Katsuya was nearing the end of an uncharacteristically uneventful patrol when he heard a woman's scream, followed by a crash. Gun drawn, he ran down the dark street and bellowed, "Police! Stay where you are!"
"Get the hell away from me!" the voice shouted, more angry than frightened. "I mean it!" In response came eerie gibbering that Katsuya couldn't make out a word of.
He cut diagonally across an empty intersection and hooked left into an alley. The moonlit evidence that awaited him painted a starkly clear picture: a red-faced woman wobbling in an aggressive stance, a giddy little Wraith hovering nearby, and a shattered glass bottle glinting at the base of the wall behind it. The stench of desperation-quality alcohol hung in the air.
The woman shook her fist. "Come over here and say that again, you bastard!"
One human, one demon, no bloodshed. Relieved, Katsuya lowered his weapon and marched briskly between her and the Wraith. "Stay where you are, both of you! What happened here?"
The Wraith grinned at neither of them and executed a tiny flip. "ArE yOU thE yELLOw-bLUE? ArE yOU tOMoRrOw?"
After his fourth attempt to bring a Wraith in for questioning, Katsuya had finally admitted that entire species could be considered legally incompetent. Better just to shoo them out of whatever mischief they were engaged in than waste hours trying to get a straight answer about the specifics of that mischief. Instead he looked expectantly at the woman.
She let her fists fall loose at her sides. "Nothing. I was just... I mean, let's say I pretend this little guy wasn't bothering me, and you pretend I didn't do... whatever I'm in trouble for. That's fair, right?"
Katsuya scowled. "That's not how the law works, ma'am."
"Oh my god, don't ma'am me! I'm not twenty-five yet! There's still time!"
A headache settled in between Katsuya's eyes. "Listen, let's all just calm down. What happened here? Was anyone injured?"
"I'm fine," said the woman, a touch sullenly. "I'm sorry. I just... I saw some of those 'missing person' posters. They're all beat up and faded now, and I started thinking about Ma-ya, and..."
To Katsuya's intense discomfort, she sobbed.
"We're still searching for the missing," he said. "Don't give up hope."
The Wraith drifted over her shoulder like a comforting hand and crooned, "mAy thE dELUgE Of bLAck sOUnds swALLOw yOU."
Despite her compromised motor skills, the woman's punch connected and demonstrated that the Wraith was more corporeal than it looked. It tumbled backward through the air as Katsuya barked, "Hey, that's assault! Provocation is no excuse for violence." To the Wraith he added, "Harassment is also inexcusable. Don't provoke her again."
"thE yELLOw-bLUE Is nEvEr grEEn," it replied, upside-down. A bone fell out of its bag and clattered against the pavement.
Otherwise, it appeared no worse for the wear. Katsuya scowled, replaced the bone, and said, "In any case, I want you two to stay at least three meters apart."
"Yeah, okay. I'm really sorry." The woman drew a loud, shaky breath and straightened up, dragging her lacy sleeve across her upper lip. "I can't believe what an idiot I'm making of myself. I just want to go home, okay? I'm going home."
Katsuya caught her arm before she tripped over her own boots. "I'll escort you."
"I wILL pIckLE yOU In thE IcE thAt nEvEr mELts," said the Wraith.
"You're going home too," Katsuya told it, "or you're spending the night at the station. Your choice."
Wraiths, in his experience, were savvier than they sounded. This one regarded him for a moment with a blankly ecstatic grin, then drifted away into the intersection. "bY THe wAY," it burbled at a dark streetlight, "aM i sINkinG?"
Satisfied, Katsuya knelt beside the shattered glass. He'd long since grown accustomed to navigating the city by moonlight; with steady hands, he picked up the most intact section of the bottle and began depositing the smaller shards within it. "Don't litter," he told the woman firmly. "Only by working together can we keep Sumaru clean."
"You're serious? Wow! You're really serious." She wobbled over to help but eventually gave up in the face of Katsuya's warning gestures. With a sigh, she rested her weight against a dry part of the wall. "Ugh, I can't believe I drank all that. I found it in Ma-ya's stuff—she must've bought it ages ago, back when we were broke all the time. And then I couldn't stand to be there anymore, thinking about her, so I thought it'd clear my head to go outside. I'm so stupid."
"It's dangerous to go out alone at night," Katsuya agreed. "You're fortunate you didn't run into anything worse."
Her laugh had a brittle edge. "Yeah, I sure am lucky." As Katsuya stood carefully, cradling the glass, she added, "Say, what's your sign?"
To his relief, her apartment was near enough that she didn't manage to get very deep into the intricacies of Capricorns born in the Year of the Tiger. "Your blood type is A, right?" she asked as they approached the outer door. "I mean, obviously. So's mine. So our compatibility's not great all around, but the stars look a little different from up here. Maybe that matters."
Katsuya blinked at her and held the door open. "Please get some rest, ma—miss. And be more cautious in the future."
"Hey, I can take care of myself just fine." To demonstrate, she boxed the air, listing only slightly. Katsuya attempted to herd her inside without making physical contact. "I can take care of myself," she said again, distantly. "I promised Ma-ya that I—anyway, I just get so tired of it, sometimes."
Her hand fumbled for a light switch that failed to illuminate the dark stairwell. Muttering, she began the slow journey up into the dark.
Katsuya waited until it sounded like she'd reached her floor without tumbling back down, then made his way back to his patrol route. The broken glass went into the first appropriate recycling bin that he passed, leaving behind the thin, sharp scent of booze on his fingers.
When he arrived back at the makeshift station in Seaside Mall, he found Chief Togashi holed up in his converted convenience store office, surrounded by smoky oil lamps and crackling radios. The Kinnara that Katsuya had booked earlier in the evening whinnied disdainfully as he passed the shelving units that served as its cell.
"It's a quiet night on this end of Kounan, sir," Katsuya said. "Where can I be useful?"
Togashi glanced up from the paperwork he'd been squinting at. "It's a quiet night all over. Go home, Suou." Commotion burst through one of the radios; to Katsuya's skeptical look, he added, "There was another break-in in Yumezaki, but Mayuzumi and Yoshizaka are on it."
Katsuya's jaw tightened. "With all due respect, I'm opposed to letting civilian vigilantes keep the peace."
"And I'm opposed to listening to this jackass serenade me all night, but here we are. Why don't you just go home and get a decent night's sleep for once?"
"That was an order."
Katsuya suppressed a scowl as he turned off the emergency radio at his belt and removed the batteries. They lasted a little bit longer that way, he'd heard, and the whole world ran now on bits and scraps. "Yes, sir."
It was a short walk home, but Katsuya hadn't headed directly home from work for months. Instead he made his usual detour into Rengedai to loop around the abandoned high school and Alaya Shrine. He found nothing but loitering demons and a handful of dissolute youth. Their noise was almost welcome; no matter how much time passed, the silence of what had once been traffic-clogged streets made him uneasy.
"Break it up," he told the rowdier clusters, flashing his badge. It was impossible to tell whether they dispersed any farther than the nearest deep shadows.
By the time Katsuya approached his house, it was well after anything resembling a sensible bedtime, and he was tired enough to make it halfway up the block before he noticed that the kitchen light was on.
He hadn't left any lights on. He had always been fastidious about turning them off even before rationing began; he took very seriously his duty to set an example for the people of Sumaru. Drawing his gun, he crept around into the garage.
No sign of forced entry. No sounds suggesting a break-in in progress. No babbling that would suggest the mischief of selectively corporeal demons. Mind racing, Katsuya eased open the back door and slipped inside in silence.
A strange crunching noise led him down the hall toward the kitchen. His inexplicable ability stirred in the back of his head; just two days earlier he'd been forced to resort to it to stop an Ogre gnawing through an shelter's floorboards. Katsuya entered with his gun raised and a cry of "Freeze! Police!"
Leaning against the counter, eating a bag of potato chips, was Tatsuya.
You saw things, sometimes, in this strange new world. Katsuya blinked, shook his head, and waited for the figure to turn into a lookalike looter.
"Hey." Tatsuya remained Tatsuya, and there was no mistaking his voice. "Welcome home."
The bag wrinkled under his fingers. Crumbs speckled him from his shirt down to his socks. The realness of him hit Katsuya like a sucker punch, dislodging a tangle of words: "Where have you been? How long have you been here? Are you hurt? Why didn't you call?"
Tatsuya frowned. "Are you interrogating me?"
"No. Of course not." Flustered, Katsuya holstered his gun and threw both arms around his brother. His arms shook despite his efforts to still them. After a stiff moment, Tatsuya hugged back.
When they parted, Katsuya dropped his gaze to his feet. "Excuse me," he said briskly, and ran to deposit his shoes in the genkan. A pair of black-and-white running shoes awaited him, in what had long ago ceased to be their usual spot. He needed a moment to sit and breathe deeply.
Upon his return, Tatsuya held out the nearly empty bag of chips. Katsuya shook his head and said, "Let's start over. Are you all right?"
"I'm fine. A little hungry." He stuffed another crumbly handful into his mouth.
Katsuya confiscated the bag. "Don't fill up on that junk. I'll make you something."
"The fridge is empty."
"Everyone's is." Katsuya opened the pantry door and surveyed the rows of cans before swapping the chips for a tin of salmon and a box of instant rice. When he turned, Tatsuya was watching him with an increasingly furrowed brow.
"Keeping the refrigerator on isn't worth the electricity," he explained, and resisted the urge to add, Where have you been that you don't know this? Once he had started the rice cooking in a pot, he added a little water to the coffee maker, too, and plugged it in. Coffee meant dipping into several luxuries at once, but Katsuya's brain needed something to set his thoughts back in straight lines.
As he worked on a quick porridge, Tatsuya hovered awkwardly, slouching against the counter with his hands in his pockets. "Where are Mom and Dad?" he asked.
