"Yes, sir." Reisi says and waits for Kokujyōji Daikaku to hang up the phone. A three-minute conversation has just changed his life forever. No, not even three minutes. A few words.
Munakata Reisi, the Dresden Slate has selected you to be the next King to lead the Blue Clan.
The rest of the conversation was formalities.
He's heard rumours of the Dresden Slate but always thought it was just an urban legend. A mysterious artifact that grants supernatural powers to exceptional people, who can then share this power with people they call clansmen. Exceptional people called Kings -- that one saying talks about the power behind the throne, but the Kings are the throne behind the power, the true decision- and policy-makers to whom politicians are but puppets. In his teens, Reisi asked his father once about these supposed Kings and their clans, but his father had sharply told him not to ask stupid questions.
Back then, Reisi took it to mean that it really was an urban legend cooked up to explain the Kagutsu Crater tragedy, but now he understands that his father wasn't about to tell his only son that he was not the man of power everyone thought him to be. The true power coursed through Reisi even then, but he didn't know it yet. He first felt it last week -- an odd sucking sensation in his solar plexus, an emptiness like hunger, like craving something you've never eaten before.
He wrote his criminal law final three days later, battling a fever that sometimes blotted out the world before his eyes. That night he dreamt of lightning striking him as he walked through shadowed city streets; currents of unimaginable strength lashed right through his flesh, but in the dream, Reisi walked on, heedless. The next morning he woke with the fever gone and the empty space inside his chest filled to the brim -- with what, he didn't know. Until now.
If he wants to, he can call upon the Blue Sword of Damocles right now. Reisi looks around his room and decides against it. He'd probably wreck the house, and his mother would never let him hear the end of it.
You'll have to move into the city, the Gold King said to him earlier. There is a lot of work ahead of you.
Reisi has mixed feelings about leaving Mother alone in the huge empty house -- his no longer relevant appointment to the county prosecutor's office wouldn't have required him to move -- but this is the way of the world. Suoh packed up and left for the city, too, didn't he? After he buried his mother, but still.
A nice married couple now lives in Suoh's old house. Reisi greets them whenever he sees them, but he resents them a little bit, too, even though they didn't even buy the house from Suoh but from the real estate company Suoh sold it to. Reisi has a habit of blaming everyone but Suoh for just about anything. One day, that habit will bite him in the ass: putting people on a pedestal only works after they've died and can't disappoint you any more. Reisi knows this, yet still constructs convoluted excuses for Suoh's behaviour, no matter how bitterly he's disappointed. He loves Suoh, and he's still not given up hope that somehow, one day, Suoh might love him back.
Reisi takes out his phone and sends Suoh a message:
Long time no talk. I've got some big news to share. Are you free tonight?
He stares wistfully at the phone. Thirty seconds later, the energy saving mode kicks in, and the screen fades to black. There was a time, not so long ago, that Suoh would return his mails within a heartbeat. Then he and Kusanagi started hanging out together, and sometimes Reisi could send a mail on a Friday and not get a response until he was about to turn in on Sunday evening. But at least there is always a response.
Reisi sighs. Who's he kidding, not so long ago? He and Suoh have been drifting further and further apart since graduating from middle school. He can't blame Suoh: once they left childhood behind, their pace just never matched. Reisi lives for the next day; Suoh lives for today. Reisi likes books and documentaries; Suoh likes video games and action films. Reisi prefers to be alone; Suoh likes a crowd.
The friendship born on a snowy New Year's Eve was but magical happenstance, but Reisi treasures it, and he believes that Suoh does too. He makes sure his phone's not in silent mode, pockets it, and walks out into the garden to give his mother the bad news.
Munakata Chisato was almost forty to her husband's fifty when their only son was born, but she doesn't look a day older to Reisi now than she did when he was a brat. She gives him a cheery wave and goes back to battling an out-of-control hedge in the garden's northwest corner. Reisi's heart drops. Can he really tell her he's leaving?
"What's this?" she asks as Reisi strides across the lawn towards her. "I thought you just came out to wave hello; did you not find my note?"
"I just got in," Reisi says. "What note?"
"About your food. It's in the fridge, you just go ahead and warm it up; I already ate."
