him.

 Gift?

 “Rest up,” she says, turning back to the monsters and lifting her sword. “You had someone you wanted to meet again, didn’t you? So rest so you can tell him in person soon enough.”

 “Taishi…”

 He closes his eyes, trying to picture Taishi’s dumb smile as he picked up colourful glow sticks. The blue star clips in his hair. The one in his hair. Taishi had laughed and taken one out, pushing Ichiro’s hair from his face and clipping it back. Ichiro promised he’d give it back after the show. He’s got to meet Taishi again. He has to give him back his clip.

 He has to live.

 

 Ichiro wakes up to voices around him. Chaos and yelling. And everything hurt. He can’t breathe. He can’t move. He can’t see. There’s yelling and panicked voices and Ichiro screams. It hurts. It hurts so much!

 

 When Ichiro next wakes up, it’s still agony but it least its dulled. He’s lying in a hard bed in a bright white room. He stares up at the ceiling, trying to figure out what’s going on. What had happened? He thought he was going to die…

 “The goddess…”

 He tilts his head, glancing around. A plain white hospital room. There’s a flash of blue. Taishi’s clip. He reaches out slowly for it. His body screams in protest and but he grabs the clip. He’s alive. He just needs to find Taishi again to give him back his clip.

 He smiles, clutching the clip in his hand. “Taishi…”

 “Ichiro.” He turns at his father’s voice. He hurries over and Ichiro groans as he wraps his arms around im. “You mother sends her love. She’s sorry she couldn’t be here.”

 Somehow, Ichiro isn’t surprised. He smiles weakly and Ichiro smiles back.

 “What happened?”

 “They attacked,” his father replies with a gentle smiles, petting his hair lightly. “You’re the only one who survived.”

 “I… but…” He frowns and shakes his head. “Taishi…”

 “Oh… you met a friend...?” He grips the clip in his fist tighter. Taishi’s dead? “I’m sorry. They found you half buried under the rubble and bleeding heavily. You’re lucky. The monsters missed you.”

 “The goddess…” Ichiro whispers. His father frowns. “There was this really beautiful woman there in white with a sword. She saved me.”

 His father frowns and puts his hand gently on his hair. “Sweet roll, you went through something highly traumatic. It’s normal to think you saw things you didn’t really.”

 “I saw her!”

 “I know, I know, you thought you did.”

 “I did!”

 “In your mind.”

 “Dad!”

 

 “Happy birthday, Ichiro,” he says with a deceptively guileless smile. Ichiro huffs. He’s not dumb enough to fall for him changing subjects just like that. “Thirteen now. My what a big boy you’re getting.”

 Ichiro sighs as his father puts on a party hat and eats cake Ichiro can’t have. He promises there are Ichiroku Tarts for him in his room at home just for him to enjoy when he gets out of hospital. Everyone has sent lots of presents, apparently. Ichiro isn’t sure if that’s a good thing or not.

 His fingers clench around the small clip in his hand. The goddess said he had to look after the gift he’d been given until he met Taishi again. He’ll just have to do just that!

Chapter Text

 Rain pounds down on the abandoned road. Ichiro waits silently at the bus stop, listing to the water drumming against the plastic roof and pouring over the edge to splash into the rivers sweeping down the street and soaking into his shoes. Everything is dark and grey and wet as far as the eye can see.

 The bus pulls to stop in front of him and Ichiro steps out from under the shelter, rain stinging his skin as he climbs in and swipes his travel card without a word. He stands, silent once more, as the bus rolls onward. There’s no happy chatter or polite conversation. Ichiro stands, holding the rail as a puddle slowly forms beneath his feet in slow drips. The rain slams against the metal roof, echoing and magnifying every drop.

 Across from him, a young child stands over her mother, holding an umbrella and shopping bags in her tiny hands, her mother’s arm in a cast. No one gives it a second thought. It’s nothing special or new. They’re lucky to be alive.

 The bus pulls to a stop and Ichiro swipes his card again. He’s numb under the cold rain within moments. He climbs the slippery steps slowly. He’s tripped on them in the rain before. The ruined stadium comes into sight and Ichiro’s shoulders slump.

 

 The air seems to change as Ichiro walks beneath the arch of white roses growing at the entrance of the stadium. Ichiro remembers it so vividly. Walking through here as a youngster. Things had been so different back then. He’d been so excited, bouncing along with his friends and their guardian for the day. He pauses at one of the memorial stands. The stand he’d stopped at that day. The stand Taishi had stood at in the line beside him.

 “I like your bag,” Ichiro said, smiling at the other boy. He glanced down at his bag, and Ichiro smiled. “Those were super super super limited editions, right?”

 “Yeah,” the boy replied with a slight frown, taking a wallet from his bag. “My dad got it for me.”

 “That’s so cool!”

 The boy frowned and Ichiro handed over his own money. The boy stowed t-shirts and merch in boy and Ichiro grinned, pulling on his over his normal shirt.

 Ichiro reaches out slowly, taking a bouquet of white roses from the stand. He cradles the bouquet in the crook of his arm as he heads into the stadium itself. It’s set out how it would have been that night. It’s memorial hall now. The concert hall is covered by the glass dome today. Water runs over it in streams and Ichiro gazes up at the ripples and droplets silently for a moment. And then he walks down the steps to the main floor, moving between the chairs. His footsteps are drowned out by the rain storm and Ichiro is glad. It’s too quiet. Too empty.

 Ichiro’s hair fell over his face and the other boy laughed. He huffed and lifted his head, only to have the other boy up and unclip a blue star from his own hair.

 “Here,” he said.

 He held it in his mouth as he smoothed Ichiro’s hair back from his face. Ichiro stared up up at him. He probably thought Ichiro was an idiot, staring at him like that the entire time, watching him with the clip in his mouth and blushing at his hands on his head. Like he was his mother or something! And then he snapped it into place and Ichiro yelped.

 “That hurt,” he cried.

 “Baby,” he laughed. Ichiro laughed and nodded. “I’m Taishi.”

 “Ichiro. It’s great to meet you. I’ll give you your clip back after the show. If you wait outside the east entrance? By the crepe cart? I- I’ll buy you one? We can hang out?”

 “Forward, aren’t you?” Taishi said. Ichiro’s eyed widen. Was he being too clingy? “I hope we get the chance…”

 “You don’t think-”

 “I might get called away.”

 “That’d suck.”

 “You down on the main floor? We can walk together?”

 

 Ichiro makes his way between the chairs and pauses at his seat. Every seat was laid out as it had been. Every seat labelled with a brass plate. A name and dates. Ichiro sets down his bag on his seat. He’d survived. The only survivor. His seat is scrawled over, etched into, covered in graffiti and insults Ichiro stopped reading a long time ago. He takes the flowers and sets one  of them on each his of his friends seats.

 His gaze moves down the hall and he turns. He’d been able to see Taishi in his seat from his. Taishi had turned, waved a glow stick at him right before the lights went down and the show started. He leaves his bag on his seat and walks over to Taishi’s seat.

 Maza Taishi

 He kneels in front of the seat and lays the remaining bouquet down. He reaches up slowly and unclips the blue star from his soaked hair. He clasps his hands around it in silent prayer. He closes his eyes and listens to the rain. The goddess who’d saved him said he had to hang onto his gift until he met Taishi again. If the goddess believed Taishi was alive somewhere, Ichiro had to hang onto his clip until he could return it and buy him a crepe like he promised he would.

 A shiver runs through him as the freezing water drips over him. There’s a sudden weight on his shoulders and Ichiro opens his eyes. There’s a coat draped over his shoulders. His head jerks up and he staggers to his feet in time to see a figure vanishing through the door.

 “Wait!” Ichiro calls. “Hey, wait!”

 They’re already gone and Ichiro sighs, pulling the coat around his shoulders a little more for warmth. He hasn’t felt warm for a long time. He sighs, sliding the clip back into his hair and fastening it.

 “Wherever you are, Taishi, I’ll find you,” Ichiro promises, as he has done at least once a week for nearly three years. His therapist said it was unhealthy for him to fixate on a boy he’d only had one brief conversation with, but Ichiro can’t let go. He just stopped talking about him instead. “Wait for me, just a little bit longer.”

 Ichiro steps out from the seating and gazes up at the entrance he’d stumbled out from all those years ago. He’d nearly died right here. His fingers tremble and he wraps his arms around himself, holding the coat around him as his lip wobbles. He’d lived. The goddess had told him to live, and he had, but so many days now he wishes he hadn’t. Why hadn’t he just stood there and frozen and let himself die?

 “Just wait a little bit longer,” he whispers to himself, scrunching his eyes shut and forcing back tears. If he can just find Taishi, everything will make sense. It won’t matter he didn’t die because Taishi didn’t either. “Just hang on a little bit longer.”

 

 “Idiot Ichiro,” Maasa declares.

 Ichiro lifts his head. Maasa is in the doorway, arms folded, glaring furiously. Ichiro smiles weakly and Maasa stomps down the stairs. As much as someone can stompy in pretty white boots and a powder blue raincoat. Perhaps a flounce is more the term. Maasa’s a strange burst of colour in this grey world.

 “Maasa-”

 “How did I know you’d be here?” Maasa says, glaring up at him. “You’re so much trouble. You have to let it go and get over it.”

 “How am I supposed to get over it?” Ichiro cries, shaking his head. “How am I supposed to just forget about everything that happened?! How am I supposed to forget about-”

 “About Taishi?” Ichiro frowns and Maasa sighs, nodding over at Taishi’s chair and the bouquet there. “You just can’t help yourself, can you? Come on, we’re going home. There’s a charity ball tonight. You can change at my house.”

 “I don’t want to,” he says, shaking his head. “I’m going back to the dorms.”

 “Ichiro-”

 “They don’t want me there anyway! I’m embarrassing, right?” He laughs weakly and lowers his head. “Me being alive is embarrassing.”

 At least his father tried to hide it from him. Tried to act like he wasn’t some kind of burden and failure for living. His mother didn’t. It was bad for the family’s image. She gave the money the Disaster Relief Agency had given them for his recovery and rehabilitation to the families of those who lost loved ones. They had more than enough, of course, they didn’t want to be seen taking money from families who genuinely needed it. Not only was he not dead, he was rich. They had every reason to hate him.

 “I should have died. Everyone would be happier if I did.”

 “Idiot!” Maasa cries. “I wouldn’t be! I want my idiot cousin back…”

 “Maasa…”

 “You’re not alone, Ichiro. I wish you could see that.” Ichiro nods a little and Maasa smiles, gently taking his hands and squeezing. “Get your back then. We’ll get changed at the dorms.”

 “I don’t wanna go,” Ichiro argues, picking up his bag anyway. “Maasa!”