"I don't know." But the circumstantial evidence was strong, and offering false hope was cruel. Katsuya steeled himself. "They called to say they were staying an extra night in Kobe."
The slouch deepened around a sharp breath. Tatsuya closed his eyes and rubbed his forehead, and Katsuya focused on breaking up the salmon to afford him a moment of privacy.
There had been endless speculation on television until the city stabilized enough to divert power away from frivolous broadcasting. The seas were steam, experts claimed, whiting out the ruin of the surface. They'd shown footage of spinning eggs over and over. There had been arguments over the new patterns of the wind, as if they mattered. Katsuya had stopped watching long before the broadcasts went dark, once he realized that no one was going to put forth a credible argument that anyone left behind had survived.
When the porridge was hot, he spooned it into a bowl and picked out a mug for a himself. As he poured his coffee, Tatsuya cleared his throat and said, "I could use some, too."
"It'll stunt your growth."
When Tatsuya drew himself up out of his slouch, Katsuya conceded that the younger Suou was, however slightly, not the smaller one, and retrieved a second mug.
They sat across from each other at the table, eyes low, watching the steam rise. Katsuya raised his mug to inhale the scent of the coffee and distract himself from thoughts of how badly he wanted a cigarette. Tatsuya dragged a spoon in listless circles through his porridge.
"You don't have to explain anything until you're finished eating," Katsuya offered.
Tatsuya's gaze flicked up to him. "You go first. It will be easier that way."
He frowned but swallowed his argument along with a bracingly hot sip of coffee. It had been a long time since he'd drunk coffee this late at night; somehow it felt like an even longer time since his first cup that morning. Time still felt wrong, deep in the pit of his ulcerous stomach. The experts said this was because it took twenty-five hours now for Sumaru City to loop around the still Earth. Every night he set his watch back at midnight and told himself that he was technically getting to bed on time.
Add up all those spare hours, and Tatsuya had been missing for even longer.
Rubbing his thumb along the handle of his mug, Katsuya cast his thoughts backward: "The last time I saw you... That was after the chaos began. We didn't have the manpower to do anything about the fighting, and the citizens worked themselves into a panic. I told you to hide somewhere safe. Did you?"
Tatsuya gave him a pointed look.
"Fair enough. You don't have to answer that yet." He still sounded too much like he was interrogating a suspect. "I was worried sick about you."
"I know," Tatsuya said quietly, which was encouraging; usually he withdrew altogether.
Katsuya let out a long, slow breath. "The city's obviously quieter now. The Kounan PD has set up a temporary headquarters in the mall, but our resources are as strained as every other public service's. My investigation into the terrorist attack on our headquarters has been put on on hold indefinitely."
Tatsuya glanced up from the mug he'd raised to his lips. "The guy who did it is dead."
"How do you—" Katsuya caught himself and forced himself to drink his coffee until the urge to demand answers had passed. Not that the coffee was helping his jittery nerves or the anxious gnawing in his gut. "Now, I'm not asking you to explain anything, but rationing was instituted some time ago, and you seemed surprised by it. How far back do you really need me to tell you what's happened?"
Holding the mug near his chin, as if he might need to shield himself with at any moment, Tatsuya said, "You were starting with the last time you saw me. Keep doing that."
He'd been in a coma, or kidnapped by demons, or wandering amnesiac through the roughest parts of Hirasaka—Katsuya shook his head to break the spiral of his thoughts. "So August," he said heavily, and availed himself of more coffee. A dull exhaustion headache began to throb behind his eyelids. "All right. The Masked Circle and the Last Battalion—whoever they really were, they fought to a standstill. A few of the survivors make trouble every now and then, but most of them seem to have reintegrated into society. We should still bring them to justice, but we're at our limits just trying to keep the peace."
The porridge had finally begun to make its way into Tatsuya. He swallowed before interjecting, "Because of the demons? I saw some on my way here."
From where? Katsuya did not ask. Instead he replied, "I'm glad I don't have to explain them to you. I'm not sure I understand them myself. My point was, some of them aren't breaking any laws other than the obvious immigration statutes, but some of them are recklessly lawless, and bringing them in can be complicated."
The handle of the spoon clacked against the bowl. "You're arresting demons?"
Katsuya nodded. "For society to function, the law must apply equally to everyone. The only difference between arresting a human being and arresting a kraken is how many zip ties you need."
Tatsuya stared at him, then curled forward. For a moment Katsuya worried that he'd said something unintentionally upsetting enough to shut the entire conversation down, but then little sputtering noises began to escape Tatsuya's lips, coming louder and faster until Tatsuya tipped over sideways and pounded a fist against the floor.
"I don't see what's so funny about it," Katsuya said. "That's the foundation of justice."
This elicited a snort.
Abruptly the light went off. Not that this was surprising—the light might have been on for hours before Katsuya arrived, and then he'd used both the coffee maker and the stove—but the darkness alarmed Tatsuya into silence. "Don't be afraid," Katsuya said. "We just went over our usage limit for the day. It should roll over in a few hours."
Tatsuya scoffed. "I'm not afraid."
"I just meant it's nothing out to be concerned about. Hang on." Katsuya stood and picked his way through the shadows to the window, where he tied back the curtains to let in the moonlight.
Tatsuya joined him, lit faintly silver. "The sky looks different."
He'd been held captive by Nazis in an underground prison, or walled up inside one of those temples that the police lacked the manpower to storm. Katsuya took a deep breath. "Well, we're closer to it now. The moon phases are different, too, because of how fast the city is flying around the Earth. They say we'll never have seasons again." They gazed together at the moon, already sinking toward the horizon, until he added, "Finish your porridge."
When Tatsuya sat back down, he focused on his coffee, instead. "I wondered what you meant by rationing. It seems strict."
Katsuya nodded. "The city's in a persistent state of emergency now. Without such extreme measures, we'd have already run out of energy."
The spoon that Tatsuya had finally begun to raise fell back against the bowl. Even in the dim light, he looked sick. "What do you mean?"
"All we have is what rose with the city. The resevoir's stable, and the nuclear plant should keep running for a while, with rationing. People are already anxious about food, though. Grocery stores and warehouses have an electricity exemption to preserve as much as possible, but in the long term—" Katsuya shut his mouth around any further details; his brother's skin already matched the ghostly shell of the Earth. No need to talk about the few brave parachuters who lost contact during their descents, or the discouraging readings from unmanned instruments. "Every scientific mind in Sumaru is dedicated to these issues," he added. "You don't have to worry."
Tatsuya lowered his eyes. It struck Katsuya how much older he looked than a few months should have aged him. "I didn't expect this to be easy," he said at length, addressing his porridge. "But this..." To Katsuya's frustration, he continued not to pick up the spoon, instead reaching into his pocket. And then there he went flicking that damn lighter again, a decade-old nervous habit that he seemed increasingly unlikely ever to grow out of.
Katsuya failed not to think about cigarettes. "You haven't started smoking," he said, without any suggestion that he was asking a question.
"Of course not." The lighter snapped shut. Tatsuya took a deep breath and looked up, his gaze unsettlingly intense. "What if there was an energy source?"
"Of course there's an energy source. We're flying and protected from the effects of being in low orbit, aren't we? The issue is that no one understands how."
The noise Tatsuya made was more of an angry bark than a laugh. "It works how everyone believes it works. This ship carrying us—it's nothing but our unconscious hopes and fears. If enough people understood that, we'd probably crash."
Katsuya went for another sip of coffee and found his mug empty. "Tatsuya, how do you know any of this? What have you—"
Holding up one hand, Tatsuya used the other to spoon porridge deliberately into his mouth. Katsuya got up and paced until he heard the scrape of metal against ceramic.
After a long look at the window, Tatsuya pushed the bowl away and scooted back from the table. Light spiraled up around him, growing brighter and brighter until it unfolded above into the shape of a masked figure clad in red and white. Small flames wreathed its arms and hazardously illuminated the room. "Apollo," Tatsuya said, as if he were introducing a friend he'd brought home. "You have this power too, don't you?"
In August, when the streets suddenly throbbed with chaos, Katsuya had interrupted the early vigilante antics of Mayuzumi and Yoshizaka and found himself the target of what he later learned was a Yaksa. His memories were muddled: a sword flashing in the sun, Mayuzumi yelling at him, I am thou, and thou art I echoing inside his skull, a golden cloud of butterflies. All he remembered clearly was a well-dressed cat shouting about chariots and violating the night, and subsequently not bleeding out on the sidewalk.
"Something like that," Katsuya replied, ignoring the eager stirring inside himself. "What do you know about it? Is it connected to what happened to the Earth? How widespread is it?"
Tatsuya's lighter gleamed against his palm, red with the glow of Apollo, then disappeared under the tight curl of his fingers. "I'll start from August."
Katsuya's watch registered one o'clock for the second time. The last hour didn't made any more sense than it had the first time around; he could keep turning the hands back over and over until dawn made a liar of him, and it still wouldn't.
"You realize what you're asking me to believe," he said at last, when it became clear that the silence was an expectant one.
Tatsuya glared. "I'm asking you to believe me."
"I never said that I didn't. It's just a lot to take in." Katsuya rubbed his head, which had taken in so much that it felt like an over-saturated sponge. "Another world... That's difficult to accept."
Some of the pieces fit: whatever the particulars of the crimes of the foreign minister's son, the foreign minister himself certainly had the resources for a thorough cover-up, including false charges against the detective who tried to dig beneath the surface. And there was a name for the inexplicable power that curled up in the back of Katsuya's brain as if his occipital lobe were a sunny spot. Little islands of coherence in a vast, mad sea of manipulative rumors, eldritch powers, and splintering realities.
Tatsuya stared at his lighter, which he had resumed flicking compulsively. Apollo stared at Katsuya with eyes like tiny stars. The darkness might have been preferable.