"I had lunch in town, but what is it?"
"Beets," Chisato says, swiping the back of a garden-gloved hand across her forehead and smearing it with dirt.
"Beets?" Reisi asks, smiling slightly. He takes his handkerchief out and tries to wipe the dirt away. "Just beets?"
"Beets," Chisato confirms, yanking the handkerchief out of Reisi's hand. "Stop that, a little dirt's never hurt anyone. You look troubled."
"I have to leave home," he tells her. He's not allowed to talk about Blue Aura, though he suspects she's forgotten more about the whole Kings business than he will ever know; she was the city's police commissioner until after Father died. She was even involved in clean-up after the Kagutsu Incident. "It turns out my new job's more troublesome than I thought. They want me to move to the city."
"Oh good," Chisato says, perfectly cheerful. "Now I can start having all those wild parties at the house, finally."
Reisi rolls his eyes. "Mother."
"What? I'm looking on the bright side." She tugged her straw hat down a bit to hide her eyes. "Sure, it'll be lonely without you, but ever since Mikoto-chan moved away, you've been like a dog who's buried his bone and forgotten where it is. It'll be good for you to spend your free time with young people again."
"This has nothing to do with Suoh, or any young people," Reisi insists. "It's for work, and I'm not going to have any free time. I really don't want to leave you alone."
His phone buzzes, and Reisi can't snatch it out of his pocket fast enough. "Sorry."
Just come by the bar whenever you want. - Suoh
Attached to the message is a set of GPS coordinates to a spot in the heart of the city. Reisi feeds them to the map application, notes the next train that'll take him downtown, and pulls up a street view photo of a Western-style building with a corner entrance. Above the entrance is a large embossed sign reading HOMRA.
The bar, Reisi thinks. That's the place Kusanagi bought after high school. Suoh's mentioned it more than a few times, but he's never invited Reisi there before. Probably figured bars weren't Reisi's scene. Which they weren't.
He looks at the next train's departure time again. If he hurries, he can make it... but he's in the middle of an important conversation.
"Go on," his mother says, gesturing at the house with the hedge clippers. "You have to leave, right?"
Reisi glances at her guiltily. Was he really thinking about running off to Suoh's place at a time like this? "It's not that important," he says. "Let's go inside and talk. I'll make tea."
"Nonsense," she says with a shake of her head. "Your eyes lit up like beacons just now, kid; you might think you're so refined with your law degree and all, but I'm still your mother and I can read you like a book. We'll talk tonight. I'll bake a cake, and you can make the tea."
As Reisi walks into the HOMRA bar's dimly lit, faintly smoke-filled interior, he spots Kusanagi behind the stand, chatting with a blond woman who's nursing a drink topped inexplicably with red bean paste.
"Long time no see, Mr President," Kusanagi calls, grinning at Reisi. "Welcome to HOMRA."
The woman turns in her seat, gives Reisi a once-over, and goes back to her drink.
A teenager with bright red hair pops up from one of the sofas on Reisi's left. "President?" he asks so loudly he might as well be shouting. "This guy with the glasses? President of what?"
"Pipe down, Yata-chan," Kusanagi says. "Munakata-san is an old friend of Mikoto's. We went to high school together."
"Oh, Mikoto-san's friend? He must be okay, then," Yata declares and disappears behind the back of the couch again.
A light-haired man pushes a button on a gaudy jukebox sandwiched between two fake trees and turns around to look at Reisi. "President Munakata? What a surprise."
It's Totsuka Tatara -- Reisi vaguely remembers him hanging around Suoh when they were in high school. He hasn't changed much. How someone can go through life with such a genuinely cheerful smile, Reisi will never know. His own smile is a weapon or a shield, depending on the circumstances. Except in Suoh's company. Reisi doesn't smile for Suoh unless he means it.
"I'd really prefer it if you didn't call me President," Reisi says, summoning up that politician's smile now. "I haven't been President of the Student Council for quite a few years. Is Suoh around?"
Kusanagi points to a door next to the bar. "He's napping upstairs, go on in. He said you'd be coming by, but we didn't expect you so soon."