 “You’ve not got a choice, idiot Ichiro.” Maasa sighs and opens up an umbrella as they head out into the rain. “You know if you keep this up, they’ll send you away aso you’re not able to come here all the time.”

 Ichiro gazes up at the water rushing over the clear umbrella. Why did Maasa bother to come out and see him? Because he had to go to the stupid ball? He had to stand there while his mother assured everyone they’re doing lots of charity work to make sure they made up for his life. He’d survived. Now he has to spend his entire life paying for it.

 

 In their dorm room, Maasa insists Ichiro strips of all his soaked clothes to be washed and dried with Maasa’s, while he has to have a bath himself. So Ichiro sinks into the sunken bath and gathers up the bubbles around him, lying back and watching the rain pounding against the window in strange dark patterns. Like music, he thinks.

 He thinks the monsters voices sounding like music too. No one really understood. There aren’t many people who know much about them. When he told people about what happened, the don’t understand. The government agents didn’t care. They just nodded. The therapist he had at the start was a government therapist, had dealt with the few people who’d seen them and lived. They said it was normal to feel that way. The civilian therapist didn’t understand at all. No one he talked to these days did. Their voices were like music. Strangely melodic. And at the same time like screams of pain. Like the monsters were in pain too.

 Somedays, in the silence, when he’s alone, Ichiro wonders if Taishi really is alive. Maybe he is dead and Ichiro is hanging onto something that isn’t there. Just like everyone always told him. Had Taishi died? Had he met his fate at those monster’s jaws? Is he holding onto nothing? He tilts his head, gazing over at the blue star clip on the side. How much longer can he wait? How much longer can he keep going like this?

 “Who’s coat even is this?” Maasa calls.

 “I dunno,” Ichiro replies with a sigh. “I was just there shivering and someone dumped it on me and left.”

 “Weird.” There’s a sighs and Ichiro closes his eyes. “We’ll have to go through the stuff in the pockets later and see if we can find an ID so we can give it back.” The door opens and Ichiro’s eyes snap open as he jerks upright. Maasa is glaring at him. “Are you going to lie in there forever?”

 “Maasa! Knock first!”

 “I need a bath too!” Maasa declares, locking the door. Ichiro stares helplessly as his cousin strips off and climbs up the steps to the bath, sinking into the bubbles across from him. “What?”

 “Nothing! Nothing nothing nothing! Nothing at all!”

 Maasa sighs and scoops up a handful of bubbles, blowing them at him with a soft, sad small. “Idiot Chiro.”

 

 The trip through the ruined city isn’t fun. Ichiro gazes at the rundown building. The thick walls keep the monster out long enough that they can be removed, but when they appear within the city, there’s nothing to be done. He sighs and tilts his head. There’s not enough money for them to rebuild their homes after every attack. Most of them live in shelters these days. The Binan is becoming a ghost town only the rich can afford to live it. Of course, it concerns the rich social elite like his mother. That’s why they have charity balls. If all the lesser people vanish, there would be no monster fodder.

 Ichiro hates his mother.

 The party is bright and noisy. Ichiro’s father hugs him enthusiastically and kisses his forehead and his mother cast him a glance with an obligated comment on how it’s lovely to see him before sweeping off, magenta dress billowing around her as she goes. Strong and beautiful and elegant. Like a model. Or an evil queen, perhaps. Maasa holds onto his arm. There’s a stern warning about not stepping on the dress’ train. Ichiro doesn’t think he’s that clumsy. He’s ignored by practically everyone, of course. Even the guests who want to talk to Maasa, completely ignore him. He might as well not be there. He doesn’t know why he had to come.

 Ichiro ends up leaving Maasa to socialise. He heads out to the terrace, gazing over the gardens beyond, letting the rain soak him once more. Maasa’s going to be mad. So will his mother probably. But he’d rather hide in the rain and the darkness than be in there where everyone stares and whispers but won’t actually talk to him. Ichiro is sick of the whispers. He heard them all the time. Whispering voices following his every step. The rain drowns out the whispers.

 The rain stops and Ichiro glances up. There’s an umbrella held over him. He spins on his heel, finding himself staring up at an older boy he’s not sure he recognises. Clear blue eyes gaze back at him curiously and Ichiro frowns at the handsome young man.

 “Dougo Ichiro?” He nods. “I’m Unazuki Taiju.”

 “I’m-” Oh. He pauses and laughs sheepishly. “Hi.”

 “Hello.”

 Ichiro swallows thickly. “Umm-”

 “Do you want to go somewhere, Ichiro-kun?”

 “Yes please!” he says, nodding quickly. Unazuki smiles and offers him his arm. Ichiro smiles and takes it quickly. “Why are you being so nice though? You know who I am, right?”

 “I do,” Unazuki replies with a charming smile. “I think you’re very interesting, Ichiro-kun.” Ichiro frowns and pauses. Unazuki turns, gazing at him with a slight frown. “Is there something wrong?”

 “I don’t think I should just go wandering off with handsome strangers,” Ichiro says.

 Unazuki laughs a little. “You think I’m handsome, Ichiro-kun? Then, perhaps you’d let me take you on a date. Perhaps we’ll pick up some crepes.”

 “Crepes?” Ichiro frowns and shakes his head, taking a step back. “Sorry, Unazuki-san. I think I should get back to the ball.”

 “Do you think so?” he sighs.

 

 Ichiro steps back but Unazuki grabs his wrist and jerks him back under the umbrella. Not good. He tries to yank his wrist away but Unazuki holds him tight. His heart is hammering, pulse echoing around his ears, drowning out the pounding rain as he stares up at Unazuki. Really not good. It’s not the first time someone has taken too much interest in him. Not just people who hated him because he survived but people who believed he’d survived for a reason. Neither group was safe for him to be around.

 “Lemme go!” he cries, planting his feet and yanking back.

 “I need you to come with me, Ichiro-kun,” Unazuki says. “Please, don’t make a scene.”

 “What do you want from me?!” Ichiro demands, struggling to twists his wrist free.

 “You survived,” he says. Ichiro’s eyes widened. “And if you don’t want to be the only survivor of this event as well, I suggest you come with me quietly.

 “What? Please, there was nothing special about me surviving, it was an accident. Just one of those things-”

 “You said you saw a goddess in white.”

 “How… how do you…?”

 “You lived because you wanted to be with Manza Taishi again, isn’t that right?” Unazuki says. “That desire has sustained you this long, hasn’t it? The desperate need to find answers has kept you alive, despite all your suffering?”

 How could Unazuki possibly know all this? These were the sort of things he said to his therapist and no one else. His family wouldn’t talk about it, it’s too embarrassing even if they cared enough to remember what he’s said about that day. How could Unazuki know all this stuff about that day?

 “Don’t you want to see him again?” Unazuki said.

 “He- he’s really alive?” Ichiro whispers, staring up at him. “Taishi’s really alive? You know where he is?”

 “I’ll take you to him,” he replies with a gentle smile. “He’s been waiting for you for years, Ichiro-kun. Let’s reunite you two, shall we?”

 Ichiro nods weakly. Taishi’s alive. Taishi’s waiting for him. He grasps Unazuki’s hand, nodding more confidently. He’s hung onto this for so long. Finding Taishi and discovering the truth of what happened that day.

 “Take me to Taishi.”

 

 Unazuki smiles and nods, settling his hand on his arm once more and guiding him down the slick concrete steps. He knows he shouldn’t be this trusting. He knows he shouldn’t just follow this stranger into what could be any kind of trap, but he’s the first person other than Maasa to talk to him in so long. He knows all about Taishi and the goddess. He’s either Ichiro’s saviour or his doom and Ichiro isn’t sure he cares which anymore.

 “Ichiro-kun,” Unazuki says as they walk along the side the building. “Did the goddess you saw say anything about a gift?”

 Ichiro nods. “She said I had to look after it. I have to give it back, you see. I promised.”

 “Really? And you kept it safe?” Ichiro nods. “Must have been hard.”

 “No one understood,” Ichiro says. “Why am I hanging onto a dead boy I barely had a conversation with but she said there was someone I had to meet again, and if she says he’s alive then I have to believe it. That’s all I could think about. Everyone was so sure I should have died. Finding another survivor was all I could hope for. I had to hang on to that hope.”

 “You don’t have to suffer alone any longer, Ichiro-kun,” Unazuki sayd gently. “You and Taishi-kun will both be at peace soon.”

 Ichiro smiles and nods, playing with the clip in his pocket. He can’t wait to see Taishi’s face when they meet again. He’ll finally get to give him back his clip and buy him a crepe and ask him to be his friend at last.

 

 The umbrella goes flying without warning on the drive. Ichiro stares down at the clear cover, pierced by something no longer there. Unazuki is glaring at something else. Ichiro lifts his head. Standing there on the apex of the roof, just visible through the sheets of grey rain in the black night, is a figure in white, wielding a bow and arrow.

 “The goddess…”

 “You really are special, aren’t you, Ichiro-kun?” Unazuki says.

 The goddess pulls back her bow once more. Unazuki smiles and Ichiro yelps as he’s dragged around and a knife pressed to his throat. The goddess pauses. There’s screaming inside the house and the goddess lowers her bow.

 “No mistakes this time,” Unazuki says.

 “What’s going on?” Ichiro whispers.

 “You’re a very important piece of a worldwide puzzle, Ichiro-kun,” he says. “You two are the last pieces of the puzzle. Once you and Taishi-kun are finally in place, the world will be saved.”

 Ichiro’s eyes widen. The world will be safe if he dies? Is that what he’s saying? How is that possible? What’s so special about him and Taishi that their lives could matter so much? He gazes up at the goddess, who’s staring down at them through the rain. He doesn’t know what to do. How can he argue he wants to live when his life could save so many others?

 “What will you do, dear Artemis?” Unazuki calls. “Let me spill his blood here and we’ll start over with a new batch? Or let me take him and you’ll finally be free from this curse?”

 “Curse?” Ichiro whispers.

 

 “Ichiro!” Maasa cries, bursting out the doors. “Ichiro, where are you we have to-” Whatever Maasa was going to say stops in favour of staring back at him and Ichiro glances away. “Ichiro…?”

 He really is just a burden. Nothing more than a hassle to the people who love him. If he just died the world would be safe. He could be with Taishi. He wouldn’t be a burden anymore. He sighs and lowers his head. It’s alright. He doesn’t want to keep fighting it if this is his fate. If he and Taishi could be together and save the world, isn’t that ok?

 “I’ll do what you want,” Ichiro says. “Please don’t hurt anyone else. Just take me to Taishi and I’ll do whatever you want.”

 “I’m glad, Ichiro-kun,” Unazuki says softly, taking a step back.

 “Ichiro!” Maasa yells as Unazuki pulls him around.

