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we learn the most when we break in two

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Things were supposed to be different.

There was nothing that Toudou could have foreseen in this world he was slowly waking up in. Power to read the future felt useless in light of knowing that it had ended with his death, that there was so much of the story to unfold beyond that point. Had he known that he was going to be pushed into the same story, he would have never come looking for the witch that lived on Minegayama. He would have...skipped the race, or turned away from that hole in the mountain, or at least run from Makishima as far as he could.

There were simple answers to questions that Toudou held if he puzzled through them with a clear head. It stood to reason that he was remembering things now because of his exposure to, and use of, magic. The things he remembered were unbelievable at times, frightening at others. Once he had said he was blessed, never knowing how wrong he was.

Friends had mocked him before for putting stock into things like destiny and higher beings that oversaw creation. To think he was right! Sort of. The deities of creation, who had come from nowhere and disappeared without a trace; their progeny, who still fell to the whims of fate. Finally, witches: failed beings meant to stand alongside gods yet shunted aside to never rise beyond a mortal life. Toudou had glimpses of what it was like to be Hachi, but he couldn’t comprehend what Hachi had been. There was nothing more than a shadow of that person, whatever it was, and that would have to be enough.

Had Hachi really chosen this? It seemed incredible, even to a teenager like himself with far too many worries on his mind, that a god would choose to come back into such a cycle. The feelings he’d had for Makishima had been complicated; they were tainted with the resentment of a narcissistic god. It couldn’t be Makishima that he had chosen to come back for.

The mere thought ached. There were few things that Toudou could say with certainty about his life any longer. One of them was that he loved Makishima, his weird and beautifully imperfect spider, more than he loved probably anything else.

If not for him, then for what?

There wasn’t much that Toudou could remember about his brothers, the fifth and sixth gods. They were odd, as were all of them: two beings connected in body, and sometimes seemingly in mind. Beyond that...Toudou wasn’t sure. It seemed reasonable to assume that his judgment being held in the balance by two who found him insufferable was less than ideal. Everything that lied behind the Nowhere was still a mystery to Toudou; he couldn’t remember.

If only there was someone Toudou could talk to. Makishima wouldn't hold any answers for anything outside of his domain. He didn't even know what he was, and Toudou hated Hachi a little for that. The part of him that didn't understand, anyway; hadn't he just recently learned that truths could be unbearable? To put such an enormous burden on Makishima...it would be cruel. Of that much Toudou was certain.

So what did he know? That was less certain. All along this path, the one that he’d stumbled onto without any idea of what lay ahead of him, there were few absolutes. And...knowledge was only that. No clear way to resolve anything had sprung into his mind. Turning around, walking away, removing himself from all of this uncertainty? It was probably impossible. A life without knowing would have been fine.

Toudou couldn’t go back to that, so he was stuck. That was that.

Not that it felt good to consider himself trapped. Makishima deserved better than his bitterness. Was he really any better than Hachi, looking at Makishima as something that he loved yet was obligated to? Wanting to be close by and wishing they had never met?

The witch in question sat next to Toudou, his gaze fixed out the window. Toudou couldn’t see his expression save for the perpetual frown that he wore. What was he thinking about? It was a question Toudou had so often it was almost maddening; he felt like if he could just see inside Makishima’s head—if he could just understand what it was that the other wanted or knew—he would be able to make sense of the mess that raged inside his own mind.

(Nevermind that it was a possibility. It certainly wasn't an option. Besides, hadn't they been as close as it is possible to be for a few beautiful, agonizing moments?)

Scenery passed by them in a blur, distorted by condensation on the windows of the car that took them into Chiba proper. Toudou watched it from his own window, unsure if Makishima would welcome eyes in his general direction, or if he even wanted to look at the other. They were already close to something dangerous, something that might implode at any moment.

Toudou didn’t have any guesses for what would come next. While it was easier not to think that they were going to suffer through anything else, a few short months of experience had taught him otherwise.

The more pertinent question was whether or not either of them had the strength to stand amongst the wreckage a second time. Makishima had already taken so much on his shoulders. What if a little more broke him?

Cold fingers brushed against Toudou’s hand where it rested on the car seat between them, then twined with his own. Usually, Toudou would feel elated, but the mood was too somber. Too many things were bouncing around in his head. Nothing had been resolved: not what that creature was doing in a memory, not the truth of what had happened, and certainly not the lingering tension of their intimacy (if it could be called that). Something else had come along to shift their attention, like a welcome distraction at the perfect time to keep all the ugliness in the background.

A furtive glance at Makishima was all it took to confirm to Toudou that the subject would likely never be broached. While he was silent, perhaps even calm, there was a tension in his shoulders and jaw that said now wasn't the time for talking. Aside from the fact that it was that same austere-looking relative that was chauffeuring them. What was his name again? Shou?

The road down the mountain was winding, trees swaying in a breeze and light rain falling to the pavement. Normally the view would be breathtaking. Toudou was the mountain god, after all, but somehow the mountain that was once his...it felt empty. Lifeless. A strange thought occurred to him: that it wasn’t his mountain at all, but Makishima’s. That the mountain reflected the despair that its owner had endured there—still endured there—and it would have felt very poetic if not for the fact that Toudou knew it was no such thing. Seasons changed, death and rebirth, there was a simple cycle that nature followed; it was nothing more than that.

Arriving at the Makishima family home was a relief after the fragile silence of the ride down. It had stretched like a torturous eternity, Makishima resolutely looking nowhere near Toudou or saying even a single word. But...the chill of his skin was becoming a comfort to Toudou. One tinted with the melancholy that seemed to surround Makishima, but a comfort nonetheless.