Reisi nods, still smiling, and heads for the door. Kusanagi's overly familiar manner still irritates him, after all. He used to despise Kusanagi for stealing his best friend, but that private mental breakdown is in the past. As much as he would have wanted to keep Suoh by his side, Reisi can't deny that people are drawn to Suoh; that's not Suoh's fault. Still, he can't help but flare jealously over this bar and all the people in it -- people who get to see Suoh every day while Reisi's lucky if he can talk to him once a week.
At the top of the stairs, he hesitates -- which door? -- but then he hears snoring behind the second door on his left. He walks up to it and knocks sharply. The snoring stops, and a few moments later the door swings inwards. Reisi's breath catches a little, as always, at the sight of Suoh -- rumpled hair, white shirt tight over a powerful upper body, carelessly open drawstring collar. Reisi wants time to freeze so he can just stand there and look at Suoh, but even Blue Aura won't let him do that.
"That was fast," Suoh says, stepping aside to let Reisi into a cramped, dark little room with a bed under the window and an array of clothes littering most of the floor space. "Did you fly here or something?"
If Reisi felt unsettled by Kusanagi's observation that he'd arrived too quickly, Suoh's remark is almost enough to make him blush. He doesn't, of course; instead, he casts a disapproving gaze over the mess. "I see you still aren't housebroken."
Suoh lifts a fur-collared jacket off a chair, pushes the chair towards Reisi, and sits down cross-legged on the bed. "I see you're still as fussy as ever. I thought maybe the big news was that you finally got the stick up your ass surgically removed."
"I'd never do that," Reisi parries, taking the chair. "That would make you stop saying such charming things to me all the time."
Suoh grins. For a fleeting instant, his eyes are those of a boy hanging off the Hill of Tears and laughing into a white sky. "So you admit there is a stick up your ass."
"If you say so, then so it must be," Reisi says. Blue Aura pulses restlessly in him -- why? Is there a relationship between strong feelings and one's Weismann level? There is still so much he doesn't know. He glances at Suoh, wondering if the sight of him will agitate the Aura further, and finds Suoh staring at him intently.
"What are you doing?" Suoh asks.
Reisi blinks. "I'm not doing anything." Why does Suoh look... hostile? He forces Blue Aura to recede so he can think clearly.
Suoh shrugs. "Never mind, I must've imagined it. So? What's the big news?"
"First of all, hold out your phone. I owe you some cash."
Suoh raises an eyebrow but plucks his phone out from under the pillow and holds it out to Reisi, who opens his own phone and logs in to his banking app.
They made the bet in yen, before credits were introduced as currency, and Reisi transfers the equivalent to Suoh's phone account. "You were right about the Kings," he explains. "So here's your five thousand yen. Adjusted for currency and inflation, of course."
Suoh makes no move to put his phone away and frowns. "How do you know that, Munakata?"
Reisi tells him about Blue Aura, about the final exam he probably failed, about the dream, about the conversation he had with the Gold King earlier that day. He doesn't look at Suoh as he talks; he's always found it difficult to acknowledge his mistakes outside of his own head, and seeing a person's eyes as you admit wrong is the hardest of all. Not to mention he's breaking the rules by talking to an outsider about this, but there's no way he would keep something this huge from Suoh. Besides, Suoh will never tell.
"As Blue King, I will reform the organisation known as SCEPTER4 and start taking a serious look at the movements of the new Red Clan," he finishes. "Sounds like something out of a story, doesn't it?"
He finally looks up at Suoh, who's still holding his phone out, as though frozen. Instead of the usual lazy composure, Reisi finds dismay in Suoh's face. Just as their eyes meet, Suoh's expression turns blank.
"I see," he says, gazing at the phone in his hand. "So that's what I felt."
"Suoh?" Reisi leans in to try and catch his eye. "What do you mean?"
"Shit," Suoh says, refusing to look at Reisi. "Damn."
Is he that shocked it's all real? Reisi thinks, puzzled. But what was that he said about feeling something?
"Well, there's nothing for it," Suoh murmurs, so quietly that Reisi has to lean even closer to hear him. Suoh's head snaps up and his eyes meet Reisi's. They flare with challenge, the sort Reisi hasn't seen from him since their childhood play-fights in the Munakata family dojo.
"This Red Clan you're supposed to bring to heel," Suoh says, carefully, every syllable sounded out. "You're in its heart right now."
