It's the most naked Bem's ever been, and he's still fully dressed. All except for his hat, which has been knocked to the floor by one of the gunmen. There's nothing to hide his horns but his hair and from the gasps of the crowd, he knows it's too late for that now. He's been exposed, his secret brought to light by tiny, fleshy nubs that barely peek through the silver strands. Just enough shows through - just enough to tell everyone in the theatre that he's not like them.
With the horns of a monster, and green blood bright against his pale skin from a wound that will heal in seconds, Bem can't hide anymore.
Natsume-san had cautioned him against intervening. Not, Bem knows, for fear he would be hurt - the detective has better reason than most to know no criminal could do permanent physical damage to a youkai - but for fear he'd draw attention to himself.
And maybe Bem would've listened, had Natsume-san not decided to take all the risks himself. A police officer is charged with protecting the innocent and whatever they may have done, none of the humans gathered here deserve to die, not even those holding the guns. Not even when they threaten Bem's first human friend, though it's hard to remember that when a bullet through the brain could kill a mortal and there's no space for Bem to catch it himself.
He can catch the man, for men are slow. But men are also violent. Another takes his place, this time with a gun under Natsume-san's chin, and Bem has to let go. Had he held firm, he'd not have earned himself the cuff across the head that sent his hat flying, and his true nature would be safe...but Natsume-san would be dead.
That is all the comfort he can derive from the situation. There is no reason to hold back now. Natsume-san will live on, with his beautiful family and his tender heart, and no one needs to die here today.
Only the hopes of one lonely youkai family, about to lose the most they've ever had.
Bem slowly draws his thumb over his lip, where the grass-green blood is already disappearing. Natsume-san still has a gun pressed to his throat but the pain creasing his face is for Bem's sake; Bem knows that as surely as he knows how this will end. It's already starting. He can hear whispers from the Ogata and Natsume families, questions Bela and Belo can't answer without drawing attention to themselves. Perhaps they can keep out of it. Perhaps they can slip away unnoticed.
But Belo gives him the tiniest of nods, and it's not in Bela's nature to run from a fight. Belo reveals his horns, and Bela shows her scales, and the two of them join Bem before the gunmen. This is their choice, to stand together, to change together before the crowd.
It's not the first time, but it's the worst time. Bem's heart breaks as his skin cracks. He holds his hands stiff by his sides, fingers clawing in anticipation. They've never made friends like this before, never had anyone they could visit and be welcomed by. There are people they know here, people they care about. These people know one face and he's about to show them another, because he can't hold back. It's been forced upon him by foolish men who think they can solve their problems by stealing from others, by taking what they think they deserve because they're too weak to earn it honestly.
It's inevitable and Bem dreads it. Natsume-san already knows his other form and accepts it readily, but he's not the only witness. His wife, his daughter, the professor, Koharu and Hidemi-san...they'll all see Bem for the first time, see his monstrous other self, and they'll forget the gentle, reticent, silver-haired young man who never removes his hat, even indoors, for all that he's so polite otherwise. That image will vanish - he'll be the monster forevermore.
One of the hostages makes a break for it. A gunman turns and fires; Bem takes the bullet in the back. It doesn't harm him, of course, but it drives the man further away, lets the monster creep a little closer to the surface. Bem clenches his teeth, straining against the change as Natsume-san yells at him not to give in. He pants, fighting to keep it back, and manages to stave it off a little longer. He's had decades to refine his control but he can't help it when his emotions run high, and he's crying - they're all crying, even Bela - when it finally happens.
It shames him, this transformation, in front of the friends he's about to lose. It feels like he's letting Natsume-san down by giving in but he can't hold out any longer. He can't keep it inside. His vision changes first and it's almost a relief to know now that there's nothing he can do, no way back from here. He jerks as the monster's ridges break through his clothes, sending scraps of material everywhere. Fangs burst from his mouth, where no injury remains. Beside him Bela and Belo transform too, but the first move is Bem's.
It hurts to look at the terrified faces of the hostages, especially those he knows. Easier by far to focus on the gunmen, who must be disarmed before they can bring harm to the innocent theatregoers. Cries of "Monster!" ring out through the room and that's all they are, isn't it? Monsters on the outside, so who will care about the inside? Not the men shooting them, emptying their guns into the youkai's bodies. Not the human hostages on the floor, who only see the colour of the blood streaming from the wounds as the youkai shield them from the bullets.
Bem spares a glance for Natsume-san, now on the floor, unhurt but agonised. It pains him to see his friend look so defeated. He knows what this means for Bem now - they both do. This will end, and Bem will change back, and then he'll leave. He always leaves, even when it's like cutting away a piece of himself to do so.
The gunmen run for the exit. The youkai leap to intercept and the hostages, left alone on the stage, rush for the doors. Bem comes this close to taking a bullet in the head from one of the men, but Natsume-san saves him, forcing the gun to fire skyward then using it to clout its owner on the back of the head before throwing it away. He wipes off his hands like it's nothing, like he's just thrown away a drink can or an old newspaper, but he's deadly serious when he says he meant it before: he'll protect them.
Protection is not a gift Bem is used to receiving from humans. He protects them, sacrificing his flesh and blood so that one day he might be like them. He knows that can't happen now, but he does it anyway. Natsume-san gets nothing for protecting them, but it's his job to protect. Not protect youkai, presumably, though Bem doesn't think he sees a difference. Not now, and maybe he didn't before. Natsume-san is a person and Bem is a person and sometimes that allows Bem to pretend he fits in, eating okonomiyaki and posing for family photographs while he tries to imagine what it would be like to have a whole album of pictures for a family who never age.
The youkai change back, standing in the aisle in their ruined clothes, scales and horns visible for everyone to see. Except almost everyone has gone. Their friends remain, staring at them with damp, fearful eyes. They've stayed, but it's no good. Bem sees Natsume-san look helplessly at his family, and he knows what he has to do.
They can't stay. Bem's scales look darker and thicker than ever, and his horns each weigh more than the theatre. They're all on display, dressed in just enough scraps to preserve the modesty they don't even need, and he can't fade into the darkness fast enough. He's been seen now for everything that he is. Too many people know.
Natsume-san thinks he can make it right, that he can testify that they were helping, as if that will make a difference. Bem hates seeing the hope in his eyes. Natsume-san is always hopeful, but this time it's all for naught. They can't live openly amidst humans. Too many furtive midnight escapes have taught them that.
It's over, but Bem doesn't want it to be over, and he can't dash that hope without offering a little consolation. He will always be near, he tells Natsume-san, who looks like he's on the verge of crying. No one else speaks, not even Bela, and with a sad little smile Bem turns away.
As he walks towards the exit, Bem hears Natsume-san's footsteps, heading in the other direction. Towards his family, where he belongs. Maybe he can explain it all to them...somehow. It's for the best. They'll be puzzled, and upset, and they won't understand what they've just seen, but they're alive and that's what's important here. No one's been killed. The youkai are the only ones to have bled, and their blood is long gone now, hissing and vanishing from the floor within seconds.
Youkai blood. Not human blood. It will never be human, no matter what Natsume-san thinks of them. He's not a man of science, for all that his job requires him to be logical, and the human heart isn't powerful enough to change body chemistry.
If it were, Bem has no doubt they'd all be human by now.