When had the world grown so cold? Toudou glanced up at the sky as they followed a stone path to go indoors, feeling the sting of cold mist on his face. In the midst of the severity of Makishima’s relative and Makishima’s own lifeless exterior, Toudou had a nagging feeling that he might just be the only living, breathing thing for miles.

(Another ridiculous thought, but damn it, the silence was suffocating.)

Suddenly, Makishima glanced over his shoulder. Uh? He looked angry for some reason, and Toudou felt certain that the anger was directed at him. While not impossible that he had projected some of his thoughts, Toudou was fairly confident that he wasn’t just slinging them out at random anymore.

“What?”

Oof—his voice came out far too accusatory. Toudou tried to soften his expression to make up for it, but Makishima continued to frown at him in irritation of some kind.

“Whatever she says, just go with it. Trying to correct her only upsets her, and she’s too volatile to risk her throwing magic around beyond her control.”

Oh. Feeling a kind of sinking in his stomach, Toudou nodded without saying a word. How bad was the amnesia, really? Now that he was here, being led through some sort of compound made up of modern looking houses, Toudou doubted he was really ready for this. What he would feel when he saw Chiyo was unknown; whether she would have a reaction to him was another unknown. Though, Toudou figured that if she didn’t recognize her own son, it was probably unlikely that she would react to him at all. They had only spoken on a few occasions, of that he’s fairly positive. The landscape of memories was still muddy at times. It was so large, so expansive. Sometimes they came to him conveniently, sometimes they stayed resolutely out of his reach. That was just how it was.

The older Makishima left them without a word, off toward one of the many buildings that were housed in this odd place. How rich was the Makishima family, anyway? It made Toudou feel slightly uneasy, and really—why the hell was Makishima wasting away in some musty old cave when he could be living in a house with modern amenities?

Just as Toudou was about to ask how far of a walk it was, he spotted it: a traditional house sitting next to a small pond with koi fish. The sight was strange in the middle of this place, but he didn’t comment. The journey here was already silent, and now he was still unsure what to say; maybe he’d lose his voice again from lack of use. At least Makishima was probably appreciative of his relative silence, as he tended to nag about how much Toudou talked.

Strange, the thought made Toudou feel exceptionally bitter. There wasn’t time to delve too deep into the reasons, but Toudou felt that the longer he stayed close to Makishima, the more that damned Hachi peeked out from his soul.
He hated it.

The shoji doors were already open, light filtering into the entryway and further into the living space. The tatami scent lingered inside, and the paint on the fusuma that stood opposite of them looked crisp and fresh; it depicted a single peacock standing amongst firs, beautiful and ornate, just like the woman kneeling primly in front of it.

“Oh…”

The voice that Toudou heard couldn’t have belonged to him, as weak and strained as it was, but Makishima took his hand and squeezed it gently as if to comfort him.

Chiyo didn’t look any different from memory, neither his nor the ones Makishima had willingly offered up. Surreal wasn’t even enough to describe it. He watched in silence for seconds that seemed to span days as she twirled a long brush over the surface of the table, an expression of detached serenity on her face. The idea that she didn’t even know that she didn’t know was enough to make his breath stick in his throat.

“It’s okay, Jinpachi.”

Was anything okay anymore? Toudou swallowed, the overwhelming thought that he didn’t want to do this anymore screaming somewhere under the surface. No more secrets, no more confusion or lies or pain.

But he moved out of the entryway without a protest, his feet cold with only socks on, and followed Makishima into the space. The air felt heavy and charged, the energy of magic so strong around the prime that Toudou shivered. It wasn’t unpleasant, but it was heavy, similar to air before a particularly violent storm. Toudou’s eyes moved to the paper where Chiyo was working, startled to see nothing but indiscriminate scribbles across the surface.

“Mother,” Makishima spoke, his voice so soft and hesitant that Toudou only felt the ache in his chest grow even more pronounced. “I’ve brought a visitor.”

The brush stopped moving and Chiyo blinked several times, as though coming out of a trance. Everything she did felt in slow motion: placing the brush down, looking up, glancing between the two of them. Nothing sparked on her face when she looked at Makishima: not recognition, not affection, not even curiosity. Toudou opened his mouth, but closed it a moment later, completely unsure what to say. Their eyes met, and Toudou felt a jolt in his stomach. It was like watching a light turn on with how much life seemed to come back to Chiyo’s face.

“Yamagami…” she breathed the word with childlike wonder. The atmosphere of the room shifted, barely perceptible; if not for the connection of their hands, Toudou doubted that he would have felt the way that Makishima startled. “Oh, I expect you’re here for Yuusuke, right? I don’t really know how to tell you…”

“Tea first, don’t you think?” Makishima interrupted before Chiyo could continue. His fingers trembled where they were clasped in Toudou’s hand. “H-he’s traveled a long way.”

“Yes, thank you,” Chiyo replied with a dreamy smile. 

“I can’t,” Toudou found himself whispering before he even processed the emotions behind it. “Maki-chan, I can’t—”

“Yamagami, please, sit,” Chiyo gestured to the cushion across from her, and Toudou dropped down into it despite that he wanted to bolt from this place as fast as his legs would carry him. “It’s good to see you. Your leg healed up well, didn’t it? Yuusuke was always so good at healing charms.”

How could she talk about Makishima in the past tense when he was standing a few steps back from Toudou? Why was he sitting here, listening? Coming was a mistake, but he couldn’t very well just turn and walk out.