"What?" Reisi gets up from the chair so fast, it topples backwards with a thump against a clothes pile. "What do you mean by that?"
"I mean HOMRA is the Red Clan," Suoh says, rising as well. "And I am the Red King."
Reisi takes a step backward. "You're joking, right?" The Red King and the Blue King were supposed to be enemies. Something about maintaining some kind of balance; he wasn't yet sure.
Suoh reaches into his back pocket for a pack of cigarettes, shakes one out and offers it to Reisi, who declines. He hasn't smoked since high school.
Suoh shrugs, sticks the cigarette in his own mouth, and then lights it with a spark from his fingers. "I'm not joking."
Reisi is so stunned -- by Suoh's calm attitude and by his having just produced fire from his bare hands -- that he forgets to think about what he's saying. "Since when? Since when have you been -- this?"
Suoh exhales smoke, lowers his eyelids. "Some years. I haven't been counting."
"You never told me," Reisi blurts out, immediately wishing he could take it back, wishing he had built up some kind of defense against Suoh, wishing he hadn't trusted him so completely.
Suoh glances at him with horrible amusement in his eyes. "Don't give me that look like I've betrayed you or some other sentimental shit. What do you take me for, your boyfriend?"
Reisi swallows and finds a painful lump in his throat. "I took you for a friend," he says. It's the last time he'll ever be honest with Suoh Mikoto. The politician's smile is on his face already: a shield. "Thank you very kindly for sparing the time to meet with me on such short notice, and for taking care of me for all this time. I will take my leave."
He walks out of the room and back down the stairs on legs that won't bend and leaves the bar without acknowledging Kusanagi's surprise at how short his visit was. He walks dazedly into the twilight, fighting the urge to look back. He wants Suoh to come after him, to try and stop him, but of course that's wishful thinking. They are enemies now, and as it turns out, they weren't friends, either.
What was that Reisi thought earlier, about his living for the next day? What a laugh. When it came to Suoh, Reisi has been living in the past. The friendship didn't end today; it ended long ago. Reisi was just too caught up in his feelings to notice.
Reisi blinked at the Strain activity report, which had fallen from his hands into his lap and startled him.
That's right. I may have tried to save him out of friendship, and we may have patched things up on the surface before the Ashinaka incident, but Suoh was no friend of mine. Reisi took his glasses off and set them on the coffee table atop a pile of reports he'd already gone through. The glasses slid a bit as the plane hit a patch of rough air. They'd boarded one of the Gold King's private planes about four hours ago; eight more to go -- Reisi wished he could sleep, but the reports weren't going to read themselves, and it wouldn't do to fall behind on work. Sighing, he put his glasses back on and noticed Fushimi staring at him from the armchair on the other side of the table.
"Is something the matter, Fushimi-kun?"
"I hate flying," Fushimi said. "How can she," -- he jerked his head aft, towards the sleeping quarters where Awashima had disappeared an hour after take-off -- "sleep with all this turbulence?"
Reisi put his glasses back on, remembering that he and Fushimi had things to talk about. Awashima's temporary absence would be a blessing in disguise; her hand was quite heavy when it came to Fushimi Saruhiko, for reasons Reisi didn't quite understand.
"You've never flown before, have you, Fushimi-kun?" he asked.
"No," Fushimi said with a rather grudging look.
"You see, Awashima-kun has had to fly quite a bit -- she's the one we send to track down Strains who manage to escape Shizume City. Regular planes aren't like this one at all -- there are rows of rather cramped seats and no way to relax. Even in the so-called first class, the accommodations are less than ideal, and first-class tickets aren't yet in our budget to begin with. So being on a plane with actual beds must be like heaven for her."
"Perspective, huh," Fushimi muttered.
"Precisely," Reisi said. "And now we have a chance to have a discussion about your behaviour the other day."
"I'm so thrilled."
Reisi smiled. "Please explain why you tried to erase evidence of Suoh's continued existence."
"Look, I thought it was suspicious from the start," Fushimi said. "The death, I mean. Because of the missing body."
"The missing body?"
Fushimi clicked his tongue, but so softly that Reisi couldn't be sure if it was intentionally disrespectful. "No corpse means you can't prove someone died. Don't you watch movies, boss?"