"I don't know what to say," Katsuya admitted at last. There were gaps to be filled, yawning chasms between cause and effect, but Tatsuya had reacted as if even the most obvious questions about them were fingers digging into bullet wounds. Persisting now would benefit no one. "I need to sleep on this."
"I'm tired of talking, anyway." Tatsuya snapped the lighter shut. "The Kuzunoha Detective Agency is still in Hirasaka, right?"
Katsuya frowned. "Private detectives? There's nothing legitimate they can do for you that law enforcement can't."
"There is. Are they still open?"
"You're not going to Hirasaka alone, if that's what you're thinking. I'll take you tomorrow morning if you tell me what you want from them."
"I'll take my bike."
"You and what fuel?"
They locked eyes. Gears whirred inside Apollo.
"Fine," Tatsuya said. His Persona vanished, leaving behind the dazzle of blasted night vision. "I'll explain on the way."
"I don't know why you have to make everything difficult." Katsuya squinted to make out the shape of his brother rising and picking his way toward the stairs. "Your room's the way you left it. Good night."
Tatsuya paused at the stairwell. He didn't turn around, but his voice was softer as he replied, "Good night."
For the first time in months, Katsuya listened to the footsteps of someone else upstairs. He waited until they went silent before gathering and washing the dishes. Afterward he stepped out onto the porch, breathing in the night air. The temperature was the same as always, on the perpetual edge of an autumn that never came. The starlight poured down through a sky devoid of clouds and electric light.
Helios manifested beside him, tail twitching. Katsuya sneezed.
To Katsuya's distress, Tatsuya had brought home a sword and insisted on carrying it when they left the house. That it came in handy was beside the point; watching him drive off the bird-like demons that were rowdiest at dawn, Katsuya couldn't help thinking about the experience that must have gone into his fluid strikes and coordinated summonings of his Persona. This was evidence, clear and unwelcome.
To avoid talking about that, Katsuya said, "I don't understand this plan of yours at all."
"You don't have to." Tatsuya turned away to resume walking, only to stiffen when the sound of shattering glass came from behind them. He turned his head far enough to see a Cockatrice furiously attacking the third-floor windows of an abandoned shop, then shrugged and kept walking.
"Hold on." Katsuya approached the Cockatrice with Helios slinking along at his side. He angled his neck back and cupped his hand to his mouth to yell, "Hey, you! That's your own reflection! It's also vandalism!"
The Cockatrice pulled up mid-dive to squawk, "Piss off."
Helios growled and leapt halfway up the building, alighting neatly on a window ledge that brought it within pouncing distance. Its claws caught the sunlight as they kneaded the stone.
Katsuya stood firm. "Hirasaka used to be out of my jurisdiction, but we're coordinating law enforcement across the city. I have no problem taking you downtown."
The Cockatrice glanced between him and Helios, whose hindquarters had begun to wiggle. Cawing vitriol, it spiraled upward and took off to the south.
When he looked to Tatsuya for a reaction, he found that Tatsuya had continued walking down Kameya Alley and was now quite far ahead. Teeth gritted, Katsuya jogged after him.
"You were just going to let it do as it pleased?" Katsuya demanded when he caught up.
Tatsuya shrugged. "It wasn't hurting anyone. We have bigger problems."
"It's much easier to prevent the breakdown of law and order than to reverse it," Katsuya pointed out. "A public servant must always be vigilant against entropy. It's all well and good to focus on broader issues, but without consistent enforcement..."
He hadn't finished his lecture before the detective agency came into sight. Tatsuya all but broke into a run for the door.
At least he bothered to dismiss Apollo before entering, Katsuya tucked Helios back inside his own mind and followed.
The enormous lucky cat that meowed at him as he crossed the threshold held his interest for the split-second it took for a woman's yelling to steal it. Katsuya halted in his tracks at the sight of what appeared to be the drunk he'd escorted home the night before. It had been dark, and he had a view now only of her back, but it seemed unlikely that more than one person in Sumaru City had adopted her hairstyle. She had the same impassioned tone, too, though she was directing it at the hapless-looking old man behind the desk rather than a mischievous demon.
"Ugh, I can't go on like this! I have to know one way or the other! Ma-ya is all I—" She hitched on the realization that the old man was staring at someone over her shoulder and whirled around. Her red-rimmed eyes locked alarmingly on Tatsuya. "Hey, I remember you! You were with Ma-ya before! Do you have any idea where she is?"
The name stuck out like a thunderbolt in the storm of a story still raging in Katsuya's brain. Murdered to bring about the end of the world through some incomprehensible prophecy—there was no satisfaction in that for a grieving survivor. He looked to his brother and found him looking stricken.
"We should discuss this matter in private, miss," Katsuya said.
"You don't discuss good news in private! No one does that!" She seemed to notice him for the first time, with a double-take. "Officer Sideburns?"
He reflexively reached up to touch his hair. "It's Suou, actually. Katsuya Suou, Kounan PD."
"Ulala Serizawa," she replied. "Anyway, never mind that. One of you, just..." Her arms trembled as her fists pressed hard into her sides. "Just tell me what happened, okay?"
Tatsuya pulled himself out of a deep slouch. "I should do it. Come here."
He led her to the back of the agency, where an open doorway didn't quite block the view of laundry hung up to dry. Katsuya turned away from it.
"Daisuke Todoroki," said the man behind the desk, without getting up. "But I believe we've met before, Officer. If you're here about a missing person, don't bother; we're not taking on any new cases until we've cut our backlog in half."
Katsuya peered down disdainfully through his sunglasses. "I haven't forgotten arresting you. Snooping through garbage, wasn't it?"
"I believe the record shows that I was helping a client's neighbor sort her recycling."
From the back room came incoherent shouting, followed by a loud sob.
Todoroki cleared his glasses on his vest. "The last one that we actually found, she turned out to be using the end of the world as a chance to make a clean break from her husband. Even our successful cases are short on happy endings these days." He put his glasses back on, frowned, and breathed on the lenses before giving them another wipe. "You're not hassling that boy, are you? He's a good kid."
The lucky cat statue meowed again. Katsuya eyed it suspiciously and replied, "He's my brother."
Todoroki chuckled. "I might have guessed. So you're not here to check my license? We're good for another eight months."
"Remember to apply early for renewal. Paperwork processing times are up over two hundred percent for the foreseeable future." Katsuya took a seat on the edge of one of the sofas, facing the desk. "So what's this I hear about influencing reality by spreading rumors?"
The explanation didn't make any more sense from Todoroki's lips than it had from Tatsuya's, particularly when it was punctuated by emotional outbursts from the other end of the office. This time, however, the explanation was significantly more detailed. Katsuya's jaw tightened to the point he could almost hear his dentist chastising him for cracking a tooth. "So this is what my little brother hired you for? Arms smuggling? Illegal gambling?"
"All we did was pass along rumors," Todoroki said. "There's no law against gossip."
A vein throbbed in Katsuya's forehead. "I want to see your license."
Todoroki made a slow production of digging through every drawer but one for it, so Katsuya matched him beat for passive-aggressive beat in examining every mark on the paper. It was petty and childish, and Katsuya was tremendously glad his brother wasn't watching; he didn't trust that the pressure of being a role model could stop him from squeezing this tiny moment of control like a stress ball.
"Everything looks in order," he said at last, reluctantly.
The license was swept carelessly into the nearest empty folder. "Glad to hear it. Did you have business with my agency today, or—"
Ulala came hurtling out of the back with an eyeliner-stained camisole balled up in her fist. She slammed it and her empty hand against Todoroki's desk as she said, "Hey, never mind all that before! Just spread a rumor that Ma-ya's okay!"
Katsuya took a step back and turned to watch Tatsuya return to the main office, eyes downcast. Katsuya's raised eyebrow elicited a slow shake of his head.
Todoroki rolled his chair a safe distance away. "I'm sorry, but it's not that simple. For a rumor to gain traction, it has to feed into what people already hope or fear to be true. Unless your friend was famous, a critical mass of people aren't invested in her fate."
She pounded the desk again. "What the hell? So you can bring Hitler back to life, but not Ma-ya?"
"He wasn't responsible for Hitler," Tatsuya said.
"Right. You just explained all that." Ulala deflated with a sigh. "It's just... It's not fair. None of this is fair." She rubbed at her nose with the camisole. "God, I'm such a wreck. I'm sorry."
Katsuya held out his handkerchief. "Miss Serizawa, correct? Here."
"Oh, wow, um, thanks." She took it sheepishly, surrendering the damp camisole. "Hey, is it okay if I use your restroom?"
As she made her way to the back of the office again, Katsuya gingerly deposited the camisole on the desk. "The hostage has been rescued."
"I'm sure Tamaki will be thrilled," Todoroki said dryly before shifting his attention. "Tatsuya, my boy, it's been ages. Good to see you're still in one piece. What can I do for you today?"
In Katsuya's experience, most other adults regarded Tatsuya with varying degrees of frustration and worry, depending on how responsible they felt for him. Seeing one address him collegially, almost warmly, was an experience Katsuya hadn't had outside of filling in for parent-teacher meetings with his most recent homeroom teacher, who was rumored to have reformed even dedicated delinquents. This interaction owed nothing to alternate worlds or parallel selves, and every easy gesture of it left him feeling more out of touch with his brother's life.
"I have a job for you," Tatsuya said. "I need you to spread another rumor."
"Well, you know the process. You haven't been around since our rates changed, though. For something like the usual, you're looking at a liter of kerosene or equivalent."
Tatsuya's eyebrows dipped briefly together. "Katsuya will pay you."
The new barter economy still didn't sit well with Katsuya. "We'll talk about it after we've agreed on the specifics of the job."
"Fair enough." Todoroki settled back in his chair. "What signal will my agency be boosting?"