“My leg? Eh—yes, it’s fine.” What was Chiyo talking about? Something to ponder later, perhaps. “You’re doing well?”

“Oh yes,” Chiyo nodded. In the background, Toudou heard Makishima shuffling around, and glanced into the next room over where a hearth was sunken into the floor and Makishima was putting a kettle onto a fire. In spite of himself, Toudou smiled; water was forming between the beetle-witch’s hands, falling into the kettle to be warmed. Ah, magic. “The people who take care of me here are so lovely. They took me in when I lost my children. It’s been hard, of course. For you, too? I imagine you must miss Yuusuke as much as I do.”

Could it really hurt to point out to Chiyo that her son was a room over? “Chiyo-san…” Toudou started, shifting uncomfortably on his cushion. His eyes moved to the painting behind her; looking at her was too difficult. “Yuusuke is—he’s making tea.”

At first, Chiyo didn’t react. Her eyes remained distant, but Toudou realized when her brows narrowed that yes. Yes, it might hurt. “I don’t know what you mean by it. You and that boy, the one you came in with. Saying my Yuusuke is…” Chiyo looked over at her son, the expression on her face turning quite ugly for a few seconds. “It’s cruel to taunt an old woman. Haven’t I grieved enough, yamagami!?”

“But—”

Before Toudou could try to finish that thought, Makishima was there, kneeling next to Chiyo and rubbing her shoulder. The glare he threw at Toudou made Toudou's breath stick in his throat. “It’s okay, shh. He’s just confused,” Makishima whispered, soothing, gentle. “No one’s trying to hurt you.”

“He never woke up!” Chiyo spat, pushing weakly away from Makishima. “It’s my fault—my fault, I did it, I put him to sleep, but he never woke up! I had to, he was—he was a monster, yamagami!”

The table rattled as Chiyo pounded her fists on it, upsetting the bottle of ink so that it rolled over onto its side and spilled onto her yukata, the tatami, and stained her hands.

“I’m sorry, Maki-chan,” Toudou said desperately, jumping to his feet but not knowing what to do. How to soothe anyone, now, that he had opened his big mouth.

“They’re gone, they’re all gone,” Chiyo kept talking at a rapid pace, and as her words grew more manic, the room began to heat. “My children, my village. Yuusuke killed them all, yamagami! He killed—everyone—I had to do it, please understand!”

He—

Everything froze. Toudou felt the air crackle with energy, saw Makishima flinch in pain, and none of it registered. Makishima...killed everyone? Toudou doesn't want to consider what that means. The men that came to his temple? More? The entire village that Hachi had viewed as his own?

Makishima's siblings. Toudou saw what became of them, and yet he felt doubt lingering in the back of his mind. He'd already seen that memories could be altered, that the mind could shuffle them around and alter them no matter whose they were.

The bottle of ink exploded, sending shards of glass and droplets of black around the room. Wood splintered, the table coming apart and the ruined sheet of paper igniting.

Chiyo was still babbling, though Toudou couldn't make heads or tails of what she was saying any longer. If Makishima wasn't able to calm Chiyo down, she would rip the place apart—Toudou knew that much. Slowly, he moved to stand next to the prime, and placed a hand on her cheek. Reaching, trying to meld with her, anything to give her a modicum of calm that could stop her from raging out of control.

A dozen memories slipped between them: Makishima running up the path as a boy in an overlarge yukata, Makishima napping in the temple atop Minegayama, various images of the two of them in this life and the last. None of them were right—they weren't the ones he wanted to share—but Chiyo went slack against the pair of them. The very last was of Daiba, where Makishima had explained everything. Where Toudou's life had begun to spiral irrevocably out of control.

Abruptly, Toudou felt his hand yanked away from Chiyo. The memories had done nothing, nothing at all—Chiyo was screaming in apparent rage, Makishima looked even more furious than before, and Toudou stumbled backward in shock. He...he had only been trying to help.

Why hadn’t he listened?

“Get out,” Makishima hissed at Toudou, who shuddered. The crackling energy of magic surrounding him was nauseating, and it was no longer coming from only Chiyo.

Makishima didn’t need to tell him twice. Toudou darted out of the room, into the safety of the kitchen Makishima had been in moments before. The yells of “demon! liar! hellspawn! ” followed him even as he shut the doors, but the heat and suffocating aura faded out so that Toudou could take in deep breaths.

The teacups, still filled with hot water, were sitting next to the sunken hearth. Toudou settled next to them to begin mixing in matcha, trying to contemplate the idea that Makishima had done something as awful as murder. That terrible day would always be a blight in his memory, but he remembered that he had shouted for Makishima to run. To let fate take its course and allow him to die, as intended. He had been so, so tired, but he didn't want Makishima to stain himself with vengeance. Didn't want him to give into what he was, and what he was destined to be. It had all been for naught.

Suddenly, Toudou knew. He needed to talk to Nana. If he could talk to Nana, he could understand. That thought was resolute in his mind, as clear cut as anything he'd felt in a long time. Nana would have the answers he sought.

Just as suddenly as the shouting had begun, it ended. The energy Toudou had felt earlier vanished at the same time, as if Chiyo had suddenly shut off entirely. Had...Makishima done that? Was it safe to go back in the other room? With shaking hands, Toudou placed two cups on a tray and carried them to the other two witches.

It was as if nothing had happened. Chiyo smiled at Toudou dreamily as he entered, seeming unperturbed by the explosion of ink and ashes about her person. The glare Makishima threw in Toudou’s direction, however, was cold as ice. Toudou gulped.