 The blade at his throat doesn’t move. A clear warning not to try anything and to stop the goddess helping him. He’s not sure what he’s done to deserve her protection, or tis curse Unazuki’s talking about, but he’s sure he’s not worth it.

 “Ichiro!” Maasa gets in front of them, arms thrown out and glaring up at him Unazuki. “There’s monsters running around, this isn’t the time to be kidnapping my idiot cousin! What do you even want with him?! He’s a dumb useless idiot and his family won’t pay anything for him! No offense, Ichiro.”

 “I’ve got to die,” Ichiro says quietly. Maasa’s eyes widen. He glances up at Unazuki. “Right?”

 “Not happening!” his cousin declares and Ichiro is totally stunned when Maasa slaps Unazuki right across the face. Unazuki looks rather amazed too. “You’re not taking my Ichiro anywhere and I’m not letting you die!” Ichiro blinks helplessly as Maasa grabs his hand and yanks him away. “You’re really willing to get yourself killed just for some dumb cute boy you met for five minutes?! You really are an idiot!”

 

 Ichiro glances back at Unazuki, who’s glaring up at the goddess, who raises her bow once more, aiming straight at him. Maasa drags him back through the rain towards the back of the house. There’s a black armoured car by the back gate. The engine’s already running. The door is half open. It opens further as they approach and hands grab them, pulling them in. Ichiro glances back through the window. There are monsters coming towards them. Ichiro’s heart pounds as they tear out into the road.

 “What were you thinking?” Maasa hisses, smacking his arm.

 The car slams to a stop and Ichiro yelps as he his slams into the back of the seat in front of him. “Ow ow ow…”

 He lifts his head to see what’s going on and his jaw hangs open. Right in front of them, in the middle of the road, is the goddess. Artemis, Unazuki called her, right? Her white and silver clothes billow around her, almost glowing in the rain.

 Everyone’s staring. Maasa swallows thickly as she lifts her bow. “That’s…”

 “My goddess in white,” Ichiro says. “She’s real.”

 “Ichiro…” Maasa whispers. Ichiro smiles. “I’m sorry…”

 The blond goddess smiles, lifting her bow as the ground rumbles and those strange melodic cries fill the air. The monsters are coming after them. Unazuki said that he’d be the only survivor again if he didn’t do what he asked. Is he controlling the monsters? Is he what they’re after?

 “I have to go,” Ichiro whispers.

 “Ichiro?” Maasa snaps. He throws open the door and jumps out into the storm once more. “Ichiro!”

 Maasa jumps out after him and before Ichiro can yell about how dangerous it is, the car is tearing away and there’s a wailing cry above them. Ichiro lifts his head and Maasa’s hands clasp around him as they stare up into the dark heavens. Just visible is a darker black shape. A serpent like form, poised above them.

 “We have to run,” Maasa cries, tugging at his hand.

 “If I keep running they’ll kill everyone!” Ichiro yells back. “It’s me they want! You have to go!”

 “How many times do I have to tell you I’m not leaving you, idiot!”

 

 Ichiro smiles weakly. Maasa’s been the only one who’s stood by him this entire time. Even when everyone else thought he should be dead, Maasa’s never abandoned him. And now, because he’s the one who won’t leave him to suffer alone, he’s going to suffer with him. But Maasa’s arms wrap around his neck and Ichiro smiles weakly, returning the hold gently.

 “I’m sorry, Maasa.”

 “You’re such an idiot.”

 “Sorry.”

 “Don’t be. I’m sorry I didn’t believe you.”

 He tightens his arms around Maasa, gazing up at the flash of sharp teeth plunging down towards them before burying his head in Maasa’s soaked hair and scrunching his eyes shut. But death doesn’t come. There’s a metallic slicing and they look up. The goddess - Artemis, stands in front of them, sword in hand and blood on the concrete washes away. Blond hair clings to her face and she lifts her sword. More monsters are coming. Ichiro can make out their twisted shapes in the darkness.

 Artemis throws herself forward, her sword snapping into a whip and tearing through the monsters. Ichiro stares helplessly as she despatched of monsters with cold, calculated precision. Maasa clings to him, staring in awe. It seems like eternity just watching.

 

 Finally, there’s silence. Artemis’ heels touch down in front of them with a quiet click and slight splash. Maasa and Ichiro cling to one another, shivering in the rain as she finally turns with a sighs.

 “What a mess.” Ichiro’s eyes widen as she turns. Maasa’s head tilts slightly. “Let’s go. Furanui and Karls should be around here somewhere. Follow, children.”

 


 

 “You’re missing something, Unazuki-san,” Ata says, eyes slightly narrowed. “How unlike you to fail at your mission.”

 “Nanao interfered,” Taiju replies. “Again.”

 Ata sighs and tilts his head. “So, not only did you fail to capture the missing key, you didn’t get his gift. I imagine you didn’t defeat Wakura either.”

 “There will be other chances,” he says, shaking his head.

 “Will there?”  Ata says, turning away. “You can inform him of your failure then.”

 

 Taiju sighs and watches Ata sweep away before heading through the warehouse acting as their temporary base to one of the shipping containers. He knocks and waits to be called in before opening up the door. The inside is lit by the glow of screens as their advisor works away. He barely glances back to acknowledge Taiju as he stands in the middle of the makeshift lab.

 “Well?” says a voice at the other end.

 Taiju turns to the cage at the far end of the container. “I’m afraid-”

 “You failed,” says the inhabitant. Taiju sighs as their advisor straightens up. “You don’t have the last key and you don’t have the gift.”

 “Is that true, Taiju-chan?” their advisor says.

 “I’m… afraid so…” Taiju says. The man turns and Taiju clenches his fists behind him as there’s a growl from the cage. “Wakura Nanao interfered-”

 “I don’t want your excuses,” he hisses. Taiju takes a discreet step back towards the door. “Do not think I will allow you any more failures, Taiju-chan. Please, endeavour to do better next time. I won’t give you a fourth chance.”

 “I won’t fail again,” he says determinedly.

 “I’m sure you won’t. Third time’s the charm, after all.”

Chapter Text

 Ichiro has no idea where Maasa’s been taken. They were forced apart, and he thinks he saw Maasa being reunited with their family, and this Artemis had taken him to an armoured truck. He opens up the door and steps inside, holding a hand for Ichiro. He. The goddess Ichiro had imagined for years, with the long blond hair and curvaceous body of the renaissance and baroque art hanging on his parents’ walls, is quite definitely not. Instead, Ichiro is faced with a quite definitely male body. A no less beautiful male body, who definitely could belong in an ancient piece of artwork painted by a master, but a definitely physically male body wrapped in beautiful silvers and whites and flowing fabric, that Ichiro definitely hasn’t been staring at for the past five minutes as they wait in awkward silence for whoever it is they’re waiting for.

 

 Finally, the door opens and Ichiro jerks his head away from Artemis. A blond bounces in, followed by an elegant blue haired man. They shut the door and to the truck and the blond blinks at him. There’s a moment more silence before he grins and throws his arms around Ichiro.

 “You brought us a key, Nanao!” he cries.

 Ichiro frowns up at him.  A key? Does he mean him? He pushes the blond off and he grins back. He’s wearing a uniform. Both of them are. Artemis - he calls him Nanao? - glows and his outfit flashes into a uniform to match the others.

 “Which one are you?” the blond says grinning back at him still.

 “Umm, I’m Ichiro,” he replies.

 “Dougo Ichiro,” the blue haired man says. Ichiro gazes up at them with a frown. Everyone seems to know a lot about him. “The vessel for the magic of the stars.”

 “Magic?!” Ichiro cries. “Is that why everyone’s after me? I didn’t know I had magic-”

 “You don’t,” Nanao replies.

 Ichiro frowns and the blue haired man sighs. “We should proceed with the removal.”

 “Removal?”

 “Right, right!” the blond laughs, standing in front of him. “Have the container ready, ok? Don’t squirm too much. If I miss I’ll kill you.”

 “Wait wait wait!” Ichiro cries.

 “Oh, you’re right, it might kill you anyway,” he muses.

 “Hey, no way!” he yelps, jerking from the chair and staggering away. “No way! If I’m going to die, it’s gotta be with Taishi!”

 

 The blond tilts his head and Nanao and the blue haired man sigh. The blond approaches slowly and Ichiro backs up against the door. He considers him with a slight frown, looking him over slowly. He doesn’t like being looked like that. He doesn’t like being considered like that. It doesn’t make him comfortable at all.

 “Who’s Taishi?”

 “Manza Taishi,” the blue haired man says. “The other key. Vessel of the snow.”

 “Oooooh,” he says, nodding slightly. Ichiro frowns. Is that why he and Taishi are important? Because they have magic? “Oh no. No no no, Ichiro, you can’t die like that. You’d doom the world.”

 “That Unazuki guy said if Taishi and I died, we’d save the world,” Ichiro says.

 “Oh nooooo,” he says, shaking his head. “No, no not at all.”

 “Then what is going on?!” he demands. “Why am I here? What’s this about magic and me being a key?! I don’t understand at all!”

 “Ah ah, it’s totally simple,” he cheers. “That day, everyone at the concert was given a wrist pass. Each was embedded with a shattered piece of the keystone.”

 Ichiro frowns. He remembers, there was a shiny black stone in his wristband. It had lit up and glowed and pulsed with the music. He remembers thinking how cool it had been. They’d glowed so brightly before the monsters turned up too. Those wristbands had something to do with it?

 “Those fragments became bonded to your life forces,” he continues, smiling as if this isn’t slightly horrifying. “So when you all died, the keystone became whole again.” Ichiro opens his mouth to ask questions but shuts it again quickly. He’s not sure he wants more answers if they’re all like this. “But you’re missing so the keystone isn’t whole and can’t be used.”

 “So, they want me to die so they can make this keystone whole?” Ichiro says quietly. The blond nods enthusiastically. “And Taishi too?”

 “Who? Ah, don’t interrupt, I’ll forget my place.” Ichiro nods dumbly. “So, because you survived, by the time we could separate you from the keystone fragment it had been totally absorbed into you because of the star magic.”

 “Meaning?”

 “Meaning it’s so completely a part of you that the physical stone is useless now and parting you from it in an attempt to keep Saphir from getting it had absolutely no effect. We just had a pretty rock with no magical energy left at all. All its magic is inside you.”

 “And that’s this star magic?”

 “No that’s Ryoma’s.”

 “I’m confused,” Ichiro whines.

 

 “Karls, you’re making a mess of this,” Nanao sighs. He pushes the blond aside and smiles down at him. “Hello, Ichiro-kun.”

 “H-hi.”

 “I’m Wakura Nanao. Do you remember me?”

 “You saved me that day.” Nanao smiles and nods. “And Taishi?”