"You may have to start from scratch," Tatsuya said. "I understand if that's more expensive." Katsuya bid a silent farewell to his coffee stash. "Spread the rumor that Xibalba produces its own infinite resources."
Todoroki's face sagged. "Do you really think we haven't already tried something like that? People are obsessed with the fear that we're running out of everything. Wishful thinking can't compete with that."
"Has everyone really lost hope?" A tremor of desperation ran through Tatsuya's voice. "That cult in Honmaru Park believed we were ascending to Heaven."
"That was months ago," Todoroki replied with a concerned frown. "Most of those new religious movements fell apart when the demons started moving in. Didn't you notice?"
Tatsuya stared vacantly at the floor, worrying his lower lip. "But if we could make people believe that the city has ascended to Heaven—"
"We'll have our work cut out for us," Ulala interjected. Katsuya turned to watch her stride into the office proper, back straight and face wiped bare. Her eyes were only a little red. "Heaven's supposed to suck a lot less than this."
Katsuya adjusted his sunglasses. "'We'?"
"Well, of course I'm going to help! It's not like I'm doing anything else with my life." She took a seat on the sofa and crossed her legs. "So what's the plan?"
"Making everyone feel optimistic about the end of the world, apparently." Todoroki steepled his thick fingers. "Television did the job pretty well last time. Not that you can blame people for being desperate for answers when the city flew off."
"Yeah," Ulala chimed in, "when that book came out, there was a miniseries about, what's it called, ancient astronauts. You know, the aliens who built the pyramids and drew all over South America. This thing we're flying on is supposed to be a UFO they left for us. That's what they said on TV, anyway."
Tatsuya turned his full intensity on her. "Do you believe it?"
"I guess? I mean, it was pretty convincing, they way they laid it all out." When he didn't reply immediately, she squirmed. "Hey, could you not stare at me like that?"
"Sorry." He sicced his stare on the coffee table. "If you're really willing to help... There's a path to the collective unconsciousness, where even a single thought can become reality."
To Katsuya's distress, he realized that he had some idea of where this might be going. "You mentioned that. Isn't that how this entire mess happened in the first place?"
"But it's not really his domain anymore. So maybe..." Tatsuya lowered his eyes, lips working together as if he were chewing on a difficult idea. "Last summer, people believed what they read in In Lak'ech. If enough people believe that aliens left the ship behind, it shouldn't be so hard for them to believe that aliens could return to fly us to Heaven. All we need is enough proof to inspire them."
That was indeed where this was going. "So your plan is what, to wish benevolent aliens into existence?"
"Do you have a better one?" Without waiting for an answer, Tatsuya turned back to Todoroki. "Can you get people talking about In Lak'ech again?"
He shrugged. "I don't think it's weighing heavily on anyone's mind these days, but once Tamaki and Tadashi get in, I'll send them out to argue about it in public. If they're entertaining enough, they might spark some interest."
"Have her take a swing at him," Ulala suggested.
"I doubt I'll need to suggest it. So if you're tying up my detectives all day, I think four liters of kerosene is fair, don't you?"
Katsuya eyed the drawer that he hadn't opened earlier. "What's the exchange of rate of kerosene to not investigating the possession of illegal firearms?"
"Considering how much your brother doesn't care for private dicks," Todoroki muttered to Tatsuya, "he certainly is—"
Katsuya cleared his throat loudly.
"We'll bring some by later," said Tatsuya, heading toward the door. Ulala jumped up after him. "Thanks."
Todoroki muttered something that Katsuya declined to catch. "Say," he called after Tatsuya, "where are the rest of your friends? We've got cases open on Lisa and Eikichi."
Tatsuya halted mid-step. Without turning, he replied, "They're safe. They're never coming back."
"I can't tell their parents that. What does that even mean, anyway?"
Katsuya tried to imagine a knock on his own door and wild claims that his brother was alive and well in another world. "If they're never coming back," he said, "don't complicate the issue. Their families deserve closure."
"Were those the friends you and Ma-ya were with before?" Ulala asked. "Someone catch me up on the way to the collective unconsciousness, okay?"
"We're not headed there right now, are we?" Katsuya hurried outside after his brother, who had kept walking with no more response than a nod. "Tatsuya, don't be absurd! You've been home less than a day, you've had a plan for less than ten minutes, and I'm scheduled to patrol at noon. "
Tatsuya didn't even slow down. "I never said you had to come."
"Don't be ridiculous. I'm not letting you out of my sight."
Touching Tatsuya was always a fraught proposition, one best undertaken by someone whose understanding of body language didn't center around discerning whether the subject was dangerous or deceptive. All of Katsuya's disarming techniques involved literal weapons. He sped up to put his hand on Tatsuya's shoulder, regardless, and got nothing for his trouble but stiffening muscles and a glare.
Katsuya let go and resorted to words: "I mean that I'm worried about you."
A flash of light drew his eye to where Ulala had stopped in the middle of the alley. He barely had any surprise left to muster when a humanoid figure manifested above her, red and white with sharp, tattered edges and what looked like a shoe lodged in the shattered mask of its face. An impossibly long whip wrapped around it in ways that made Katsuya somewhat uncomfortable, with the last few meters binding the wrists together and dangling down between them.
"I hate to interrupt a special moment," Ulala said, "but there's a bunch of Cockatrices headed this way, and they look pretty pissed off."
Considering how the face of the Earth had been rearranged, it was no exaggeration to say that there were mountains less stubborn than Tatsuya. The trek to Rengedai gave Ulala time to reach the limits of the questions he was willing to answer, and it gave Katsuya more than enough time to wonder just what it was about Rengedai, anyway, and to reassemble his radio in order to awkwardly explain to the chief that was he was indisposed.
"You think you're the only cop who can work your beat?" Togashi always sounded crankier under a layer of static. "Listen, I'll call in Ando. You can cover a day for him if any of his relatives come back from the presumed-dead." Before Katsuya could reply, the unmistakable sound of Pixie laughter came over the radio, followed by colorful swearing and the end of communications.
Ahead of him, Tatsuya took an unexpected turn toward Lotus. A small crowd, mostly human, had gathered outside the mall's entrance to barter. A communal meal appeared to be in the works, as well, in the unlikely event that the Pyro Jack amusing itself inside the portable grill remained in a helpful mood. It was a heartwarming prospect, if an inappropriate venue.
Katsuya strode into the gathering and cleared his throat. "This is a commendable display of community spirit! However, this is not a safe or approved area for outdoor grilling. Honmaru Park—"
"What the hell is the matter with you?" Ulala grabbed his tie and yanked him toward the doors.
"It's a fire hazard," was all he got out before the look on her face flustered him.
They followed Tatsuya through the gutted remains of the food court, then past the abandoned clock shop and a skeletally staffed branch of Rosa Candida, which had a suspiciously specific sign out front denying involvement in black-market armor sales. Katsuya slowed to peer meaningfully at the shop attendant over his sunglasses, then hurried to catch up.
Tatsuya stopped in front of a blank patch of wall between two storefronts, which had been spared the vile graffiti covering most other surfaces. Ulala, who didn't seem entirely comfortable with silence, began to muse aloud: "I guess if you wanted to hook into the collective unconsciousness, you might as well do it through the mall. I bet there've been a lot of strong feelings here, right? I got my heart broken in a Satomi Tadashi once."
"The entrance isn't here." Tatsuya ran his hand over the section he'd been staring at, as if hoping to catch a camouflaged seam. "I thought... but no, they've both withdrawn." He sighed and let his arm fall. "Let's go."
Katsuya could feel his temper fraying. "Go where? Are you going to bother explaining what this was all about? How am I supposed to help when you shut me out like this?"
Tatsuya's gaze met his only briefly before skittering away. "Seven Sisters."
The silence stretched taut until Ulala snapped it with an exasperated noise. "God, it's like watching two hedgehogs try to hug! You know that only works if you both show your bellies, right?"
Katsuya's hand found it way up to his hair. "Hedgehogs...?"
Shoulders hunched, Tatsuya headed back the way they'd come.
Schools hadn't remained open for long after the severity of Sumaru's situation became clear; attempting to conduct classes as usual with frightened, grieving, and often recently orphaned children was a lost cause. Most of the buildings had been repurposed as shelters, a few as prisons. But Seven Sisters, already heavily damaged after serving as the unlikely target of the Last Battalion's attack, had become the equally unlikely wellspring of demons. Even after the torrent ceased, reclaiming the school had been deemed too risky.
Katsuya had crossed this police tape once before, alone, when he learned that his brother was last seen inside. He hadn't found anything encouraging, let alone a mystical passage to the sea of the unconscious. Only darkness and ruin and irritable demon squatters, then deeper darkness when he ran out the batteries in his flashlight.
This time they had the benefit of sunlight filtering in through the dirty windows, which lent a less eerie effect to the hallways than a lonely beam of light. Not much had changed since his last expedition, Katsuya noted; some of the enormous shed snake skins and bizarre nests even looked familiar.
Ulala wrinkled her nose at one of the larger piles of debris. "Ugh, Ratatoskrs. Three of them took over my old neighbor's apartment, and the smell's really awful." The wrinkle shuffled up to her forehead. "Wait, was that racist?"
"Not from a legal standpoint," Katsuya assured her. To his brother's back he said, "What kind of passage we looking for? I didn't see anything obvious last time I was here."
Tatsuya glanced over his shoulder, a flicker of surprise on his face. "You were here?"
"I'd heard you might be." Katsuya bit back the barb of Did you think I wasn't looking? and added, "I couldn't figure out where the demons had come from, either. There were eye-witness accounts of the Narurato Stone shining, but it was dark when I arrived. The only suspicious objects I found appeared to be broken devices left by the Last Battalion."