“I need to go to the Undercity,” Toudou said with as much certainty as he could offer as he placed the tray on the table. Makishima would need this time alone to go about his visit without Toudou hovering awkwardly, anyway—especially with how much of a mess he had made. “I'll see you tonight.”

Toudou met Makishima's eyes, and an unspoken agreement passed between them. That they would be together again, soon. Whether or not he was forgiven was harder to discern, but there was comfort in Makishima's silent acknowledgement and short nod.

Gods, he was beautiful. Even tired and beaten down, grieving, he was so, so beautiful.

The grayness of the day felt oppressive when Toudou slipped out of the house to make his escape, feeling rather like a dog with its tail between its legs. Despite the fact that there was no one in the vicinity—as far as Toudou could tell—he had the peculiar feeling that he was being watched. If it were as Makishima said, that Chiyo was revered by those that kept her, he knew it would be unwise to linger. Manami said, at one point, that Chiba witches were ‘strange;’ Toudou didn’t want to find out what it was that made that rumor spread even to his underclassmen. What if they cursed him?

What if they did something worse? Best not to stick around and find out, that was certain. It might not have been Toudou’s most graceful exit, but it did feel like one of the more prudent decisions he made as of late. After all...even the kindest, most innocent boy had a capacity for horrible things, if what Chiyo said were true.

The time it took to travel to Kasukabe was a blur, Toudou retracing his steps through little side-streets as if the path had been etched into his heart. It felt strange to walk it without Makishima, a slow march to the past where he couldn’t be certain the answers he sought would be make him feel better or worse.

Though Toudou had an educated guess.

Behind the nerves that danced through him, Toudou knew that his fate was written in Nana’s sky, that it must follow the same path as it had once before: that life and death, never intended to meet, could not recover from happenstance.

Sometime in the future, immediate or otherwise, Toudou Jinpachi would cease to exist. It would be just as fate willed—just as, perhaps, his brothers had decided.

“Ha,” Toudou mumbled to himself, feeling a clawing deep in his chest that scrambled to overtake him as he considered what he knew, and what it probably meant for him. For Makishima. Was there a point, even, to understanding anything? Could a future exist where he had it all wrong? Tears burned Toudou’s eyes as he jumped down the steps toward the pier; the curtain of ivy at the door parted when he came near to begin his descent down, occasional roars from cars above mixing with the rickety metal clicks and screeches of the elevator.

The Undercity was just as Toudou remembered it--musty and earthy, an old city blanketed in magic so thick his skin tingled. Lanterns and flickering lights threw the concourse into heavy shadow, the path nearly deserted save for a few witches passing through the turnstiles to either make their way to stalls or back to the elevators. Toudou’s eyes fell on Nana, their arms crossed over their broad chest and a frown turning their lips into an unpleasant scowl.

“You smell like humans,” they called at Toudou’s approaching form, an almighty eye roll and sigh following their statement. “I can smell you from over there.”

“Well…” Toudou hesitated. Did they know he was coming? Were they waiting for him? “I am a human, now.”

“Tragic,” was all Nana replied before shuffling through the turnstile they leaned against and beckoning him to follow. Toudou felt unease creeping into his chest, but trailed after them toward the door to the Apothecarium. There was no hunched figure waiting by the entrance—Toudou felt marginally relieved, remembering the last encounter he’d had with the near-corpse of a man.

“No cockroaches today, huh?”

“Hn.”

“That old man, uh…”

“Payson.”

“Yeah, he…” Toudou trailed off into silence, wondering what had become of him if he couldn’t even rely on his skills as a phenomenal conversationalist to carry him through meeting his long-lost sibling. They walked along the murky river past shops and smaller alleyways, Nana’s stride making Toudou nearly have to jog to keep up.  “Am I crazy?” Toudou asked, not sure where the words were coming from, but feeling as though he were one step away from pure madness. “Is this all a dream?”

A tut was his only response, or he thought it was, until a great hand clapped him—surprisingly gentle—on the back. “You always were the most dramatic of us,” Nana said with an emotion Toudou dared to read as fondness. “You know this is real, Hachi.”

“Mm…”

“If ya came hoping I’d make it make sense, I probably can’t help you.”

“Mm.”

So they did know why he was here. Toudou’s gaze fell to the worn dirt path, where their footfalls raised small clouds of dust that coated his shoes in grayish powder. The city was the same, but it felt several degrees chillier. If only Makishima were be here for this—if only Toudou could tell him what a mess everything truly was. He glanced back upward, at the cold lines of Nana’s face. They seemed so stalwart, but Toudou had a glance into them, into what their lives had been like together. Perhaps they could understand the fear, the ugliness, that threatened to drag him under.

“Hasn’t he been through enough, Nana?”

They peered down at him, violet eyes bursting into an ethereal glow for a split second that sent a chill down Toudou’s spine. “Haven’t you?”

“I’m supposed to be better,” Toudou whispered through trembling lips.

“We were supposed to be a lot of things. Better might’ve been one of them,” Nana agreed. They halted by a wooden door that had an elaborate rune burned into its planks. Toudou watched them trace over the scorch marks with practiced ease, the black illuminating violet under their fingertips. “But that’s not your burden anymore. You’re only supposed to live.”

Live? Could anything ever be that simple again? Toudou couldn’t help but laugh, a bitter sound that came out as more of a harsh cough under the creaking of the door. Unlike the last time he was here, Nana’s office was tidy. Along one wall was an organized display cabinet with potions and plants; opposite stood a short bookshelf with leather-bound books, the wall above decorated with garlands of red flowers and strings of lights. A simple, tiered altar table stood along the back wall where the desk had been, the chairs replaced with jewel bright poufs and cushions. The table held candles, crystals, an athame, a goblet, and a curious silver instrument that looked vaguely familiar to him—where had he seen it before? He tried to jog his memory while Nana closed the door behind him.