 “Forget about Taishi for now. Focus on your own position. Taishi-kun is safe. That’s all  you need to know.” Ichiro nods. Taishi is safe. That’s good. He smiles and nods. “Good boy. Now, the very simple version is that you’re now part of a key that if completed will open the door between our world and the monsters’ completely, allowing through their king.”

 “Not good,” Ichiro whispers, nodding along.

 “Definitely not,” he agrees. “But there are people who think they can control the monsters and use them to rule the world. They’re the ones who tried to kidnap you tonight.” Ichiro nods. “No matter how much you want to be dead, Ichiro-kun, I think you would feel worse if your death lead to the entire world being overrun by monsters, or conquered by them.”

 “Of course,” he says.

 “We were transfering Ryoma’s magic that day,” he continues. “When the helicopter exploded, the container was broken and the star magic escaped, transfering into the nearest living person with magic compatibility. That was you.” Ichiro nods. He’d accidentally stolen someone else’s magic. “That’s what kept you alive through such traumatic injuries. And why you had to be kept alive until we could get you to a proper place to contain the magic once removed. That’s the abridged version of events, but you understand, right?”

 “I think so. But if I’m the last piece, what about Taishi?”

 Nanao sighs and flicks his forehead. “Ask about him one more time and I’ll show you what the monsters see before they die.”

 Ichiro nods quickly. He imagines those monsters must think they’re seeing an angel right before they’re removed from the world. Nanao smiles and steps away. He doesn’t really get a lot of it, but he thinks he understands enough. Ichiro is a fragment of the key to the world monsters came from.

 

 “Wait wait wait, if I’m a piece of this key thingy, does that mean you can use me to save the world?” Ichiro says.

 “You want to die that badly, child?” the blue haired man says.

 “I’ve been hanging onto the hope that I wasn’t the only survivor,” he replies with a small smile. “I’m a burden to everyone. Maasa’s the only one who cares what happens to me. Mother can’t be seen to abandon me, but would if she could, she doesn’t want to be associated with me either. I’m in this limbo where living is a sin. If I could die with a purpose… isn’t that for the best?”

 “How sad,” Karls sighs, leaning close. “But no, you can’t just die and close up the gate until all the monsters are back on the other side.”

 “Ok, so we just do that, right?”

 “It’s a little more complicated than that,” Nanao says. “Now, Ichiro-kun, I have a proposition for you-”

 “Wakura,” the blue haired man hisses.

 “It’s fine,” he says with a smile. “It’s a better option, right? Ichiro-kun, if we try to return your magic to Ryoma-kun, it may well kill you.” Ichiro frowns. “However, if you learnt to use your magic and work with us, we could defeat the monsters and perhaps find a way to remove the keystone from you and close the gate without having to kill you.”

 Ichiro lowers his head. “What happens if I die now? Can’t you like, not kill me because the keystone would be complete?”

 “You’d have to be in the vicinity of the keystone,” the blue haired man said. “That’s why three years ago, it was important to have everyone together. If you die now, the keystone’s magic and the star magic would simply find new vessels nearby.”

 “I don’t have much choice, do I?”

 “Not if you’re so determined to see your friend again,” Karls says, bouncing slightly. “I’m Karls, by the way. This is my big brother Furanui. We’re in charge of the magical division of the Disaster Relief Agency. I’ll be your commander if you join us.”

 “Can I… get some time to think about this?” Ichiro says quietly.

 “Of course,” he says, clapping his hands. “We can talk about it tomorrow. After school. We’ll talk a lot. We’ll start training you.”

 “I’ll take you back to your parents,” Nanao says.

 Ichiro smiles and nods. They step out and Ichiro smiles awkwardly up at Nanao. “Umm, what’s this Saphir thing you were talking about?”

 “A rather shady organisation funded by some of the richest families and businesses in the world,” he explains. “We’ve tried to find them and infiltrate before. So far there’s little progress. Taiju, who you met earlier, is one of their elite. They call themselves knights. They’re the ones trying to control the monsters. They’re the ones who did this to you.”

 Ichiro clenches his fists. This Saphir group has Taishi. He opens his mouth to ask Nanao more about Taishi’s situation but… after what he said earlier, he rethinks and shuts it. If he defeats Saphir, he’ll get Taishi back, right? If they’ve got Taishi, they need to defeat them and free Taishi and maybe they can go to school together.

 “Where do you go to school?” Nanao says.

 “Binan Private School,” Ichiro replies.

 “You stay in the dorms?” he says. Ichiro nods. “Wonderful. I know a guy there.”

 “That’s not reassuring.”

 

 “Ichiro!” Maasa calls. Ichiro smiles weakly as Maasa barrels into him, arms thrown around his neck. “Idiot Ichiro! I thought you were dead.”

 “Ah, Karls will have used his Happy Powder on them,” Nanao says with a smile. “They won’t remember anything about the magic or the situation. I’ll see you later, Ichiro-kun.”

 Ichiro stares at him as he always away. They don’t remember any of it. They don’t remember the monsters or him nearly getting kidnapped or finally seeing Nanao and knowing his goddess - even if no entirely as he imagined - was real? They don’t remember any of it? Ichiro sighs and closes his eyes, leaning into Maasa’s shoulder. He’s alone again.

 “Are you ok, Ichiro?” Maasa whispers.

 “Yeah,” Ichiro replies, pulling back and flashing a smile. “I’m just glad you’re all ok. Can we just… go back to the dorm please?”

 “Yeah, we’ve all been processed. We can go.”

 Ichiro nods and Maasa leads him along. He doesn’t want to take a car. They walk together arm in arm under Maasa’s umbrella. Ichiro doesn’t really know what to say. He doesn’t know what Maasa will remember. He just walks silently with his head down. Maasa squeezes him arm gently but he can’t bring himself to say anything. He just plays with the clip in his pocket.

 Tonight has been completely overwhelming. Taishi really is alive, probably held captive by these Saphir guys and they’re going to try using them to rule the world with these monsters. They walk slowly. Lots of things still don’t make sense but it’s enough for him to keep hoping and waiting. Now he just has to decide how serious this really is. Is he going to fight with Nanao or let them take this magic he didn’t know he had and potentially die because of it?

 “Are you ok, Ichiro?” Maasa say quietly. “You’re weirdly quiet.”

 “Just thinking,” Ichiro replies.

 “Don’t think too hard, it’ll fry your brain,” he laughs.

 Ichiro smiles weakly. Maybe. Maybe that’s the real explanation for all this. Maybe he’s just tired and thinking too hard and he’s fried his brain and this is all just one big hallucination. It’ll be all be fine again in the morning. It’ll all make sense in the morning.

 

 “Do you mind if sleep with you tonight, Maasa?” Ichiro says quietly, changing into his pyjamas.

 “I think that’s a good idea,” Maasa replies.

 Ichiro nods, climbing up onto the top bunk with Maasa, who looks adorable in a pink nightie and with cute curls tucked up in rollers. They lie together in the pillows, curling up under thick downy covers and listening to the pounding of the rain against the window.

 “Ichiro,” Maasa whispers. “Don’t keep it all inside. Talk to me when you need to. I know it feels like you’re alone, but I love you. It’d break my heart if we lost you. Just… talk to me ok?”

 “I know, Maasa,” Ichiro whispers back. “I love you too.”

 But you wouldn’t believe me.

 Maasa smiles, fingers sliding between Ichiro’s as they drift off in warmth and comfort. Ichiro listens to the rain, trying to steady his breathing as he does. Taishi is out there somewhere. Held prisoner and suffering. He can’t let Maasa get involved in this too, can he?

 


 

 It’s Taiju’s turn to deliver dinner to the lab. He shifts the tray onto one arm and knocks quietly, waiting to be called in. He opens the door to the container and set the tray down. Their advisor doesn’t look up from his work.

 “I brought dinner,” Taiju says, setting the contents down on the table. “Is he allowed to eat today?”

 He waves his hand and Taiju sighs. He picks up the bowl of soup from the tray and heads back to the cage. He’s always felt bad for the youngster stuck in the cage.It’s hard not to. He’s been trapped in there with that hellhound to guard him for as long as Taiju has known him. He smiles gently and the boy moves closer. Taiju slides the bowl between the bars and the boy takes it eagerly. The beast that guards him moves over the bars and Taiju fetches the other bowl from the tray, sliding it in for the creature to dig into.

 “Are you alright, little one?” Taiju says gently, handing over a bottle of juice. The boy takes it eagerly with only a growled thanks and Taiju smiles a little. “Taishi-kun, will you be glad to see Ichiro-kun again?”

 “I need the key,” he whispers, pulling open the cap and drinking. “I need the key to be complete.”

 “Taishi-kun-”

 “I’ve warned you about humanising him before, Taiju-chan,” their advisor calls. Taiju glances up. “He’s a monster, nothing more.”

 “He’s a child,” Taiju snaps.

 “How disgustingly soft of you,” he sighs. He grasps Taiju’s wrist and his hisses as his ring is pulled from his finger. Instantly, eerie yellow eyes focus on him. “He’s a monster.”

 “Taishi-kun-”

 Taishi snarls and launched forward, teeth beared, reaching for his throat. Chains snap and clank, stopping him just short of the bars. He snarls and yanks at the chains as the twisted hellhound jumps in front of him, jumping up at bars, teeth gnashing.

 “You remember why he has to be kept in here, don’t you?” their advisor says. “One wrong move could get us all killed.”

 He laughs and tosses Taiju back his ring. He slips it back on and it doesn’t even even take a moment for Taishi’s eyes to return to an icy blue and the chains go slack. The twisted dog steps away when his master sits down again. Taiju sighs, playing with his ring. He wonders what Ichiro would make of it if he saw his beloved Taishi like this.

 “Taishi-kun,” he sighs.

 “Just fix my key,” Taishi hisses. “If you want to help me, fix they key.”

 Taiju sighs and lowers his head. “Taishi-kun…”

 “If you want to see him recover, you need to bring us the last piece of the key, Taiju-chan,” their advisor says. Taiju nods slightly. He’d done this because his family insisted, but the moment he first saw little Taishi locked away in this cage he know he had to work as hard as he could to help him. “Then you can save little Taishi and your dear Nanao-chan.”

 Taiju’s first clench and Taishi gazes back at him. Nanao will eventually end up needing to be locked up like Taishi too. Taishi sighs and that monstrous creature lies its head in Taishi’s lap. One more reason why he had to do his best. Even if Nanao hated him for it in the end.

 

 “The four demons are sleeping,” Taishi whispers, gazing down at his hound as he pets its head, “do not wake them. The demon of the earth dreams of swallowing civilisations. The demon of the air dreams of wind that steals the breath. The demon of the fire dreams of the sun scorching the land. The demon of water dreams of tides merciless tides. Do not wake them. Do not wake them.”