"You were actually on the right track." With a grunt, Tatsuya forced open the heavily graffitied door to classroom 1-C. A measure of anxiety drained from his face as he looked inside. "Good. The Nazi teleporter's still here."
"The what?" Ulala peered over his shoulder. "Oh, exactly what it sounded like. We're not seriously going to use that thing, are we?"
"It's this or the Nazi boat. And we'd have to find a way to reactivate the Narurato Stone for that."
Katsuya pressed in behind them and warily regarded the device sitting in the center of the classroom. "You're sure this thing still works?"
"I'm sure I can make it work." The device was still and silent and soft with dust, and Tatsuya knelt beside it as if he intended to perform routine maintenance on his bike. "There should be a toolkit in my shoe locker."
"I'll get it," Katsuya said. In another lifetime, he had delivered forgotten countless lunches there. Tatsuya was never more absent-minded than when it came to lunches, even when those lunches contained a home-baked dessert.
Katsuya's footsteps echoed in the empty hall. He found a paper bag stuffed into the front of the locker, tied shut with ribbon and decorated with stickers. "For my sweet chinyan!" read an attached note. Shaking and sniffing the bag suggested that the contents had once been cookies. Katsuya set it gently back in place after retrieving the toolkit.
When he returned to the classroom, Tatsuya had already pried a panel open on the back of the device and was engaged in clearing away dust. Wordlessly, he held out a hand, and Katsuya passed over the tools.
"You don't need to plug that in, do you?" Ulala asked from where she'd taken a seat on one of the desks. "I can't imagine they're still running power out here."
"No. I'm restarting the generator." Tatsuya did something quick and clever with a screwdriver. For all that he tended to clam up when asked about his plans for the future, he certainly had the aptitude to be a mechanic if he wanted, or perhaps an engineer. He had the aptitude for a great many things that didn't involve listening to career advice from his older brother.
He twisted a pair of pliers into the guts of the device. A moment later, something sizzled and sparked. "Careful," said Katsuya.
"I know what I'm doing." A scraping sound came from somewhere inside the device, followed by another worrisome electrical noise. In a series of groans and pops, lights flickered around the base.
Ulala leaned inquisitively over it. "Wow, it's like something out of a cheesy science fiction movie! Then again, real life is kinda like a cheesy science fiction movie..."
"Miss Serizawa, please don't touch anything." Katsuya watched nervously as Tatsuya made a few more tweaks, then finally removed his hand from the wiring. "And you're sure this leads to the collective unconsciousness, somehow?"
"It should spit us out in the lower reaches of Xibalba. From there, we'll have to walk a few floors down to the core."
Ulala tugged at the wrappings on her left hand. "So are we talking a walk through the good part of Aoba or the bad part of Hirasaka?"
Tatsuya shook his head. "The demons in Xibalba are more dangerous than any of the ones in the city. And try not to think about anything."
After a baffled moment of grappling with the segue, Katsuya peered disapprovingly over his sunglasses. "'Where even a single thought can become reality,' was it? I don't like any of this."
"Then don't come."
"Don't say that again." This came out sharper than he intended, but sometimes barbed words were the only ones that didn't roll right off of Tatsuya. The averted gaze told him that he'd made his point.
As the silence dragged on, Ulala glanced between the two of them, then jerked her thumb toward the teleporter. "So the demons are nastier, and anything we think too hard about will really happen. Got it. Is this going to get any easier if we sit around arguing?"
If anyone had asked Katsuya what the inside of an ancient spaceship built by the aliens that inspired Mayan civilization should look like, the neon-veined golden labyrinth of Xibalba wouldn't have been too far off the mark. Which was, he supposed, the point.
They hadn't ventured far outside their starting room before he found his thoughts drifting to questions of whether the Mayans had gone in for human sacrifice. He hurriedly distracted himself by listening closely for evidence of nearby demons. It was precisely the sort of question that they didn't want to demand an answer.
Ulala slowed in the middle of the corridor, caught up in the spectacle of flowing lights. Her eyes traced an intricate green pulse across the ceiling. "Hey," she said, "there's supposed to be lots of demons down here, right? I wonder what they all eat."
"Keep thinking about it," Katsuya warned, "and we'll find out."
"You say that like it's a bad thing. I never got lunch today, you know." She crossed her arms behind her neck and stretched. "I bet they have big garden rooms with fake skies, like in that movie. You know, the one with the cute little robot?"
The sound of Tatsuya drawing his sword rerouted their attention. "Something's coming," he said. "And stop thinking."
An inferno in the shape of a bird screeched around the corner, and Helios scarcely manifested in time to absorb the the fire it breathed. Scowling at his singed sleeve, Katsuya drew his gun. "Hold it right there! You're assaulting an officer of the law!"
The bird shrieked disdainfully. Apollo's mechanical fist closed around its beak before it could exhale again. In its struggle to free itself, its wings kicked up scorching gusts.
Ulala used Helios as a shield as she sent Callisto to make precision strikes with its whip. Katsuya gave up hoping for clear line of fire and focused on keeping Helios in the way of any stray flames. Not for the first time, he wondered why "feline" and "well-tailored" correlated with a tolerance for extreme heat; at least Apollo had the color-coding for it. He couldn't begin to guess at Callisto's affinities.
When the flames finally collapsed into ashes, Katsuya asked, "Is everyone okay?"
Once Ulala had looked herself over and nodded, Tatsuya gave them both an "I told you so" look and resumed walking.
Within minutes, the bird's aggression proved typical. What few demons bothered to negotiate had unreasonable expectations and short, bristly tempers; the demons making themselves at home in Sumaru were model citizens by comparison. In fairness, Katsuya was well outside his jurisdiction and unfamiliar with local regulations, but it wasn't as if he were trespassing. The collective unconsciousness was the antithesis of private property. Surely humans had as much right to occupy it as demons.
They were all bruised and panting by the time they came to a door that Tatsuya didn't ignore. "In here!" he called. "They won't bother us inside."
Katsuya provided covering fire for Ulala as she darted through the parting slabs of the door, then sprinted after her. A stray blast of ice knocked his sunglasses off his face. By reflex he caught them, but the unexpectedly bright light inside the room made his eyes water. The doors rumbled shut behind him. As he blinked his way toward adjustment, something snagged his jacket cuff.
"Calm down," Ulala said. "It's just a tomato vine."
"A what?" He stopped flailing, put his sunglasses back in place, and peered suspiciously at the lush, impossible garden before him. Instead of the neon gold that dominated the corridors, this room was lit by something like sunlight, shining down from a bright blue ceiling. He unhooked the vine from his sleeve and watched it curl back against a plant laden with ripe tomatoes.
"This wasn't here before," Tatsuya said, with a hint of accusation.
Ulala shrugged. "I told you I didn't get any lunch." With a cheerful hum, she plucked a fat pomegranate from the nearest shrub.
Katsuya cocked an eyebrow at her. "Are you sure that's safe?"
"Why wouldn't it be?" She summoned Callisto to slice open the pomegranate with the sharp tip of its whip. "You should eat something, too. Being hungry makes you cranky."
"I'm not cranky." Katsuya let his own tone linger in his ears for a moment before begrudgingly investigating his options. The garden had no respect for the rules of agriculture, grouping together plants from incompatible climates and growing seasons. He picked an apple and found it a crisp, sweet reminder that he'd never had dinner the night before. After determining there was no proper receptacle for disposing of the core, he tucked it into the dirt and went back to the entrance to sample the tomato plant that had accosted him on the way on. "Eat something, Tatsuya," he called across the room.
For a while, they were all quiet except for crunching, sucking, and the occasional contented hum. After her third pomegranate, Ulala said, "See, if people didn't have to go through the Nazi teleporter and the demon gauntlet, a few of these gardens could feed the whole city. Well, more than a few. I mean, we've got corn in here and four kinds of potatoes. I bet that little pond has fish in it."
Katsuya hadn't even noticed the pond, but now its surface rippled as if lively creatures swam beneath it.
"You can make electricity with potatoes, right?" Ulala added. "I remember doing that in school."
Tatsuya looked up from the cucumber he'd been picking at. "Not enough."
"It's something, though. You guys, I'm really starting to think this can work. This is the first time I've felt hopeful in... well, it's been a while." Smiling, she dropped the mangled shell of her pomegranate and went over to the pond to clean herself up.
Tatsuya's expression remained distant and troubled, so Katsuya approached him with a handful of cherry tomatoes. "Here, try one of these." When Tatsuya accepted, he waited until the chewing had ended before asking, "What's on your mind?"
"Nothing." Tatsuya's nails dug into the skin of the cucumber. "Just... don't ask me anything."
They split the rest of the tomatoes in silence, until Ulala joined them. "Come on, hedgehogs," she said brightly. "And think happy food thoughts with me, okay? Maybe we can make the next room an izakaya."
The next room had nothing to commend it but an absence of belligerent demons. Katsuya had no complaints; the last fight had involved packs of demonic dogs with enormous golden collars that somehow never got in the way of their dedication to mauling. Keeping Helios out had begun to hurt toward the end, as if Katsuya had sprained a muscle in his mind.
Ulala flopped down on the empty floor and made every noise that Katsuya was holding inside. "Ugh, it feels like one of them left a tooth in my ass."
Tatsuya fished something from his pocket and knelt beside her. "Here, this might—"
"Hey, it's not that bad. Sometimes I just like to complain, you know?" She batted his hand away. "Anyway, you're hurt, too. You take it."
"Or save it," Katsuya suggested, "until someone's really in bad shape." He sat down against the wall and heard from every angry muscle in his legs as he relieved them of his weight.
Tatsuya glanced between them, frowning. "We shouldn't stay here. It's not safe."
Ulala raised her head to stare at him. "Oh, like the hallways are?"
"How isn't it?" Katsuya asked.