“So where’s the dead boy?” Nana asked, tone flippant. Toudou’s thoughts screeched to a halt. The dead boy.

“...With his mother,” came Toudou’s soft reply, several moments in-between to help him sort his thoughts back into the present.

With another roll of their eyes, Nana dropped onto a pouf. Their form dwarfed it almost comically, but Toudou couldn’t find it in himself to laugh. Not when it felt like air had been sucked from his lungs.

“Still putting himself through that, eh?”

Still?

“How long have you known him?”

“Since he died. And again when he woke up.”

Makishima had never mentioned Nana, but Toudou had long come to accept the reasons Makishima gave for never talking. He lowered himself onto a cushion a safe distance away, finding it pleasantly squishy. If it weren’t for the fact that he was sure his mind wouldn’t let him, he might have curled up and slept.

Or maybe not. Nana was looking at him expectantly, and Toudou couldn't help but feel that his arrival wasn't a surprise. He might have been pretending that he didn't know what he wanted to say, but the words came easily.

“Maki-chan...he killed people, didn't he?”

“Well, yeah. Loads of them. Went right off the deep end after his siblings died,” Nana shrugged, as if all of this were old news not worth giving a thought to. “It’s what he is.”

“Does he know what he is?”

Remembering Makishima’s face just hours ago made it seem impossible that the beetle-witch could be aware, but a part of Toudou hoped—for Makishima’s sake—that there was some mercy in knowing. That maybe he had acted on this knowledge, that that was why he had gone down a path of vengeance. It felt wholly unfair, but the idea that Makishima had simply snapped was even more difficult to swallow.

“I don't know. Didja ever tell him what he was?” Toudou shook his head. “Then prob'ly not. Is that really why you came?”

Maybe not. Still, it felt like a crucial piece of the puzzle. “What happened?” Nana gave him a blank look. “Back then, after Hachi died. What happened to him?”

Nana hummed, thoughtful. Their eyes wandered toward the altar. “I saw it in the stars. Can never be too sure about the future—that was your gift, but ya never put it to anything useful,” Nana scoffed.

That may have been true, but was it really relevant to the questions Toudou asked? Feeling impatient, Toudou leaned forward to give Nana what he hoped was a stern look. “Saw what?

“I'm getting there,” Nana groused, waving their hand in annoyance in Toudou’s general direction.  “Anyway, this scrawny little shit comes to my realm, and Faol says he's too broken to cross. Lucky for him, the mortal woman put him back together, but she botched it pretty bad. I knew he would be back, though.”

There was nothing new in the information that Nana gave. Toudou felt a sigh building, but said nothing; interrupting them likely wouldn't put this story back on track.

“The stars painted unspeakable evil. The slaughter of innocents, the avatar of death fulfilling his destiny, yadda yadda yadda. When he turned on those people, I knew he would be coming to me.”

“Fulfilling his destiny? Did he have a choice?”

“Not really. He was going to wind up in the Nowhere one way or another, he just picked the fastest route. Idiot.”

Frustrated, Toudou turned away to stare at the altar. For all their knowledge, they were bad at telling a story. Was it on purpose? Could there be more that they weren't saying? “How many?”

“What does it matter?”

“It matters!”

“I don't know, Hachi,” Nana rolled their eyes—it was somewhat infuriating how uninterested they seemed. “Too many.”

What good was reading the stars if they didn't say anything absolute? Toudou wanted to scream. Coming here for answers was turning out to be foolish, but he felt a renewed determination fill him when he looked back at Nana. One way or another, he would understand. “So he would inherit that place no matter what he did, and you knew that?”

“I had an idea. Listen, Hachi. Your little witch boy could have chosen to live out his life peacefully, but he didn’t,” Nana snapped impatiently, their hulking form bowing forward to peer more closely at him. “What do you want me to say? That he didn’t know better, or that you shouldn’t be angry with him?”

“No!” Toudou spat, getting up to pace the room. “I just want to understand why!”

“You’re making it complicated. Makishima Yuusuke is a being created for destruction and did as he was programmed to do. He’s not some innocent mortal, he was supposed to be a god. What don’t you understand?”

“It’s…” Toudou’s fists clenched at his sides, shaking. “It’s not fair! If he never had a choice, why? Why not just stick him in that place from the start, why take everything from him?! Why any of this, why so much suffering?”

“You feel bad for him?” Nana scoffed, getting up and following after Toudou to push him toward the door. Toudou stumbled backward, his back hitting the wood, and fumbled for the handle. Would Nana to throw him out? Should he just go? But Nana merely grabbed hold of his hands and suddenly Toudou felt the force of their entire being slam into him.

The stench of charred flesh hit Toudou immediately, followed closely by a chorus of screams that pierced through a smoky haze. A blur of chaos whirled around him, his head spinning. Beside him, Nana stood, their brows narrowed and lips in a hard line.

“No, please. I don't want to see this,” Toudou choked around a mouthful of ash that burned his chest; he coughed, violently, until his stomach turned. Nana said nothing in reply, only lifted their hand to point ahead at the form of the boy that Hachi had fallen for. Makishima stood in the middle of the market, surrounded by a black nothingness that roared and undulated through the streets, obliterating everything in its path. Wood cracked and shattered under the mass, tendrils of obsidian mist felling people as they wound through the air.