 “You really are quite creepy sometimes, Taishi-kun,” Taiju sighs.

 “I think that’s enough excitement for the day,” their advisor says. “Leave us.”

 Taiju frowns, watching silently as Taishi curls up with his demonic hound and pulls the blankets over them both. If they can’t complete the keystone and open up the door to the other world they can never save little Taishi. He’ll spend the rest of his life in his cage. If they don’t hurry, Taishi won’t be the only one.

 “Taiju-chan,” their advisor snaps.

 Taiju sighs and turns away. What else can he do? So far, the longest they’ve kept Taishi under control it two hours, after that he was almost uncontrollable if he sensed something to devour. The more they used the drugs to control him, the more he grew resilient. No matter how much he hates keeping Taishi locked up like that, they have no choice.

 

 “You’re too soft, Unazuki-san,” Ata says, leaning against the side of the container. Taiju frowns at him. “If you can’t do what needs to be done, you might as well be useless.”

 “How can you be so cold?” Taiju says, shaking his head. “Ata-”

 “If you let your emotions get the better of you, you will lose everything you’re struggling to save,” he snaps. “Stop looking at that monster as a suffering child and remember that he needs to die to save the person you claim to love.”

 Taiju clenches his fists. He knows that. He knows. They have to sacrifice Ichiro to open the gate fully and tearing the monstrous side of Taishi out could well kill him too but that is the only hope for saving Nanao from the same fate. He can only push forward and hope Taishi survives.

 “I won’t hesitate when the time comes,” he says. Ata tilts his head. “Hey, what do you think that story about the demons is about?”

 Ata frowns and tilts his head. “I’d imagine some kind riddle about what’s waiting on the other side of the gate to the other world. A prophecy or warning about the monsters that lie beyond the gateway.”

 “You think these demons are some powerful monsters on the other side?” Taiju says.

 “In any ecosystem, there can only be a small number of super predators,” Ata replies. “I’d imagine these monsters in their world are the same. Even the most powerful ones we’ve seen haven’t proven to be anything spectacular. I’m imagine there are some truly incomprehensible creatures on the other side, unable to break through the small gaps we have so far. It’s perfectly plausible those four demons are the strongest creatures out there and that thing simply warning us.”

 “He could do it a little less creepily,” he sighs.

 “It’s a monster, I doubt it understands what humans consider creepy.”

 “He’s a child.”

 “It’s a monster, Unazuki-san. If you forget that, I doubt you will be able to do what’s necessary.”

 

 Taiju sighs and heads out to the entrance of the warehouse, staying under the roof’s overhang and watching the rain pouring, listening to it rattling against the roof, pouring over the edge and splashing down in little trickles into rivers on the ground. He smiles weakly, gazing up at the faint glow of the moon’s light. He’s going to have to sacrifice these children to the other world to save Nanao. He sighs, leaning back against the side of the warehouse.

 “Nanao?”

 “Don’t freak out.”

 “What was that?!”

 Nanao smiled and Taiju folded his arms with a scowl. What on earth had Nanao been doing after school all this time? Nanao sunk lower into his bath and Taiju’s frown deepened. His flicked his fingers and the water sparkled in the air around him.

 “I have magic,” he said with a smile.

 “Magic?” Taiju said, shaking his head. “Nanao-”

 “I know it’s ridiculous,” he laughed. The water splashed down again and Nanao giggled. “But I have magic. I’ve been fighting the monsters, protecting people. They call me the Knight of the Moon.”

 “The Knight of the Moon?” he whispered.

 Nanao laughed and stood in the sunken bath. The water running over his body shimmered silver in the moonlight and Nanao smiled. The water wrapped around him and transformed into silver and white, just as Taiju had seen in the middle of that chaotic battlefield. Nanao smiled and tilted his head.

 “I’m going to fight the monsters, Taiju,” he said. Taiju stared up at him helplessly. There was a sense of power and awe radiating off him like Taiju had never experienced before. “I’m going to help people. I’m going to protect people with my magic.”

 “Nanao…”

 Nanao smiled and his outfit flashed away, letting him sink into the water again with a sigh. “I need to get better though. Oww… those monsters hit hard…”

 “You could die,” Taiju whispered, sitting beside the bath and brushing Nanao’s hair from his face gently. Nanao smiled and shook his head. “Nanao, please, it’s dangerous.”

 “I want to help people. I want to protect the innocent.”

 Taiju sighed and nodded. “The moon that protects the innocent. My Artemis.”

 “I’ll destroy this entire world to protect you,” Taiju whispers, reaching up towards the moon absently. “My Artemis.”

 


 

 Ichiro and Maasa wake up to banging on their dorm room door. Ichiro groans and rolls over, struggling down from the top bunk, making sure the chain is on, before opening up the door just enough to see through the gap. There’s a redhead there, smiling back at him.

 “Can I help you?” he groans, rubbing his eyes.

 “Dougo Ichiro?” he chirps.

 Ichiro frowns. “No offense, mister, but the last two guys who knew who I was  tried to kidnap me to kill me and tried to get me to fight monsters.”

 “Exactly,” he says. “Kirishima Ryoma.” Ichiro frowns. Didn’t Nanao say the guy who’s magic he had was… “You have my magic.”

 Yeah. “I’m still thinking it over.”

 “Ichiro,” Kirishima says firmly. “They will keep coming for you. Everyone around you will be in danger and if you don’t want them to get hurt you will have to learn to use the magic given to you.”

 “That’s not fair,” Ichiro huffs.

 “But true. Come on, let me in and we can talk while you get dressed.”

 “It’s like six thirty.”

 Ryoma smiles. “We should make it to class on time then.”

 “What?”

 “Hurry up or we’ll be late.”

Chapter Text

 “You’ve got to focus,” Ryoma sighs.

 Ichiro doesn’t know how to focus on this stuff! He keep telling him stuff about how to reach his magic but it doesn’t make any sense! He’s not getting it at all!

 “It’s not making any sense,” he huffs. “I don’t feel any different.”

 “How are you supposed to fight monsters if you can’t even feel your magic?” Ryoma says.

 “It’s not easy the first time, Ryo-chin,” Kyotaro yawns. Ichiro isn’t entirely sure who Kyotaro is but he’s lying on the crash mats at the side of sports hall. He’s not really helping and mostly just makes tired comments every now and again. “Maybe you’ve got to be firmer with him.”

 “Easy for you to say,” he sighs. “I don’t know how to be a teacher.”

 “I’m trying,” Ichiro says with a pout. “How did you learn?”

 “Umm… we were at school and were attacked by monsters and I wanted to protect Kyotaro and-” He pauses and frowns, lowering his head. “I saved Kyotaro.”

 “I want to protect Maasa,” he says with a firm nod. He tries to think about Maasa in danger. The serpent monster that had been posed above them. He wants to protect Maasa. He needs to protect the only person who’s ever been kind to him. “Maasa needs me.”

 “Maybe you just need to be pushed a bit more. Maybe you’ll be able to transform when you’re in danger.”

 

 “Then maybe Kyotaro-kun is right.” They turn. Nanao is sweeping in, dressed in a white uniform. “Perhaps we need to be firmer.”

 “Pres, you’re back?” Kyotaro says, sitting up.

 “Pres…?”

 No way! Ichiro’s eyes widen, realising that’s the Student Council’s uniform! Nanao’s been right here at his school the entire time and he’s never noticed?! Nanao smiles and tucks his hands behind him. He’s not sure what to make of it. He’s not sure he trusts Nanao entirely. He’s… strange.

 “Ichiro-kun,” he says, tilting his head. “You want to save Taishi-kun, don’t you?”

 “Taishi…” He nods quickly. “I need to save him from those Saphir guys!”

 “Who’s Taishi?” Ryoma says quietly.

 “The other survivor,” Nanao replies. “The one with the snow magic.”

 “Ah! The one who-”

 “That’s right. Hush.”

 “Wakura-senpai…”

 “If you want to save him, you have to be able to defeat both monsters and knights,” Nanao says firmly. Ichiro nods. He’ll learn. “You and I are both opposites and partners, Ichiro-kun. The moon and the stars.”

 “Moon and stars…” Ichiro breathes, staring up at him for a moment before shaking his head. “What’s that got to do with Taishi?”

 “If you can’t defeat those who guard him, how can you save him?” Ichiro nods slightly. That makes sense. He has to get his magic to beat them and save Taishi! “So, you and I have to learn to work together.”

 “We do?”

 Nanao smiles and leans close to his face. Ichiro’s cheeks go red, staring up into Nanao’s intense amber gaze. “We do.”

 He cups Ichiro’s face and leans in and Ichiro squeaks as Nanao’s lips meet his. For three years he’d thought about the beautiful goddess who’d saved him and now he’s being kissed by him! His first kiss! There’s a chill around him and sparkles and flashes and then warmth and a soft glow.

 

 “If I have to do that everytime I’m going to be so disappointed,” Nanao sighs, stepping away. Ichiro stares up at him. He’s in white and silver again, heels clicking lightly on the floor as he walks away. He smiles and tilts his head. “That’s cute, Ichiro-kun.”

 Ichiro stares down at himself. “Whoooooa!”

 He turns quickly, trying to stare down at himself and take it all in, but he stumbles on the low heels and ends up on his butt, staring up at Nanao. How does he walk in those, let alone fight?! Ryoma smiles and offers him his hand to help him back up.

 “I did it!” Ichiro cheers. “I transformed. I can fight monsters now, right?”

 “Do you think?” Nanao says.

 His sword appears in hand and Ichiro yelps as he swings it and it extends into a sharp whip. Ryoma pulls him aside and Nanao smiles, leveling the sword at him.

 “Senpai!” Ryoma cries.

 “Come on, Ichiro-kun,” Nanao says with a heavy sigh. “If you can’t summon up any kind of weapon, how are you going to fight. We had the same problem with Ryoma-kun. That’s why you lost your magic, Ryoma-kun.”

 “Wakura-senpai! It- it wasn’t-”

 “If you don’t have the will to fight, then you’ll lose everything!” he snaps.

 Ichiro staggers aside, staring back at Nanao as another snap of the whip like blade comes at him. “I don’t know how!”

 “Then figure it out before you lose it all!”

 “Senpai?!”

 “This magic isn’t a gift that solves everything, Ichiro-kun.” Ichiro yelps, stumbling back from the whip blade. “It will tear you apart if you give it a chance. It will consume you.”

 “I don’t have any choice though, do I?!” Ichiro cries. “If I don’t accept this you’re going to kill me.”

 “Then I suggest you stop running and face this fate.”