"This is where..." Tatsuya stared at the floor, fists tight at his sides, until he shook his head. "Never mind."
There were coconuts in the world that opened up more readily than Tatsuya did. Katsuya counted to ten to give the edge in his voice time to dull. "Then let's spend a few minutes getting our strength back. Think about what would happen if we walked into another ambush like that one."
In unresponsive silence, Tatsuya huddled in the far corner of the room. Katsuya sighed and rubbed his forehead.
Ulala scooted into whispering distance. "For god's sake, would you just hug him?"
"That's not how he works."
"And you really think this is working?" She sat up against the wall beside him. "I know I haven't known you two very long... and I'm not always a great judge of character... but it's really obvious that he's not okay." Inclining her head toward the other end of the room, she added, "And he's a Leo, right? You two must butt heads all the time even on a good day."
"Fine," she said, gathering her legs to stand. "I'll hug him for you."
He caught her by the hem of her shirt. "Th-that wouldn't be appropriate, Miss Serizawa!"
"Seriously? Never mind, you're always serious." Her lips quirked as she settled back down. "You know he's probably had girls climbing all over him since junior high, right?"
"That is not an established fact, and it's also completely off-topic." Arms folded, Katsuya broke eye contact with her. "You have to understand that you can't push him. When I do, he pulls away."
She opened her mouth presumably to argue, but what came out was a yelp. "Move, move!" she shouted, legs scrambling, both hands grasping his arm.
Katsuya stumbled up and away before turning to see what had spooked her. The wall not far from where he'd been sitting was rippling like an curtain, its intricately carved glyphs smoothing into liquid gold. He let out an alarmed shout of his own and realized only a beat later that it had overlapped with Tatsuya's.
Rattling metal heralded Tatsuya's unusually clumsy drawing of his sword. "I said not to think about anything." His voice came out uneven, and Katsuya couldn't tell where his anger was directed. "It's not safe to..."
He trailed off as the melting wall surged outward, as if something was pressing through it from behind. The gold draped over a humanoid form and flowed over increasingly detailed contours until it had sculpted itself into a perfect doppelgänger of Tatsuya.
Katsuya's hand stilled on its way to his gun. "What the hell?"
"You're not real," Tatsuya spat. He was shaking so badly that it was a wonder he hadn't lost his grip on his sword. "You have no power here."
A sadistic grin contorted the statue's face. "Do you think you'll ever truly be rid of me? You don't need my brand on your skin to feel me all over you." Its tongue slid obscenely over its lips. "Consider this my parting gift, Paradox: you will never, ever forget."
Light flared around Ulala as Callisto manifested. "Lay off him or I'll kick your shiny ass!"
"Keep your hands where I can see them!" Katsuya leveled his gun at its head, fighting to ignore the queasy impression that he was aiming at his brother. "You have the right to remain silent, and you'd better start exercising it!"
The statue spared them each a bored glance before returning its focus to Tatsuya. "So pathetic, how you maggots struggle over a rotting corpse. Linger for a year or a generation—it makes no difference. Humanity is a fleck of spit in the jaws of the void, and even your feeble mind must comprehend that I have already won."
It threw back its stolen head and laughed, jaw stretching past the bounds of human anatomy. Its limbs split like microwaved sausages and unfurled into dozens of tentacles.
Katsuya's bullet ricocheted wildly, but the stones that sprayed from Callisto left dents. He summoned Helios, gritting his teeth against the ache in his brain, and poured out fire. The tentacles lashing toward him jerked back.
The noisy rebounding of metal shifted his attention to Tatsuya, who was frantically slashing at the tentacle that had seized his leg. "Weapons are no good!" Katsuya shouted, to no effect.
Helios pounced, paws bright with fire, and held on until the tentacle fell slack. Katsuya's stomach clenched around the discovery that it was covered in silently screaming faces.
One of Callisto's boulders struck the writing mass of tentacles at its center. The force knocked the creature half a meter back, but it recovered almost instantly. Panting, Ulala yelled, "Tatsuya, what the hell is this thing?"
"It's my problem," he replied, or something like that; his voice was too low to carry over the din of flailing metal. Apollo burst into the air above him and glowed like a falling star.
Katsuya recognized the impending attack and retracted Helios. "Miss Serizawa, get back!"
One of the tentacles grabbed her arm, but Callisto pelted it with rocks and provided a covering landslide as she broke loose and ran. As soon as she reached Katsuya on the far side of the room, Apollo lunged into the center of the tentacles and blazed like a tiny nuclear bomb. Katsuya shielded both their faces from the light and the subsequent shrapnel.
When he lowered his arm, the floor was covered in chunks of gold that twitched like dying insects. Despite his efforts, a spiderweb crack ran along the edge of his sunglasses. Ulala shook shimmering rubble out of her hair and clothes but seemed otherwise untouched.
Tatsuya stood apart. Pale and exhausted, he rocked unsteadily on his feet. "I'm sorry," he said, only barely audible. "This was all my fault. I'm sorry."
Without a word, Ulala walked over, wrapped her arms around him, and pulled his head down to her shoulder. A shudder ran the length of his body, but if he didn't cling to her, he didn't shove her away, either. She locked eyes with Katsuya over his head and mouthed, "See?"
Katsuya threw up his hands.
Ulala stroked Tatsuya's hair for a few moments, disturbing a layer of golden dust, before squeezing his shoulders and letting him go. After giving him an encouraging smile, she returned to Katsuya.
"Your turn," she whispered, urging Katsuya forward with a wildly inappropriate pat to his backside. He shot her an affronted look before taking a few steps forward.
Tatsuya wobbled a few steps back, and he took the hint, as well as a few seconds to rehearse and his words and tone. At last he settled on, "Would you like to talk about it?"
"No." Nevertheless, Tatsuya drew a shaky breath and said, "This place... it makes your fears real. Last time, they looked like my friends."
He paused for so long that Katsuya couldn't stop himself from prompting, "And this time?"
"He took my shape before, on the other side." Tatsuya kept his gaze low and dug his nails into palms. He spat the pronoun as if it tasted bitter: "He's the one responsible for rumors coming true. He orchestrated everything, going back thousands of years. He pulled our strings, and we didn't even notice until it was too late. He used us to end this world."
"It's not over yet," Katsuya reminded him. "That's why we're here."
Tatsuya didn't look up. "We might not be here at all if I hadn't..."
The silence spread thin. "Then whatever you did," Katsuya said, "I should at least be selfishly grateful."
"No, you shouldn't be. Maybe you all would have synchronized with the other side if I hadn't ruined everything."
Headaches lurked behind words like "synchronized," so Katsuya let it pass unremarked. Asking for details about the eldritch mastermind behind the end of the Earth didn't seem fruitful, either, and "maybe" was a snare set by regret. "In any case, I'm selfishly grateful to have you back."
Tatsuya's breath stuttered. "I'm sorry."
"That's absolutely not something to apologize for." Katsuya turned everything over in his head, hoping at least a few pieces would eventually tumble smooth. "So this is what you've been carrying on your shoulders?"
Tatsuya crossed his arms and remained silent, breathing heavily. When time flowed on and Katsuya managed not to badger him about it, he finally replied, "Our memories were the price to create the other world. My friends all kept their promise. I almost destroyed everything because I couldn't let go of them."
No wonder he'd been so adamant that no one else was coming back. He was shaking again, and Katsuya had no idea whether touching him would make the situation worse. When Katsuya finally set a hand on his shoulder, he tensed.
You can't blame yourself for something like that, Katsuya wanted to say, but it would have been hollow. Who was he to make claims about this bizarre new reality, where gossip built and toppled civilizations? Why didn't you tell me? was even worse. At last he let his hand fall and said, "You know, a man isn't someone who never makes mistakes; he's someone who takes responsibility for them." After a beat, he added, "You didn't have to hide this from me."
Tatsuya met his gaze, inscrutably. He started to shake his head, then seemed to think better of it. "I'd just left you on the other side. When you started asking questions, I thought, 'I can't do this again. I can't start over.'"
"You're eighteen," Katsuya pointed out. "You've got a lot of starting over ahead of you."
Tatsuya huffed and lowered his eyes, but there was little resentment in it. His hand slipped into his pocket and emerged clutching his lighter, which he clicked as if he meant to change the channel of the conversation.
Katsuya choose to cooperate. "You've had that thing for years. Where did you get it?"
The clicking stopped. "It was a present."
He clutched it like the knot at the end of a life rope. Perhaps the friends with whom he'd been running around the city, thick as thieves, hadn't been new so much as old and new again. At the risk of treading on tender ground, Katsuya asked, "From one of those friends you tried to hold on to?"
Tatsuya hesitated, just for a moment, before raising his eyes and chin in challenge. "From my boyfriend."
Whatever response he'd been looking for, it clearly wasn't stunned silence. His eyes tightened as he turned away.
Katsuya paused to collect himself. If he was already late, there was no point in rushing a response. "You're choosing a difficult path," he said at last.
Tatsuya's shoulders curled inward.
"So all I can promise is that I won't allow anyone to make it harder for you."
Even before the fire, Tatsuya had never been effusive. He seldom smiled at anything that didn't have two wheels and an engine. By those standards, it was more than enough that the sharp lines of his face and posture smoothed away as he turned back. "It doesn't matter now," he said softly. "He kept his promise. He has another life on the other side."
Of course it still mattered, but Katsuya couldn't think of a way to express that without sounding combative. He settled for, "When you're ready, I'd like to hear more about him. Your other friends, too."
After only a brief hesitation, Tatsuya nodded. Katsuya clapped him on the shoulder before moving away to give him some privacy. It was still important, he thought, not to push too hard.
Ulala had drifted to the other end of the room, where she was idly nudging bright bits of shrapnel with her foot and pretending she hadn't overheard everything. Her fingers twitched around the thin ghost of a cylinder. Katsuya sidled over to her and asked in a low voice, "You wouldn't happen to have any cigarettes, would you?"