In the thoughts that had bared down on Toudou as he journeyed to the Undercity, there had been an element of humanity. He had believed—as certainly as he believed anything—that Makishima would have shown a modicum of remorse. That he would have looked upon his destruction with anguish.  The idea that Makishima could have become something so twisted and vile didn’t cross his mind, but Toudou was quickly realizing that he was nothing but a fool. The boy that trudged through the wreckage was cold and monstrous; his fury was palpable, the damned his instrument of demise. Just as it had in their shared vision, it withered everything before it into black rot that bubbled and hissed, a banshee scream for more drowning out the winds that ripped through Hachi's village.

“Nana!” Toudou wasn’t sure when he turned away to hide in the broadness of Nana’s waist, when he started pounding on them with shaking fists. “Nana, take me back! I d-don’t—want to see—th-this!”

How did he have more tears? How could he feel more sorrow than he had already felt? Toudou clenched his teeth against a sob that tore its way into his throat.

“You have to understand, Hachi. This is what he is.”

The damned was coming closer. In this memory, it felt like nothing more than a whisper. A chill grazed Toudou’s skin, enveloped him until he shook with full-body shivers. What good had it done? What had Makishima accomplished? There was no concrete answer, but Toudou knew: the goal was nothing more than satiating a beast that lay dormant in the boy who had looked up at him, once, with childlike wonder. He couldn’t reconcile it.

“I don’t want to understand,” Toudou whispered, shaking his head. “Take me back, Nana, please.

“You’ve gone soft, Hachi,” Nana retorted, but a rushing darkness overtook them, blocking out the screams, the smell, the chill.

Weak, Toudou slid down the wood, panting as if he’d climbed a steep incline. Nana had been there? They had seen it with their own eyes and done nothing? So many emotions were filling Toudou he couldn’t focus on a single feeling—gods, he didn’t want to feel anymore. How wonderful it would be to just disconnect, to fade away in this little office under the earth, and to never have to feel anything again.

Silent, Nana moved to the altar. They flicked the silver instrument so that it sprang to life, filling the room with tiny pinpricks of light that spun and rearranged themselves into constellations, which cast the room in a soft amber light.

“You think it’s unfair? Look at your life, Hachi. Look at mine, look at his. The First Children, Fate, they don’t give a damn about us! We all have a purpose to fill, and he filled it just like he was supposed to. Does it really matter how he got there? It’s all the same in the end.”

The First Children. Shi had said something about them, once, but when Toudou tried to recall what those words meant...he found nothing.

“Who are they?” Toudou asked with a voice barely over a whisper. Anything was a welcome distraction from the brief moments he saw, anything to not think about the truth that Nana spoke. Nana said nothing, a quizzical look passing their face. “The First Children. Who are they?”

“They made us. They made everything we ever have and ever will know.”

“And?”

“And nothing. I don’t remember. None of us do.”

When Toudou looked back at Nana, they were gazing up at the ceiling, eyes smoldering violet fire that washed out their tanned skin. “Why didn’t you stop him? You were there, and you…?”

“It’s not my memory, it’s his,” Nana said, slowly, without looking away from the stars. “I took it from him, long ago. He remembers it happened, but…”

They fell silent. Despite the fact that Nana was usually detached, there was a trace of sorrow in their eyes. Just how well did Nana and Makishima know each other? To think that Makishima would willingly give a memory so intimate would have been impossible to conceive until this moment.

“We all deserved better than the hands we were dealt, and so...with the power I have left, I did what I could for him. It’s what you would have wanted.”

“...Oh.” Toudou stared down at the floor, tracing the cracks in the boards as he absorbed Nana’s words. After all this time, he wouldn’t have expected Nana to show compassion. Or would he? Compassion was what he had come here for in the first place.

Toudou sighed. Pieces of the story were coming together, but he was too tired to try to weave them into a solid picture. 

“Hachi,” Nana started, their voice back to its usual strange monotone. “You can’t question Fate. It has no rhyme or reason, no logic. It doesn’t answer to us. All the stars have ever told me is what might be, but even that isn’t a guarantee,” they went on, voice becoming strangely brittle. “The only one of us that could read the future in absolutes was you. You’ve lost that gift. I can’t help you, or him. I can’t even help myself.”

What could any of them do when the hand that guided their lives was unknowable, unyielding? If Makishima were to wind up in the Nowhere anyway, if he was built of destruction and death, if he were to become a monster no matter what any of them did...then that was that. Melancholy blue eyes flashed in Toudou’s mind, and he buried his face in his hands. There was nothing he could have done. Makishima made his choices, and he made them alone.

Toudou couldn’t find it in himself to hate the witch, not like Hachi had. Not now, not after everything he knew: a wild, happy child that brought him fireflies and struggled to magick water; a child that lost everything, including himself, to rage and sorrow so absolute Toudou was sure no one could surpass it. Fate had certainly asked a lot of one mortal boy.

“...What’s going to happen to us?”

“I don’t know,” Nana replied, quietly, gently. They turned away, as if ashamed to admit it. “You’re right, it’s not fair. They messed it up, making us. Making him. The stars won’t show me your fate. Perhaps it hasn’t been written yet. Perhaps...it’s finally your own.”

Finally his own…

Toudou swallowed, hard, trying to will his fingers to stop shaking. It was no use. “What do you mean? Messed it up?”

Nana laughed softly and turned to face Toudou. “Ah, Hachi. We were supposed to be better,” they said, slowly crossing the room towards him. The unusually gentle tone of their voice was becoming unnerving. “But imperfect beings beget imperfect beings.”