"Can't say that I've got time to go to the cinema," Reisi said with a slight grin.
Fushimi's eyes widened, making him look uncharacteristically guileless. "What about DVD movies?"
"I haven't got a DVD player," Reisi confessed. "On the rare occasion that I'm at home, I watch the news."
"You must be fun at parties."
Reisi chuckled. "Depends on the party."
"Anyway, I knew he wasn't dead. So I guess I was looking for him, just to make sure. For myself. Then I found him."
"I'm with you so far," Reisi said, getting up. "Would you like something to drink?"
"No, thanks," Fushimi said, looking surprised. He was only a few years younger than Reisi but his way of looking at the world and the people in it was surprisingly childlike: he was undoubtedly surprised that his superior officer, to whom Fushimi refused to defer, would offer to fetch him a drink. And yet in other ways, Fushimi was extremely mature. Perhaps this was why Reisi was so fond of him: Fushimi was a puzzle in human form.
Reisi selected a can of black coffee from the refrigerator by the bar and went back to his seat. "Please continue."
"Like I said, I wanted to make sure he wasn't dead -- for myself. Once I made sure, I figured he might as well stay dead."
Reisi drank half the coffee in one go. "Why did you decide that?"
"It wasn't because he took care of me once," Fushimi said quickly. "Don't think it was."
"I wouldn't dream of it."
"I just thought, the man took pains to pretend he was dead. I mean, he can't just go back to HOMRA and business as usual -- most of those guys only hung around him because he was the strongest, and now he's just a guy. I wouldn't want to go back if I were him."
Reisi leaned forward. "Do you think his wishes are more important than those of the people he left behind?"
"I don't care about the people he left behind," Fushimi said, challenging notes in his voice. "They can all rot, except-- uh, nothing."
Fushimi looked panicked for a moment, then his eyes lit up. "Except you, I guess."
He was lying, obviously, but Reisi decided Fushimi's reasons for that lie were too personal to ask about. "Me?" he asked instead. "What on earth makes you think I've been left behind by Suoh?"
"I know you were his friend," Fushimi said. "That day you came to HOMRA, I was right next door. I heard you downstairs, and I heard your conversation with Suoh."
Reisi scratched his nose to keep his chagrined expression hidden. Fushimi's habitual insubordination and rudeness had had a rather simple explanation all along: he had heard, if not seen, his captain at his weakest. No wonder he was more likely to defer to Awashima. "Was that what prompted you to attend the SCEPTER4 recruitment talk the following week?"
"Yeah," Fushimi said. "Everyone hanging out at that stupid bar ran around yapping about friendship and trust, while their vaunted leader could take a shit on an old friend and then go right back to sleep. I was tired of their Shounen Jump crap anyway, and that was just the final nail. Suoh's a fucking hypocrite."
It was funny, how Reisi's chest constricted and his Aura seethed at hearing Suoh badmouthed, even after all these years, even if he deserved it. Hearing Suoh's choice summed up as taking a shit on an old friend hurt quite badly precisely because it was true -- or, at least, Reisi couldn't think of a reason it would be false. Perhaps this was because he'd stopped making excuses for Suoh long ago. It also hurt to know that Suoh had gone to sleep right after Reisi's departure -- Reisi himself had spent that very long night sitting in his mother's garden and trying not to cry. And still he couldn't hate Suoh. A small, childish part of him still hoped that Suoh could explain it all.
But his interests would be served better if he let Fushimi believe he was just as resentful as Fushimi expected him to be, so he put on a satisfied smile. "Shounen... Jump?" he asked.
Fushimi rolled his eyes. "Weekly manga magazine. Friendship, victory, effort -- that kind of thing. Didn't you read it as a kid?"
Reisi smiled. "My parents didn't think manga was appropriate reading material. I believed them. But we've veered away from the main topic of our conversation. I still don't understand why you would go along with Suoh's presumed wish for keeping his whereabouts concealed. Logically, shouldn't you want to mess up his plans?"
"I'd love to mess up his plans," Fushimi said. "But I wanted him to stay gone even more than that."
Reisi nodded. "I see. Well, you may yet get your wish, Fushimi-kun."