"Ha, I wish! When I heard the Earth stopped, I was so freaked out I couldn't do anything but sit in front of the TV and smoke. Maybe if I'd kept it together, I'd still have a pack or two left. ...Or not." She sighed. "Well, Ma-ya was always telling me to quit, anyway."
Katsuya nodded. "I quit because I wanted to set a better example for Tatsuya. I don't know that he appreciates it, but I couldn't have done it only for myself."
"Yeah. I get that." Ulala sighed again. "I don't have any siblings or anything. Ma-ya was the only person in my life who ever stayed." As she looked away, he caught a glimpse of her brittle smile. "Anyway, we should—"
The wall wobbled again, this time spitting out the golden effigy of a faintly familiar woman. Katsuya didn't have to guess at her identity; Ulala made a choked noise that was echoed by Tatsuya.
The thing laughed like shattering glass. "Don't give me that crap," it sneered, setting an arm akimbo. "You were glad to have me out of the way, weren't you? You finally had the chance to be the center of attention. And how'd that work out for you?"
"I didn't mean it!" Ulala's hands trembled. "I say stupid shit when I'm drunk. I was jealous... and petty... but I..."
"She's not real," Tatsuya said sharply. "Don't listen."
The thing that was not Maya turned to him with a coy smile. "So you're ready to forget about me now?"
Katsuya raised his gun, for all the good he expected bullets to do. "You both know it's not real! Stop letting it—"
"Don't you wonder what else he hasn't told you?" the statue interrupted. "Don't you wonder what stake you have in me?"
This time the bullet bored into the metal as easily as flesh, and some of the shocked noises he heard might have come from his own mouth. The statue staggered back a step before letting its hand fall from its side, releasing a torrent of red blood.
Tatsuya recovered first and lunged at it with his sword, but he was clearly shaken; when he swung, the statue caught his wrist in its bloodied hand. It yanked him against itself and stage-whispered, "Why don't you tell me, what's worse than being forgotten?"
"Get down!" Katsuya yelled at him. "I need a clear shot!"
Ulala rushed heedlessly through his line of fire and tackled statue and Tatsuya both, slamming the statue's back to the ground. Tatsuya rolled away while its grip was stunned slack.
"You're not her!" Ulala screamed, pummeling the statue into the floor. Each blow sounded as if it were landing against flesh. The blood still pouring from the statue's side pooled on the ground and seeped into her skirt. "Stop stealing her face!" Her fist struck its jaw, and with a hideous organic shriek, the statue shattered beneath her.
She remained on her knees, breathing hard, as Katsuya helped his brother back to his feet. When they approached, she rose on her own and gave them a rueful twist of a smile. Blood still darkened her skirt. "Sorry. That one was my fault."
"I made it worse," Tatsuya said.
"Quit hogging all the blame, okay? Let the rest of us screw up sometimes, too." Ulala lightly punched his arm, scattering gold dust from her knuckles. To Katsuya she said, "So is it your turn next?"
"Not if I have anything to say about it." He wasn't thinking about his parents on the shore in Kobe as inertia pulled the sea over them, nor about food riots raging out of control, nor about what "stake" he had in a woman who left behind gaping holes in those who loved her. "Are you both okay?"
Tatsuya nodded, and even made eye contact for it. Ulala shook out her hands said, "Don't worry about me. Women's friendships are complicated." She hesitated a moment, still breathing hard. "Can we rest for real now?"
With each floor they descended, the demons became increasingly hostile and alien, even those that didn't resort immediately to violence. One swooped out of nowhere to shriek such appallingly cruel things at Tatsuya that Katsuya opened fire on it without even attempting to negotiate.
They fought; they limped; they emptied their pockets of pharmaceuticals. Summoning Helios began to feel like scraping a spatula along the inside of an empty bowl. Don't think negative thoughts, Katsuya kept reminding himself, but his Persona flickered whenever he had to split his focus.
Ulala cut up the clean half of her skirt for bandages, then cut off the bloodied half to stop it slapping against her legs. When a dying Kisin slit open Tatsuya's upper arm with its scythe, Katsuya made a hasty transition from panic to offering up his jacket before she could chop what was left of her skirt any shorter.
"You're sure it's not deep?" he asked for the fifth time as they cleaned the wound through the ruin of Tatsuya's sleeve.
Tatsuya went a deeper shade of flustered. "I've had worse."
"Don't go acting like a tough guy," Ulala said. "And hold still."
Tatsuya let her apply pressure through a wad of his brother's jacket. "I'm sorry," he said, as if he'd taken the blow intentionally. "Before, Maya did most of our healing, and Apollo is the only Persona that returned with me."
Ulala's eyebrows rose. "Wait, you had more than one Persona over there?"
"We all did," he replied. "We were able to enter a place called the Velvet Room and manage a pool of them. On both sides."
"So that's what you were looking for at Lotus." Katsuya tried to imagine Helios sharing space with another embodied piece of his subconscious, probably curled up around it and purring. The image was almost cute enough to distract him from the conversation. "'They've both withdrawn,' you said."
Tatsuya looked thoughtful for a moment, wincing slightly as Ulala adjusted her grip. "Did you dream about a masked man when your Persona awakened? Or a butterfly? That was Philemon."
Katsuya sifted through dots until he found a pair to connect. "The one who created the other side, right?"
"Yeah. He..." Whatever he was, it was clearly a complicated matter. After some intensive eyebrow-knitting, Tatsuya finally continued, "He gave us access to the Velvet Room. You... met the other one. They're fundamentally linked."
"Would've been easier to fight a butterfly statue, huh?" Ulala pantomimed what was presumably a butterfly fight with her unoccupied arm until Tatsuya snorted half a laugh. She smiled at him and added, "I think the bleeding's stopped."
He flexed his arm and nodded. "It's not as bad as it looks."
She wrapped his arm with a fresh strip of Katsuya's sleeve, through which seeped only a few spots of fresh blood. "Yep, you're good to go. Just leave the close-range fighting to me for a while, okay?"
As they headed toward the exit of the room they'd taken shelter in, Katsuya tried to remember if the cloud of butterflies, which he'd assumed was a hallucination induced by blood loss, had said anything relevant. It hadn't bothered to mention that his little brother had helped create an alternate world and crossed over imperfectly into it. A shame that Katsuya couldn't open the door to whatever a Velvet Room was and explain exactly what he thought of that oversight.
Don't think negative thoughts, he reminded himself. The last thing they needed was a swarm of metal insects.
He had just reached the door into the next hallway when his peripheral vision caught a wide section of the wall going liquid. Raising he gun, he whirled around and barked, "Behind you!"
An enormous golden form rippled into being. It took Katsuya a moment to recognize the lucky cat statue from Kuzunoha.
Tatsuya and Ulala stared at him incredulously.
He scowled. "I was trying not to think about anything!"
The lucky cat waved its massive arm and meowed. Katsuya pulled the trigger with more hope than confidence and winced at the empty click.
"I'm out of bullets," he said briskly. The incredulous looks intensified. "They're a finite resource!"
Ulala grabbed his wrist. "So let's just run! It's way too big to fit through the door."
"It came through the wall," Katsuya pointed out.
Tatsuya dug into his pockets for a handful of coins, which he scattered across the floor. The lucky cat hopped ponderously after them.
"That should keep it busy," he said. "Come on."
They were lucky; the only demon to come between them and the next door was a serpent in the mood for conversation, and the lucky cat did not burst out of any other surface. As the panels of the entrance split and parted, frigid air washed out between them.
"Figures," Ulala muttered, half-bare thighs pressed together as she shuffled inside. She accepted the offer of Tatsuya's jacket with a surprised smile and tied it around her hips.
This room was easily three times the size of any of the previous ones, and if the walls were the same gold, their color was obscured under thick sheets of ice. Slick patches dotted the floor, glimmering through a brittle crust of frost. Much of the space was occupied by an enormous structure ringed by what looked like vertical capsule hotel pods. A peek behind it confirmed the lack of any creatures in the vicinity, hostile or otherwise.
Tatsuya didn't look the least bit phased, so Katsuya asked him, "What is all this?"
"It was a cryogenic chamber full of Bolo—Bola—bad aliens."
While Katsuya had been up above, fuming over his department's failure to mobilize enough officers to do anything about the violence in the streets, his little brother had battled aliens birthed from the city's collective gullibility. And if he let himself wallow in the knowledge, he risked summoning his own golden effigy from the walls. He shook his head. "And the ones we want are...?"
"The Oxel—I'm not even going to try."
"It's okay, I know what you're talking about." Ulala ran her fingertips along one the edge of one of the open chambers, which was still releasing a hazy chill into the air. "I'm a little fuzzy on the details, but part of that TV show was about how the bad aliens just barely beat the good aliens and had to sleep a long time to recover. So if there's still good aliens, they'd have to be hiding somewhere else, waiting to hear it's safe to come back."
"Can you visualize them?" Tatsuya sounded if he was only just managing not to plead. "What do they look like to you?"
Ulala drummed her fingers on a metal support. "Hmm. Well, this is gonna sound dumb, but... The first time Ma-ya brought you by the apartment, she took me out on the porch and showed me her Persona. I mean, I know that's what it was now, but back then it was just this crazy, impossible thing. But it was a lot like my crazy, impossible thing, and just looking at it, I felt... like I made sense." She pretended to be engrossed in looking inside one of the pods, cheeks rosier than the cold could account for. "Dumb, right? But I'm looking at this pink thing with all those spikes and tubes, and I can't even see most of its face, but I feel safe."
For a while they were all quiet, in case she had anything else to add. At length Tatsuya said gently, "I'll think of them that way, too. It might help."