Nana trailed off into silence, then sat next to Toudou so that they were shoulder to shoulder. “You’re a mortal now, Hachi. Next time, do whatever you can to convince them not to bring you back.”

“Them?” A chill settled on him, and the answer came so easily Toudou wondered if he’d known it all along. “Go and Roku. They brought me back?”

“Ha,” Nana shook their head, eyes fixed on the dots of light that floated slowly over the ceiling. “Of course they did. You weren’t exactly popular with the rest of us.”

“I know.” Insufferable was the word that Shi had used to describe him. Looking back, Toudou couldn’t blame them; the Hachi of his memories seemed so selfish, so...horrible. “Maybe I can make up for it a little, now.”

“Perhaps,” Nana agreed. They both looked up at the stars as Nana sighed. “I diminish with every day I’m not in my realm. I can’t go back, so I imagine there’s not much left for me. My fate has been erased by that little witch,” Nana sighed, their head lolling back and eyes falling closed. “I’ve spent an eternity trying to understand it, and yet...every time I think I have answers, they slip away.” They pointed up at the ceiling, tracing an arc with their index finger that meant nothing to Toudou. “A single breath might send the future spinning in the opposite trajectory. The only thing that’s certain is that to live is to suffer.”

“No,” Toudou replied, daring to lean his head against Nana’s shoulder. They stiffened. “It’s balance. You suffer so that you can find joy.”

“Always the optimist. It was annoying, you know.”

“So I’ve been told…”

Finally, Toudou lifted his head. It felt heavy, full of thoughts—full of answers he had so desperately wanted—yet somehow, strangely empty. They looked at each other and a mutual understanding passed between them: it was time to go. The only questions Toudou had left, to the best of his knowledge, were unanswerable.

And...the longer Toudou looked at Nana, the more exhausted they seemed.

The walk outside, back through the Apothecarium, was silent save for their footsteps on the dirt. Not until they passed through the turnstiles did Nana speak again.

“What will you do?”

The lift clanged down from above with a rattling whine. What would he do? Toudou didn’t have an answer to the question, at least not yet. Turning away wasn’t an option; he’d felt it, viscerally, that he couldn’t go back to the life he’d had before he’d come to know this secret world. The thought of Makishima was both terrible and comforting all at the same time. For a moment, Toudou thought he could possibly understand a person driven to the brink of madness—a person too young to right the world’s wrongs, backed into a corner and afraid of the shadows of humanity.

Or was his mind just trying to ease the burden of knowing what the boy witch had become?

“The same thing I did last time, I guess,” Toudou answered, stepping into the lift. A look of sad understanding crossed Nana’s face before they let their features fall neutral once again. “See it through until the end.”

“Take care of yourself, Hachi. I won’t forgive you if you die on me again.”

“Hah, don’t worry. It’s like you said, right? We’ll write our fate ourselves this time.”

* * *

Sometimes, Toudou felt that things weren’t going at all as planned. Often lately, in fact. His boyfriend—if Makishima could even be called that—was a murderer, he himself used to be an asshole of a god, and there was a mysterious force at work in the universe called Fate that was immovable yet succumbed to the smallest whims of life. That much he was becoming used to.

Finding Manami Sangaku sitting at Makishima’s workbench, head on his arm as he napped, was possibly the most unbelievable thing to have happened yet. The shock of blue hair startled him so violently he’d nearly leapt backward into the pile of old boots by the door, but no. He would recognize that little scamp anywhere with his stupid lock of hair that never lay flat against his impossibly thick skull.

Even so, Toudou Jinpachi most definitely did not screech. No, he made a sound that was entirely dignified, a sharp “Manami! ” that pulled the angelic twit from his slumber to look over his shoulder and blink sleepily in Toudou’s direction. They stared at each other for moments that felt as if they stretched on forever, Toudou’s hand clenching cold rock—which was quite painful, actually—as he tried to fathom how Manami had turned up on Minegayama and fallen asleep in Makishima’s home as if there were nothing out of the ordinary at work. “What. Are. You. Doing here!”

“Oh, Toudou-san,” Manami smiled his blissful idiot smile, swiveling around on the bench and covering his mouth as he gave a long, exaggerated yawn that set Toudou’s already frayed nerves one precarious fiber closer to snapping. “You’re back.”

“I’m back. I’m back!” Toudou hissed. He moved into the front room so quickly he nearly stumbled, but thankfully managed to arrange his hands on his hips and send a stern glare straight at Manami. “What are you doing here? You can’t be here!”

“Eh? Why not?” Manami asked, and Toudou knew in an instant that Manami knew he couldn’t be here and was merely choosing to be difficult with his pretense of confusion. “Josephine-san told me to make myself at home.”

Only then did Toudou realize that Josephine was perched on Manami’s shoulder, snoozing away. Not that Toudou really expected her to be able to guard the place—honestly, what could she even do—but she just let a stranger in? They must have similar scents, coming from the same town and all.

Wait.

“What do you—she talked to you? You’re telling me Josephine talked to you?”

But how else would Manami know her name? Toudou felt faint. There was a panic boiling his blood, his fingers shaking where they dug into his hips, vice-like. There was no way that Manami could be here, not just because he was trespassing (somehow that felt like the least of Toudou’s worries), but because Makishima would be along and the beetle-witch made ‘grumpy’ seem like a kitten waiting to cuddle the next unsuspecting passerby.

“She’s sweet,” Manami all but purred, glancing at his shoulder not without some awkwardness due to the way he had to push his chin down to his collarbone. “So the prime isn’t here after all. Ahh, that’s kind of disappointing. I came all this way.”