 

 Ichiro stumbles on the heels and crashes to the ground. He stares up at the sharp blade swinging down at him. He throws up his hands in a desperate last attempt to stop the blade, eyes scrunched shut. There’s a metal clang and Ichiro’s eyes crack open. There’s a bright light and he’s managed to catch the blade. Nanao is frowning and Ryoma is staring. But he’s not dead! That’s always a good start!

 “Senpai!” Ryoma cries.

 “I want to protect Maasa!” Ichiro says, forcing himself up.

 He yanks at the blade and Nanao stumbles forward before planting his feet and getting tension back. He has no idea how to summon a weapon. He has no idea how to fight, but he’s strong enough that he’s pretty sure he could win a tug of war even against his senior. If that’s all he needs to do, then that’s fine.

 “I need to save Taishi!”

 He plants his feet and drops his weight to yank at the whip blade once more. Harder this time. Nanao staggers and Ichiro pushes forward. He doesn’t have much choice. Nanao isn’t actually being gentle with him because he’s a beginner. He throws the whip aside and slams his fist forward into Nanao’s stomach-

 Only to stumble through thin air. Ichiro lifts his head as he loses balance to see Nanao flipping gracefully through the air. Time slows and Nanao’s lands with an echoing click of heels. Ichiro doesn’t even get time to complete his clumsy, probably painful, inelegant fall flat on his face before Nanao spins and his foot slams into Ichiro’s stomach. A small scream rips from his throat as he flies across the hall and slams into the far wall, collapsing into the rubble with a groan. And everything goes dark.

 

 “Wake up, Ichiro-kun.” Ichiro opens his eyes with a groan. They’re moving. They’re in a car. Ichiro groans, shaking his head, struggling to get the cloudy haze to fade. “Ah, there we go.”

 “Nanao-senpai?” he groans.

 “We’ve got a job to do,” Nanao says with a smile. “Don’t expect me to kiss you to make you transform this time. If you can’t manage it, then you’ll have to face your death yourself.”

 “W-wait!” Ichiro cries, shaking his head. “Death?!”

 “What do you think happens if you can’t fight?” he replies. He smiles coldly and lifts his head, gazing up at the shadows looming in the city. “Karls and Furanui are around here somewhere. They’ll capture your magic and the keystone if you die, so don’t worry about that.”

 “That- that’s not-” He frowns and lowers his head. “Before we go… what’s going on with Taishi…? Why’ve they captured him? You’re not telling me something, right? II’m the only piece of the keystone left, why do they want him? Why was he there?”

 “Taishi-kun has magic just like us,” Nanao says. “As I’m sure you’ve picked up. He is the Knight of the Snow.”

 “He’s like us?”

 Nanao shakes his head. “In theory, he is. He has magic. He is a knight like us. But Taishi-kun is not an ally.”

 “He- he’s not-”

 “Taishi-kun works for Saphir. He was there to oversee the keystone formation and to take control of the monsters that came through.”

 “He…”

 Ichiro stares up at the monsters. Taishi is one of the ones behind this? He was there to see him dead? Taishi will take his life to get this keystone inside him? The boy he’s live for, longed to meet again and waited for, had longed for, is the enemy? His fingers brush the hair clip holding back his bangs.

 “Why?” he whispers.

 “You’d have to ask him,” Nanao replies, fists clenched against the steering wheel. “You’ll never understand why people turn to Saphir.”

 Ichiro clenches his fists. There has to be a reason. Taishi had smiled at him that day. They’d laughed together and he’s put his clip in his hair, half agreed to crepes after. Taishi wouldn’t have done all that knowing he was going to die, right? Ichiro refuses to believe anyone would be so cruel as to smile and laugh like that with someone he knew was going to die.

 

 They swing down a street and Ichiro yelps, grabbing onto the door handle desperately. Nanao drives like a madman. Although, now confronted with a strange, twisted monster that might be the least of his worries. Nanao switches off the engine and Ichiro swallowed thickly, hands shaking.

 He steps out from the car, following Nanao silently towards the monster writhing in the darkness. Nanao changes in a flash of light and sparkles and lifts his bow. Ichiro does his best but he can’t figure out what made him transform when Nanao kissed him. He can’t figure out how to do it.

 “Oh, I forgot to mention,” Nanao says, firing arrows of silver light into the monsters. “Scratch my car and you will feel the sharp end of my whip, Ichiro-kun. And this time I won’t go easy on you.”

 “Y-yes, senpai!”

 Nanao pushes forward and Ichiro stares helplessly as he transforms the bow into his sword. And Ichiro is left standing there unable to transform and unable to fight. There’s slithering off to one side and Ichiro turns, watching black fog roll out from the side street. Not good, not good, not good!

 “Senpai…” Blazing red eyes glare back at him and the shape moves through the darkness. “Senpai.” The shape shoots forward and Ichiro yelps, hitting the ground as a barb dripping with thick gooey shoots over his head, burning the ground as it goes. “Senpai!”

 Nanao is nowhere to be seen.

 And his car has a fizzing, bubbling hole in the roof from the acidic barb!

 The same barb that’s now coming flying at him again! Ichiro pushes himself to his feet with a stifled sob. Why can’t he transform?! Why can’t he transform and save himself?! He’s supposed to be protecting Maasa and finding Taishi and yet he’s stuck helplessly running for his life! He runs desperately through the dark alleys. Where’s Nanao? Where is everyone?!

 

 A dead end looms above him and Ichiro skids to a stop. He spins on his heel, staring at the dark shape stalking him, tears spilling over his cheeks. He snaps the blue star clip from his hair, holding it desperately in his hands as he sinks to his knees.

 “Please,” he whispers. “I have to see him again. I don’t care if he’s the enemy. I don’t care if he wants my life. Please, let me see him again. I can’t stop until I see him again. Please. Let me transform. Please. I have this magic for him. Please, Taishi.”

 He can hear the ground frizzing and hissing as the acid drips closer. The monstre growls and clicks and Ichiro scrunches his eyes shut tighter. He can’t die until he’s seen him again. This magic is his gift. He has to use it with Taishi’s. He got them together, he has to use them together, right? He has to see him! He can’t die until he’s seen him again!

 “TAISHI!”

 “You’re so loud.”

 Warmth spreads through him, wrapping around him and then met with a blast of cold. There’s a hideous crack and thud and Ichiro’s eyes open a touch. The monster is on the ground, half driven into it. Ichiro is wrapped in the magical outfit once more. The clip in his hand is blazing orange and blue.

 

 As if the matching one in Taishi’s hair.

 

 There’s a moment of stillness and silence. The pair watch each other in the flashing light coming from the pair of clips. Ichiro reaches up slowly, fastening the clip in his hair and getting shakily to his feet. Taishi stands on what Ichiro thinks it the monster’s head, its shell cracked and split around his feet, sticky black liquid liquid leaking onto the concrete, bubbling with the acid. His black outfit ruffles lightly in the small breeze, hair moving over icy silver-blue eyes.

 There he is. Taishi. Manza Taishi. He’s waited for him for so long.

 Finally, Ichiro finds his voice. “You’re-”

 “Manza Taishi.” Ichiro’s eye widen. It really is him! “Knight of the Snow.”

 “You saved me,” he calls. “Taishi-”

 “It wouldn’t listen to commands,” Taishi replies. Commands? “And I don’t remember giving you permission to be so familiar, Knight of the Stars.”

 “Ah, you probably don’t remember,” Ichiro says, stepping forward and grinning up at hm. “We’ve met before. At the concern three years ago. You-”

 “I gave you one of my clips.” Ichiro frowns. He does remember? Then why…? “You said we should go for crepes after the show. And then, Dougo Ichiro, became the Knight of the Stars and survived.”

 

 Ichiro stares up at him and Taishi gazes back. Something tightens in Ichiro’s chest. He’d kept going all this time because he needed to find Taishi. He need to see him again. It wasn’t supposed to be like this though. It was never supposed to be like this!

 “You really are one of them?” Ichiro whispers. “You really are my enemy?”

 “No,” Taishi replies. He steps down from the monster and the sticky blood squelches beneath his boots. Ichiro takes a step back. He doesn’t want to be scared of Taishi. He’d never been scared of Taishi. Why does he feel so afraid now? “You and I are not enemies.”

 “Taishi-”

 “You’re the last piece of the key. I need to remove your magic. Quickly.”

 “They said that would kill me!” Ichiro cries. “Just like using that keystone will kill me!”

 “Them removing your magic might kill you,” Taishi says, continuing closer. Ichiro backs up, staring up into hideously cold eyes until his back hits the wall. “But I would have no such problems. My magical ability is far more advanced than theirs.”

 “Taishi-”

 “I want my key.”

 “Taishi, Taishi, wait-”

 “You are annoyingly familiar.” He cups Ichiro’s face and leans in. Ichiro stiffens. Wait, is Taishi going to- “Let me free you from this burden, if nothing else… Ichiro…”

 

 Their mouths meet lightly and the light from their clips blazes, blindingly bright. Blocking out everything but the two of them. The sweet kiss Ichiro hadn’t realised he was longing for, hoping for, desperately for years. Taishi had grown up handsome. Ichiro has had to come to terms with the fact that he’s far more interested in the male form than females - especially since realising his goddess was not - and that he’d always imagined Taishi would grow up handsome and charming. The Knight of the Snow has not disappointed in the slightest. His lips are cold and the body pressing to him warms him more than Nanao had. Taishi’s hand slides down to his chest and Ichiro gasps.

 The light from the clips dulls and Taishi groans, pushing against him and keeping him trapped to the wall. Something tugs in Ichiro’s chest. His fingers are going numb from the cold. He pushes weakly at Taishi’s shoulders, realising it’s his magic. His magic is flowing into Taishi.

 Finally, Ichiro manages to jerk his head asides, gasping for breath. Taishi grabs his chin, eyes blazing yellow as he drags him around to kiss him again. Ichiro shakes his head. He’s not letting go of this magic. He’s not letting go of his hope that he can save Taishi. Even if he’s like this!

 He shoves at Taishi’s shoulders as hard as he can and Taishi ends up on the ground, glaring up at him. Ichiro hadn’t realised he was that strong. He wipes the back of his mouth and takes off at a run, bolting past Taishi and back in the direction he’d last seen Nanao. Hopefully Nanao will be back and will be able to help him. There has to be a way to stop Taishi acting like this. Nanao has to know what to do.

 There’s a growl behind him, monsterous and hungry. Ichiro can’t look back though. He can’t face that version of Taishi!

 “Sic him, boy.”

 The light from the clips fades as Ichiro runs desperately. There are steps behind him. Like a dog giving chase. Ichiro would really rather not think about what the could mean.

 “Neve,” says a cold voice above them.

 “Stay out of my meal, Ibusuki,” Taishi snarls.