Reisi had worn the SCEPTER4 uniform every day for so long that the plain dark suit made him feel exposed, even though the three of them had doffed their uniforms precisely to avoid drawing attention to themselves on the streets of London.
After landing, they'd gone to the embassy and commandeered a small office on the premises for their impromptu task force. They needed to get Suoh on the plane quickly and with minimal fuss; that required a little bit of research and planning. For all that Reisi wanted to march straight to Suoh's place -- which Fushimi found after six hours of reviewing street surveillance footage -- they couldn't afford to rush.
There was no Dresden Slate activity here except for the local Kings; Reisi had reached out for Auras and found seven. His Excellency had notified the British branch of the Dresden Slate Oversight Committee that the Japanese Blue King was making a short visit, so at least he wasn't going to cause an international incident. However Suoh had escaped death, he was no longer a King, so subduing him, if necessary, would pose no problem.
Now that they were standing outside Suoh's apartment building, Reisi felt a little dizzy. What kind of face would Suoh make when he opened the door for the 'DHL delivery guy' -- the English husband of one of the embassy employees -- and found Reisi and Awashima flanking the man? Fushimi was staying outside to guard the entrance.
Reisi took a deep breath, steadying his nerves. "Let's go. Fushimi-kun, we leave this area to you."
They took a ride to the fifth floor in an elevator so rickety it must have been powered by miracles. This did nothing for Reisi's composure. It would be fairly ironic if we plummeted to our deaths because of a mechanical malfunction just as we're about to reach our goal.
The corridor of Suoh's apartment floor was carpeted with the ugliest shade of purple Reisi had ever seen; the place smelled like onions just beginning to rot. Why would Suoh, with his considerable wealth, choose to live in a dump like this?
There was no peep-hole on Suoh's apartment door, which made things much simpler. Harold, the 'DHL delivery guy', rang the doorbell.
"Who is it?" came Suoh's voice from behind the door, his English as thickly accented as Reisi remembered from the days he'd tried to tutor Suoh. The sound of Suoh's voice sent a new volley of dread and anticipation through him.
"Delivery for Mr, uh, Say-toe?" Harold said, using a nasal voice for some reason. Reisi suppressed a genuinely appreciative smile. Harold spoke decent Japanese, so deliberately mispronouncing Suoh's fake surname was a nice touch. Authentic.
The door opened. Harold stepped back fluidly as Reisi moved into the doorway. Suoh wore a pair of paint-splattered overalls and a blue workshirt; the interior smelled like fresh paint.
Suoh's eyes widened as he shrank away a step. Then he heaved a sigh. "I should've known."
"Is this how you greet old friends who've taken the trouble to visit you after your death?" Reisi asked, his shield of a smile firmly in place. The days that he couldn't control himself around Suoh were long gone, so though all he wanted was to crush Suoh in an embrace and then wring his neck, he remained still; even his eyes didn't shift.
Suoh nodded a greeting to Awashima and looked back at Reisi. "Gallows humour doesn't suit you, Munakata. What do you want with me?"
Reisi kept on smiling. "I'm afraid we're going to ask you to come with us, Suoh. A rather important person would like to have a word or two, you see."
"Am I under arrest?"
"Something like that." Reisi really hoped that Suoh wasn't going to try and turn this into a lawyer thing. If this became a lawyer thing, it might even turn into a newsworthy thing, and Suoh needed to be on the news like Reisi needed a punch perm.
"You gonna cuff me?" Suoh's eyes gleamed with amusement.
Reisi didn't ask what was funny; he wasn't sure he wanted to know. "That won't be necessary."
"Can I get changed?" Suoh gestured at his outfit. "Maybe pack a few things, too?"
Reisi pressed a button on his earpiece. "Fushimi-kun, please come upstairs." He couldn't ask Awashima to watch a man get undressed, after all. "We need you to supervise our charge for a few minutes."
"What did you call him for?" Suoh asked, staring at Reisi. "You could supervise me."
"Just your face is enough to turn my stomach," Reisi said sweetly. "I might just be violently sick all over your freshly painted apartment if I have to see any more of you."
Suoh smirked. "Wow, I feel like I'm back in Japan already."