Did Manami really have the nerve to sound whiny at this crucial moment? Toudou stomped to the bench to lean over him. “Listen. I don’t know why you’re here, but--you know what, no, it doesn’t matter. Don’t tell me how you got here, or why, just leave.”

“Ah.” Manami rose to his feet, gently placed the curled up spider down on the stained table, and walked around the simmering cauldron to look at the flowers neatly arranged on the wall over Makishima’s store cabinets. “I can’t, Toudou-san. I’m supposed to be here...the mountain called to me.”

This again. This ‘the very song of nature is in my skin’ nonsense that Manami always came up with. Toudou felt he might have been giving Manami too much of a hard time in his head, but he was on the verge of having a meltdown at the mere thought of Makishima getting home to witness this.

“I need to be here. With you.”

“With me?” Toudou asked, then scowled. So easily he was distracted! No, he would have to get this back on track.

“Mm. Something is going to happen here, I can feel it.”

“You can bet something will happen here if Maki-chan comes home to find you snooping around his house!” Toudou bristled, hurrying around the cauldron after Manami. “I don’t know what you mean with this ‘the mountain said’ nonsense, but I’m serious Manami. You have to leave. Maki-chan isn’t...like other people.”

“Hmm~.”

Fear was the most peculiar feeling to associate with the beetle-witch, and yet here it was, creeping into Toudou’s words. Manami had to leave, immediately; Toudou reached out to grab his arm, his voice near-pleading as he spoke. “Manami, please. We’ll—we’ll talk about this when I get home, okay?”

Like the little pest he was, Manami sidestepped Toudou’s outstretched hand to look instead at the skein of unicorn tail hair that hung next to the doorway into the living space. Too nimble, that one. “I can’t do that, Toudou-san. I have to be here.”

“No, you don’t,” Toudou hissed again, marching over to Manami to grab his arms and start pushing him toward the door. Thankfully, this time, nothing transferred between them, memories or otherwise. Nevertheless, Toudou felt Manami start and wiggle away. They both lost their footing, Toudou stumbling backward into the wall and Manami forward into the table. And then, as if in slow motion, he watched Manami fall.

The panic that had welled up in Toudou’s chest earlier was nothing to seeing Manami’s shoulder hit the cauldron, hearing the clang of iron on the floor, or watching blood red potion splash in his underclassman's face.

Toudou reacted before the thoughts fully formed in his mind. The window crashed open, water from the stream gushing in an unstable arc to drench Manami in ice-cold water.

Something had happened, but as far as Toudou could tell, it could have been worse. A shivering boy, no more than three or four, stared back at Toudou with impossibly wide, round eyes that glistened with tears. Toudou lowered his hands so that the remaining jet of water halted and splashed on the floor. The only sound left in the resulting silence was Josephine’s indignant hissing. Her long legs waved in a frenzy from where she sat on the table, her agitation evident.

Quivering from head to toe, Toudou moved through the spilled potion, now diluted with water, and knelt next to Manami. Was there anything he could do? Would Josephine point him to the right book, as she had in the past?

“T-toudou-s-s-san,” Manami whispered, his voice far too high, his breaths shaking a staccato rhythm in the otherwise silent air. “Toudou-san, T-toudou-san...”

But even that wasn't the worst of it.

No, there was still more. Of course there was still more. In a world where the unbelievable was the norm, there would always be more.

The bang of the door flying open made them both jump. In slow motion, Toudou turned to look at a face he'd only seen in memory: cold, harsh, furious.

A knife flew through the air, whistling past the shivering witches on the floor to clang off the stone wall. Just like the time Toudou had intruded in Makishima's space, Toudou yelped in indignation and threw himself forward to shield Manami from Makishima’s rage. “Oi! You can’t—Maki-chan, wait, I—” Could explain? Could make this better, somehow?

There was nothing to do. Toudou sat with Manami’s tiny body cradled in his arms, trying to think of something, anything to say in the oppressive silence that choked the room.

“I’m sorry, Maki-chan,” Toudou tried. What else was there? When Makishima said nothing—merely heaved the cauldron back onto the table, his shawls and scarves floating around him—Toudou thought maybe he should fall silent as well. Let Makishima process everything...let him calm down.

Their eyes met and Toudou knew for sure: there was no calming that he could do. Seeing Makishima angry was nothing new; they bickered quite often, really, and perhaps even shouted back and forth a few times. Those petty fights paled in comparison to the overwhelming fury that Toudou felt radiating off the beetle-witch, who remained entirely silent, looking down imperiously at the pair of lesser witches on the floor.

Never in his life had Toudou felt so small. Never before had he come up against something as insurmountable as ruining someone’s hope for their future.

There were no words. There wasn’t an apology that could possibly be enough.

“I banish you, Toudou Jinpachi,” Makishima said, softly, his eyes blazing cold fury and never leaving Toudou’s face. “You will never step foot on this mountain again.”

A cold hand clenched around Toudou’s chest and squeezed the air from his lungs.

Leave.”

The room shimmered and blurred into an iridescent whirl. A peculiar sensation—like being flung hard and fast—tensed Toudou’s muscles, and then it was over as suddenly as he began. The sound of traffic, the chill of winter wind, and the dreariness of the day overtook Toudou’s senses all at once; in his arms, Manami had fallen into a sleep so deep that even trying to shake him awake did nothing.

They were at the base of Minegayama. Across from them was a vending machine. Behind them, a bus stop. Toudou gazed up the winding mountain road, frozen. The scenery blurred and warped exactly as Makishima’s work room had, until the distance was nothing more than a shimmering blur of color that held no shape and no form.