 

 “Senpai!” Ichiro cries. “Nanao-senpai, help!”

 “I can’t do everything for you, Ichiro-kun,” Nanao calls from somewhere. “Stand and fight on your own two feet. Like earlier.”

 “He says that like it’s so simple,” he pants. “Alright!”

 He plants his feet and spins around. There’s some kind of twisted, demonic dog barrelling at him. Oh god, he’s going to die! His bears its teeth, gnashing at him as it charges. He can fight. He can do it. He can fight. He has magic. He can beat this thing. Taishi and Nanao made it look so easy. He can do it.

 He clenches his fists, dropping his weight and swings straight for the creature’s nose.

 Ichiro’s fist goes through thin air.

 His eyes widen. Taishi’s smile widens behind the dog. Pain flashes through him, straight up his arm and burning through him. Ichiro’s breath catches. Everything slows. The burning grows hotter and hotter until it’s just numb. There’s a hideous wet crunch and tear. Ichiro can only stare at his own blood dripping from the dog’s mouth.

 “No way…”

 The dog shakes his head and Ichiro screams as his arm tears and he’s thrown across the street, rolling over himself and landing in a heap. This isn’t supposed to happen. He has magic. He’s a magical fighter. He’s not supposed to get hurt. He’s not supposed to be anything more than a bit achy and bruised. This can’t be happening! This isn’t right!

 

 “Taishi…” Taishi’s quiet footsteps approach and Ichiro forces his eyes open, gazing up through the red haze at Taishi’s glowing yellow eyes. “Tai...shi…”

 “Don’t worry, Ichiro,” he says and Ichiro screams as he’s kicked over onto his back. Taishi steps over him and drops to his knees in the puddle of blood, sitting over Ichiro’s chest. He leans down, smiling at him as Ichiro cries silently. “You can be with that me forever.”

 He cups his cheek and Ichiro whimpers pathetically as he brings their mouths together once more. This can’t be his Taishi. This can’t for the same Taishi he’s longed to be with. This can’t be him. Taishi can’t be the one to kill him. He can’t. He can’t…

 Ichiro’s eyes slide shut and he slumps against the wet concrete. It’s alright though, isn’t it? He’ll be with his Taishi.

Chapter Text

 There’s blood on the ground of the silent streets.

 Maasa frowns, gazing down at the dried blood. The stains ground, the gashes in the concrete from claws and blades, the holes from acidic poison, abandoned cars. Some of them even look quite nice. Some people argue they should abandon Binan City, but the monsters are everywhere. They’re worldwide. Nowhere is safe from this curse.

 Ichiro is nowhere to be seen at school. He’s not in the dorms. He’s nowhere to be found. So Maasa had gone down to the location of the latest attack, hoping to find any sign of him. It’s a long shot, but he can’t be found anywhere, maybe the idiot is hurt. Maybe he’s putting himself in danger looking for that goddess again.

 “Stupid Ichiro,” Maasa mutters. “Who does he think he is? I’ve always protected him. Always looked after him. And the second that Kirishima guy turns up he’s suddenly his mother. Who does he think he is? Ichiro is my responsibility. He’s my Ichiro. My dumb cousin. And now he’s dragged him off somewhere.” Maasa’s jaw clenches. “Ichiro idiot! Where are you?!”

 

 There’s a groan and Maasa turns. There’s someone there! Maasa runs over to a half hidden alleyway. There’s a strange bloom of flowers and vines. It’s very odd. Not what anyone would expect in a ruined warm zone city. But even weirder is the figure trapped beneath that flora. That looks like their school uniform too!

 “Hey, are you ok?” Maasa calls, fetching a knife out. Of course, Ichiro doesn’t know there’s a knife hidden in Maasa’s school bag. He wouldn’t react well, but the world is a dangerous place now. You can’t be too careful. “Hey, can you hear me?”

 It takes a lot of hard work to get the foliage out the way so Maasa can get to the boy inside. He’s definitely a boy from their school. Their age from the looks of it. His hair falls over his face, he’s bruised and bloody and his clothes are torn. He looks a mess.

 “H-hey, are you alive?” Maasa says, reaching over and touching his neck, searching for a pulse.

 The blood is still sticky and slightly warm, but there’s no sign of any wound that could have caused all this. At least, nowhere Maasa can see. There’s a pulse. Maasa lets out a sigh. He’s alive. He’s ok. He’s breathing now Maasa looks closer. Thank god. Maasa doesn’t want to be touching a corpse.

 “Can you hear me?” The boy groans and Maasa grins. He’s ok! Sort of. “Alright, alright. You need to get help. I’m gonna try and…” Maasa struggles to pull the boy up. He leans against Maasa heavily, barely able to take his own weight. “Let’s get you to the car. I’ll have the driver put down one of the dog blankets so you don’t make a mess or something. What even happened to make you this much of a mess? I mean I get there’s monsters and stuff but what’s with the flowers? You’re not even hurt. At least, you’re all in one piece. Not missing any limbs or anything.”

 

 Maasa’s driver does as as asked, putting out a sheet on the back seats so the boy doesn’t make a mess, and takes the now ruined jacket Maasa had been wearing. Now they can look at him properly, it’s obvious he’s not suffering from any major wounds. Perhaps it’s internal. They should take him to the hospital, or at least get a doctor to look at him. Maasa calls up their doctor as they drive. A private doctor will get him seen sooner.

 He ends up laid on a bed in one of their apartments (with an old sheet still beneath him to make sure he’s not making a mess of the family’s fine bedding) while Maasa busies himself with measuring him up to figure out which clothes will fit him. When the doctor finally arrives, Maassa waits outside the bedroom.

 “He should be just fine,” the doctor says, coming out at last. Maasa smiles. “He’s lucky. We’ve had a few serious injuries from the attacks today. If you’re right and he was found hiding, it was definitely for the best. It’s likely he just needs rest. Although, what trauma’s he’s gone through mentally is another matter. You’re cousin is…”

 “He’s never been right after that day,” Maasa says quietly. “I know.”

 “Unfortunately that’s not uncommon in survivors. Someone surviving such a large scale slaughter as him… it’s amazing he’s as stable as he is, if I’m honest.” He smiles and pats Maasa’s head. “Be careful, Maasa. I don’t want to be treating you for serious trauma and injuries any time soon.”

 

 Maasa nods. That’s good news though. Maasa stands, brushes off the new adorable outfit, and heads in to find out just what shape the boy is really in. He’s lying on the bed, clothes still bloody and torn and half open so the doctor could get a proper look at him. Maasa’s cheeks warm a bit. He’s a very handsome young man.

 “You’re the one who brought me here?” he rasps.

 Maasa stiffens. He’s awake! Eyes half open and gazing at him. After a moment, Maasa smiles and nods. “I’m Maasa. I found you in the streets where there’d been an attack. You were all wrapped up in flowers and vines. So I brought you here and the called a doctor and he says you’re going to be fine when you rest.”

 “My glasses? Did you find my glasses?”

 “No… sorry,” Maasa says quietly, shaking his head. “We can always take you to get some  when you’re feeling stronger.” He nods and Maasa smiles. “Do you think you can get up? We can give you a bath. Get off all this blood and mess.” He nods again, pushing himself up onto his elbows with a hiss. “I’ll go run it. Ah, you’re name?”

 “Taishi,” he mutters. “I think….”

 “You think?”

 He frowns then nods. “Taishi. Definitely. That’s what he calls me. Taishi-kun.”

 “Why’s that hard?” Maasa says quietly.

 “It’s been a long time,” he replies with a smile. “They call me Neve but I think I’m Taishi. I think I introduce myself as Taishi when I’m like that. Yes. Definitely. Taishi.”

 Maasa blinks at him. What on earth is up with this kid? “You’re head’s kinda mess, isn’t it? Did you bump it?”

 “I’m Taishi.”

 Maasa frowns and nods. Taishi? Taishi tilts his head, gazing up him silently. There’s no way… Of course not. That kid who died that day and Ichiro has been obsessed with can’t be the only boy their age named Taishi in the entire country, let alone the city or even their school. There’s going to be lots of them.

 “And… even if I’m not really, isn’t that enough that I think I am? It’s good enough.”

 “Ok ok ok.” Maasa pauses. It will be humiliating if Ichiro’s becoming that much of an influence. Got to watch out for that. “I’ll get to work on that bath. You rest.”

 

 “Why did you save me?” Taishi calls quietly as Maasa starts to run the water.

 “Shouldn’t I have? Did you want to die?”

 “It might have been better.”

 Great. Another suicidal survivor.

 Maasa sighs, pouring in the bubble bath and swirling it up until the steaming water is bubbly and sweet smelling. Good. Taishi needs to relax. So Maasa returns back to the bedroom, smiling back at Taishi.

 “Let’s get you undressed, hmm?”

 Taishi nods weakly and Maasa helps him to sit, slowly taking his clothes from him and tossing them into a bag to make sure they don’t ruin the rest of the the washing. He’s really bruised. Maasa doesn’t know much about bruises, but different colours are different ages, right? Maybe it wasn’t just the monster attack that left Taishi wishing his life away. Maasa’s pretty sure some of those bruises look like handprints.

 

 Maasa cleans off the worst of the blood with a damp flannel before Taishi slips into the warm bath with a soft hiss. It’s cute. He curls up into the bubbles, playing with the foam with a strange look of wonder. As if he’s never seen bubbles like this before. Maasa smiles, watching quietly. He’s so cute.

 “How are you feeling?” Maasa says quietly.

 “I’m not sure,” Taishi replies. Maasa frowns a little. “It’s all tingly and warm. Is that normal?”

 “Haven’t you ever had a bath before?”

 “I get to shower once a week,” he says. “Or after a job. It’s always cold.”

 Maasa frowns. Are there areas of the city that are such a mess they can’t have showers more than once a week, or warm showers? But never? Never at all? Maasa kneels next to the bath, takes a flannel and starts to wash Taishi’s arms gently. He’s got a lovely body. He’s well toned, lightly muscled and probably strong. But he’s so beat up.

 “Must be nice to get this all the time,” Taishi whispers, playing with the bubbles.

 “You go to our school though, right?” Maasa says with a frown. “You can’t be poor.”

 “School?”

 “You don’t go to our school, do you?”

 “I don’t go anywhere but my room and on jobs,” Taishi replies with a frowns. “I might have been there. What’s school? I might have been there for a job?”

 “Umm Binan Private School,” Maasa explains. “School is a place you go for education. To learn stuff. You were wearing out uniform. It’s a private school. You have to pay to get in because it’s one of the best schools in the country.”

 Taishi nods along, looking rather fascinated by the explanation. “What’s pay?”

 “Umm, money?” Taishi tilts his head. “It’s like trading. You give it to people for things.”