Katsuya refused to think about the statue of a woman sneering and bleeding. "Are we near the core?"
"We're almost there."
One last corridor, devoid of demons and gold-shelled ghosts. And at the end, one last door, superficially no different from the others. Tatsuya regarded it with eyes full of shadows, and Katsuya could only begin to guess what cast most of them.
"Well, I'm ready," said Ulala, cracking her knuckles. "Are you?"
Tatsuya nodded and stretched out his hand.
The world burst like a dying sun.
For a terrifying instance, Katsuya was blind and weightless, tumbling an unknowable distance. Gravity returned when his knees came up against something solid. As he blinked the sunbursts away, details took shape: Katsuya and Ulala on either side of him and a floor beneath of glowing glyphs, part of something like a gazebo suspended in a featureless darkness. From its edges, more glyphs pulsed outward in rings and were swallowed by distance.
As they all rose rose shakily to their feet, Tatsuya said, "This is the ocean that connects us all. This is where—"
Ulala pointed into the dark. "They're coming."
Katsuya squinted along the trajectory of her finger. The fading light of a wave of glyphs gleamed from something at the edge of visibility. On the next pulse, it became nearer and many, a swarm of shining forms. "Did you remember to make them friendly?" he asked.
"I hope so. I guess it's too late now if I didn't."
They approached like falling stars, arcing bright against the darkness. One surged ahead and kept moving after the rest halted in a semicircle around the platform. Just as Katsuya tensed to dive out of its way, it pulled up at the platform's edge.
Up close, it reminded him of something from a modern art museum, a sculpture of a woman with its soft parts wrought in hard metal: hair in razor-sharp corkscrews, furisode sleeves formed from loosely fastened shingles, spikes jutting from soft contours, silver tubing wrapped protectively around the eyes and throat. Its deconstructed sleeves clinked like wind chimes as it hovered over the railing.
"We come in peace," it said without moving its painted lips, in a metallic echo of a woman's voice. Katsuya's first thought was that Ulala had seen more than her fair share of cheesy science fiction movies; his second, when he paid attention to her face and Tatsuya's, that the voice sounded a bit like the one that had come from Maya's doppelgänger. "We few survivors of the Oxlahuntiku have drifted in this ocean for millennia, grieving our mistakes and awaiting the day we might return to Tzab-ek."
Katsuya eyed the swarm and said, "'Few'?" Between his blinks, the creature's counterparts faded until only six remained.
Ulala elbowed him before he could say anything else. "Never mind him, he's always like this. Anyway, we welcome you. Also in peace. Wherever Tzab-ek is, it sounds better than here."
The creature regarded her with its motionless mask of a face. "You who ride upon our turtle's back... You, too, are now few."
Alarmed, Katsuya interjected, "But not in the same way."
Its head turned like an owl's to stare eyelessly at him. "You who did not dissolve in the first rain, or turn to stone in the first dawn... Let us go now together, and again become many."
"We need food," Tatsuya said. "Water. Electricity. We can't survive without them."
The creature made a noise that Katsuya hated to think was meant to be a laugh. "We need, and so we have. Xibalba has become one with the Upperworld, and what once was death now sustains. Rejoice! We few survive, together."
It spread its arms, and its sisters followed suit, closing in to the ring the platform. Together they spun in a pink and white blur, sleeves clattering together, and suddenly rose. Katsuya raced to the edge of platform and leaned out over the railing to watch until they winked out in the darkness above.
Turning back to the others, he said, "I honestly have no idea whether that worked."
"It had to," Tatsuya replied.
"It did." With a satisfied nod, Ulala leaned back against the nearest railing. "We just gotta wait now. Trust me."
Katsuya frowned but swallowed an objection; trusting her probably did make her more likely to be correct. Instead he asked, "Will it be long?"
"Nah. They've just to got to reboot the UFO or something. Maybe grab a snack." She giggled before stuffing the back of her hand to her mouth to muffle the noise. "Sorry," she said once she had control. "I'm feeling a little punchy right now."
"Maya would think it was funny," Tatsuya offered.
"Yeah. She really would." Ulala took a deep breath that shivered with what could have been any of several emotions, but her voice was calm as she said, "Ma-ya's alive in that other world, right? With the other me?" A wistful smile crept over her face. "When I was a kid, I used to pretend that there was another world on the other side of the mirror. That's where lost things went. So if you could just find a way to cross over, tada! There's all your doll shoes and ponytail holders." With a little wobble of a laugh, she wiped her eyes with her sleeve. "So it's okay. Everything I've lost can keep her company over there."
Uncertain what to say, Katsuya nodded. Tatsuya said, "And we'll take care of everything they've lost. If we can be happy, so will they."
Katsuya's reflection lived with a heart full of secrets in a city that had dropped back neatly back in place, where his parents lived and Alaya Shrine never burned. Soon, he hoped to clean the dark spots from the glass and learn from Tatsuya about the woman whose heart ended and salvaged worlds, about the foreign minister and his violent son, about who this shady 'Baofu' character was and whether legal intervention on this side might be necessary. For now he had something blurred and imperfect, and could compare his world only to the one it had been and the one he hoped it could become.
Ulala settled in deeper against in the railing, lost in what did not appear to be unpleasant thought, so Katsuya walked over to where his brother was gazing out at an invisible horizon. In his head he turned over the phrase the ocean that connects us and thought of the Oxlahuntiku rolling in like the tide, chasing the shadow of the moon.
"I think I can almost see the other side," Tatsuya said quietly. "I could swim across, but I'd poison the water."
Katsuya stood beside him, watching the lights pulse through the void. At length he said, "Do you remember the first time we went to the beach? You ran straight into a wave, and you were so angry when the water went up your nose. You said the ocean betrayed you."
"So you taught me to close my eyes and hold my nose. I remember." Tatsuya glanced sideways with a wry smile. "That didn't do much against the jellyfish."
"I should have warned you about them," Katsuya conceded, "but I was more concerned with the dangers of the undertow." He curled his fingers over the railing. "I haven't always done a good job of protecting you."
Tatsuya shrugged. "I didn't drown."
In the easier quiet that followed, Katsuya heard the flick of the lighter only once, followed by a deep, steady breath. Abruptly the entire platform shuddered and fell away, and Katsuya had only an instant to think about how much he hated teleportation before the light swallowed him up and spat him out back on the golden stones of Xibalba. His ears rang.
Before he and gravity had negotiated a truce, Ulala was already tugging him up against it. "C'mon," she said, "can't you hear them? We're gonna take off!"
Katsuya stopped trying to shake the incomprehensible drone out of his ears. "How do you," he began, then opted for the more important question. "What do you mean, 'take off'? We're already in orbit."
"I mean off off. Look, just get up! They'll give us a ride, and I really wanna see what happens when they appear over the city. Hopefully not mass panic, but it'll sure be exciting!"
At what point, Katsuya wondered, had his life become dominated by people who never usefully answered a direct question? As he brushed himself off, he noticed the Oxlahuntiku towering over him just in time to avoid knocking his head against a piece of its sleeve. His reflexes carried him away from it.
"I think this is how they're giving us a ride," Tatsuya said, holding cooperatively still as one of the Oxlahuntiku embraced him.
"Yeah, and don't worry," Ulala added. She already had a pair of Oxlahuntiku arms around her like a recklessly unsafe seatbelt. "They know we're not exactly like them. Like, we need to breathe."
Wary of the impaling points at the ends of its hair, Katsuya shuffled himself against the Oxlahuntiku waiting for him. Limbs like steel pipes crossed over his chest. Crescent moon talons curled into what had been the undamaged portions of his suit. He could feel energy coiling inside the creature's body, not quite like muscles tensing or an engine revving.
"Tatsuya," he said, "if this doesn't work out, I want you to know that I'm proud of you."
Cheeks darkening, Tatsuya looked away. "Don't start that now."
"And shouldn't you still be proud if it does work out?" Ulala asked, just before they lost touch with the floor.
The stars were no longer as breathtakingly bright, even if they were closer, but "light pollution" didn't fit the situation at all. Far below them, the muddle of electric light gleamed from the underside of an Oxlahuntiku flying so low that strains of its strange music reached Katsuya's ears. Ulala could have told him which one it was by melody alone, but he was content to assume that any he saw was Maia.
He lingered on the porch, watching the lights arc in parallax overhead, until he heard the roar of Tatsuya's engine.
He met his brother in the garage and noted with approval that Tatsuya had worn his helmet. A cloth bag dangled heavily from the bike's handlebars. Tatsuya paused in the process of removing his safety gear to pass it over, asking, "Is this enough?"
The bag weighed at least two kilos. "More than. I hope you don't mind seeing them again at breakfast."
"I'll manage." The smile was slight and brief, but an easy one. As Tatsuya put his helmet away, he added, "We're supposed to pass Saturn tomorrow."
"We should make plans to watch. This will be a once-in-a-lifetime event, after all." Katsuya peeked into the bag and helped himself to one of the plump strawberries for quality assurance purposes. "You don't think Miss Serizawa will be on time, do you? The cake's still too warm to frost."
"I don't think she'll mind waiting."
Time felt more arbitrary now, a construct purely of clocks and electric lights. Ulala had asked for twenty-four candles on her cake, on the grounds that she had technically only gone around the sun twenty-four times. It was better, Katsuya had learned, not to challenge her logic.
An excited burbling noise carried through the garage window, against which a Wraith was pressing its face. "yOU knOw thE mAn wIth thE shIny nOsE?"
"Sorry," Katsuya told it, drawing the curtain. "This party is invitation-only."
"By the way," Tatsuya said as they made their way inside, "did I tell you we invited Yukino and Anna?"
The return of a telecommunications infrastructure had completely failed to improve his communication skills. Katsuya tsked and gave him a good-natured shove toward the kitchen. "Then you'd better hurry up and set two more places at the table."