 “You must really like learning to pay for it then,” he says.

 “Ah, may parents pay for me. So I can get good grades and get into a good university and get a good job. It reflects well on them.” Taishi blinks at him, obviously following none of this. Maasa smiles. “My parents want me to learn so I’ll do well in life.”

 “Oh… that must be nice…”

 Maasa frowns. “Are your parents…?”

 “That’s not…”

 He frowns and tilts his head away and Maasa nods. Someone is hurting him. Definitely doesn’t seem like a good subject. Instead, Maasa smiles, returning to washing Taishi’s back gently.

 “Well, no one’s family is perfect, you know?” Maasa says. “My cousin’s a total fruitcake, according to everyone. He survived something like this too. He’s never been the same. He’s never been quite right. He’s living for this one obsession, for one person, and he can’t let it go even though he’s dead. He’s so convinced he’s alive and everyone else is wrong. I think if he ever finds out the person he’s living for is really dead… he’ll break…”

 

 “Having a purpose is important,” Taishi says.

 Maasa nods a little. “Do you have a purpose? You said you’re sent on jobs?”

 “I’m supposed to destroy the world,” he whispers. Maasa frowns. “It’s my job to see this old world crumble in ruin and bring about a new dawn on the golden age of humans as gods.”

 “What does that mean in real terms?”

 “There are four great demons; of the air, of the fire, of the water and of the earth. They’re sleeping. Dreaming. If woken, they will destroy this world. It’s my duty to stop them. It’s my duty to become the vessel for the King Of All and use the key to the between this world and that of the monsters, before they wake and come through and become entirely unstoppable, dooming the world.”

 “What’s that got to do with rebuilding the world?”

 “When I have the key, the world as it is will be destroyed, everything we know will fall away, and we will build a new world with the power given to us. A better world. One where we won’t suffer any longer.”

 “But, if you’re supposed to be a vessel…”

 “I won’t have to suffer anymore either.”

 “Taishi…” Maasa sighs and splashes Taishi’s face. “You don’t have to give up yourself to stop suffering, you know.”

 

 Taishi looks like a soaked little puppy, sitting on the bed, wrapped in towels. Maasa smiles. He really is adorable. He doesn’t seem to really understand what he’s doing and how to take care of himself. Maybe he just doesn’t care. Maasa towel dries his hair gently and Taishi just sts still, letting Maasa what whatever to him. It’s odd. Taishi seems… utterly trusting… Why would a boy who’s obviously been hurt the way he has be so completely unquestioning of Maasa wants to do with him?

 “You don’t understand, but you don’t argue,” Maasa muses. Taishi lifts his head, gazing up at him with a frown. “Don’t you worry about being in a stranger’s house. You have no idea what I could want from you or what I could do.”

 “Should I be worried?” Taishi replies.

 “No but I just mean… why aren’t you worried?”

 “Why would I be? Is that something people worry about?”

 Maasa smiles weakly. “Just what kind of life have you had? Hey, where did you get your clothes if you don’t got to our school?”

 “One of the men brings me clothes,” Taishi replies. He frowns and thinks it over for a moment. “Taiju-chan. Sir calls him Taiju-chan. He didn’t like when I didn’t wear clothes, so he brought him some of his old clothes, he said. Sir wasn’t happy. He keeps telling Taiju-chan not to humanise me. He was supposed to bring me the last piece of the key.”

 “Ok ok, go back to the clothes,” Maasa says, shaking his head. “You didn’t wear clothes before?”

 “He’s not supposed to humanise me,” he says.

 “But you’re human.”

 “I’m a monster.”

 Maasa’s head shakes. “Monsters aren’t sad. Monsters don’t get covered in bruises. You’re definitely human. Let’s see… is there someone you love? Someone you miss?”

 “Umm… there was a woman who used to look after when I was young…” Maasa frowns. “My… mother?” Maasa nods quickly. His mother. That’s good. He has someone he loves. “And… and there is someone… I want to see as myself but because of what I am… that’s impossible…” He smiles and lowers his head. “I really am I monster.”

 “Taishi…” Maasa huffs and pulls the towel over Taishi’s head. “Well, you’re human now, no arguements, and I’m going to be looking after you. So get a grip.”

 


 

 

 Ichiro isn’t sure what to make of the darkness. He doesn’t remember what happened. One minute there had been light. Taishi had stood there in front of him. He’d finally found him. Manza Taishi, Knight of the Snow. He’d stood in front of him. Beautiful and handsome. He’d kissed him. Taishi had kissed him.

 And tried to steal his magic!

 That’s right, Taishi is evil! Taishi wants to steal his magic and open up the world to the monsters. Taishi is a bad guy. Taishi had set that demon dog on him. Taishi had say over him when he was lying in his own blood dying. Is he dead? Is that why it’s dark? Is he dead?

 

 “You left him.” Ichiro groans. That’s a voice he knows. “Do you want to lose another partner? Do you want to work alone all you life? Are you happy alone?”

 “I’m sorry.” Nanao? That’s Nanao? Ichiro forces his eyes open. Nanao is standing there in the doorway, Furanui scowling down at him. “I didn’t realise there was a monster that strong in the area.”

 “You left your partner on his own with no experience,” Furanui snaps. “Did you not learn from what happened with Kirishima? Did you want him to die?”

 “I didn’t realise-”

 “Because you were so bullheaded you rushed in without thinking,” he scolds. “You didn’t assess the situation because you don’t want anyone getting in the way. You and Shuzenji are exactly the same.”

 “You know I never asked for some kid with no experience as my partner,” he argues. “You just expected me to know what I’m doing with him? You expected me to just take him out into the field and everything to be fine-”

 “I expected you to be sensible and professional!”

 

 “Umm…” They turn and Ichiro swallows heavily. “What’s going on?”

 “Ah, Ichiro-kun, you’re awake?” Nanao says, sweeping over. “How are you feeling?”

 “Taishi… he… I…” He frowns and tilts his head. “What happened?”

 “You’re in hospital,” Furanui says, joining Nanao. “You were injured fighting the enemy.”

 “Taish…” They nod. “Will I be ok?”

 “You will,” he replies. “In time. Shuzenji saved you.”

 “Shuzenji? Kyotaro-senpai?” he says with a frown. They nod. The sleepy guy who sits around with Ryoma-senpai?”

 “That’s him,” Nanao replies with a smile. “He’s the Knight of Flowers. He found you just in time to save you and your magic from Manza.”

 “He was going to steal my magic,” he whispers. They nod. “He was going to kill me?”

 “Probably.”

 Ichiro frowns. Taishi was going to kill him. After so long waiting to see Taishi again, he’d turned out so different. He wasn’t what Ichiro expected at all. How could Taishi be evil? He doesn’t understand at all. How could someone so sweet when he last saw him be so cruel and heartless?!

 

 “Umm, not to worry people,” Ichiro says, gazing up at the pair, “but I can’t feel my fingers.”

 They frowns and Ichiro scowls, trying to move his fingers. He can’t feel anything, actually. He glances down at his arm under the sheet. It won’t move at all. Did he break something? He gazes up at the pair and after a moment, Nanao turns away sharply and sweeps out.

 “I’m sorry,” he says before vanishing around the corner.

 “What’s going on?” Ichiro says, staring up at Furanui.

 “You have my condolences, Dougo Ichiro,” Furanui replies. Ichiro’s frown deepens. “You were severely injured during the battle.”

 “What- what does that mean?”

 “We were unable to save you arm.”

 “Un-unable to…”

 He frowns, slowly trying to make sense of that. They couldn’t mean… But then, he does remember that dog…

 “On the plus side, we managed to capture Manza Taishi,” Furanui continues.

 “Wait wait wait-”

 “Shuzenji was able to trap him within his vines,” he says.

 “But-”

 “And we will be bringing him in soon. Perhaps with enough work we can change his way of thinking enough to make use of him.”

 “What about my arm?!” Ichiro cries.

 Furanui frowns and then sighs, reaching over and gently pulling down the covers. He stares down at his arm. Or… where his arm should be. It’s not there. From just above the elbow is… gone. The remaining limb is wrapped in bandages and padding and… he’s really…

 Ichiro almost laughs. He’s only been fighting monsters five minutes and he’s already lost his arm. How pathetic is he? All this time he’d held onto the belief he had to hang on so he could be with Taishi again. Look where that had got him? Broken and alone and in hospital with no one even caring. Hysterical sobs spill over and he rolls onto his side, curling up in the pillows as tears spill over. Why’s all this happened to him? What did he do to deserve all this? He thought things would be better now he’d found people who understood. He had magic and now he’d met others who had magic things were supposed to get better. But instead everything is worse!

 

 “Ichiro?” Ichiro barely hears the voice over his wailing and sobbing. “Ichiro?”

 He sniffles and his eyes crack open. There’s a bright orange blur in front of him. “Ryoma-senpai?”

 “That’s right,” Ryoma replies. Ichiro thinks he smiles and he doesn’t know why. What’s there to smile about. He reaches up and strokes Ichiro’s hair gently. “Don’t worry, Ichiro. Things are going to be ok.”

 “Are they?” he whimpers.

 “They are. Kyotaro and Furanui have gone to pick up Taishi. That’ll make you happy, right?” He pushes something into Ichiro’s hand and he gazes at it silently for a moment. “You have to reach him, don’t you?”

 Ichiro nods slowly. He has to get through to Taishi. He has to reach him. If nothing else, Taishi has to tell him about the situation. He has to answer him honestly. He has to tell him the truth. Ichiro can’t believe Taishi was so nice when he knew he was going to kill him.

 “You’re right, Ryoma-senpai,” he whispers. “He’s not getting away without giving me answers.”

 “Definitely,” Ryoma says with a nod. “We’ll make sure he gives you answers. He’s not getting away with this. And Kyotaro is going to grow you a new arm in no time.”

 “Grow me… a new… what?”

 “Ah, Kyotaro’s powers. He’ll help you get back up on your feet in no time. Although I’m told that limbs grown by Kyotaro can be a bit weird but its the best way to do things quickly.”

 “I don’t understand any of this at all, but ok.” He smiles weakly, clenching his fist around the hair clip. “I’m not giving up.”

 “Somebody doesn’t seem very happy!” Karl calls, bursting in with a grin. He seems very out of place in this cold white sombre room. He beams down at Ichiro, then pouts. “Oh, you’re crying. Why are you crying? You should be happy! We’ve captures the final knight and with negligible levels of collateral damage. Isn’t it fantastic? Smile, Ichiro.”

 Negligible levels of collateral damage? He should be happy? Smile? Is that it? Is that all he has to do? How he has to think? He should just be happy?

 Ichiro smiles weakly. Karls really is the worst monster of them all.