A clean break. The clear line between life and death, darkness and light. It is what he would have wanted. It is what he would have had.
Shiki really had believed that.
Instead, there are times when she thinks she feels him just past the edge and right at the center of something. Her mind. Her life. Her body. The third person in a conversation.
She does not know him, but she looks for him in those things.
Not all the time.
She had tried to let him fade away, the way he would have wanted. Normal in death if not normal in life, here and then gone, a memory and not a ghost.
She tries not to look for him. She tries not to feel for him in her chest, to search out the corners of her mind where it might make sense for pieces of him to remain. The thought that he has become a part of her, some small kernel in herself, is foreign. She fights the idea.
But she would not know him even if she found him there. She knows him not for what he is, because he has become nothing inside her now. She knows him – as much as she knows him at all – from the space he leaves behind. And if there is a space, she can almost make out its shape, just in moments. Shadows dancing across a window's light, there and then gone away.
She does not feel him in Mikiya's presence, and it is almost enough to believe that he is gone altogether. At first.
The first time she notices something, it is in the acrid and sweet smell of cigarette smoke. The visible trail curls through the air, curving so much more elegantly than the jagged seams and tears in reality that Shiki's mind has learned to see. Now that she has some shaky grasp on controlling it, her eyes can track the twisting, snaking trail without the room turning into slivers of itself.
She does so, standing with her back pressed against the certain place she has found, lingering in the doorway between Touko's primary office and the room off of it that serves as a kitchen, lined with too many sinks. Mikiya is somewhere past the doorway and just out of sight, but he seems to feel safe here.
Shiki's arms fold across her chest. Feeling the rhythm of her own breathing, the barrier of her arms tighten down against her abdomen, pressing against the burning, dry air. She smells the source of another sharp smell somewhere further off – coffee. Her nose wrinkles as she drops her head forward, pressing the curling smoke and the strong smells out of her mind. Almost.
When she inclines her head to look at Touko, Mikiya isn't back yet.
The woman draws the cigarette back to her lips and takes another draw, holding it in for the space of a moment.
That is when she feels it. The instant when she knows smoke is caught down in Touko's throat, reaching the pink, darkening tissue of her lungs. First, it is just a flat acceptance of the fact, patiently waiting for the staggered breath to flow back out of her. Then, Shiki's eyes narrow as she feels some vague flicker of curiosity somewhere not quite tangible but inside her.
It must cause her to move or make some indication, because in the next instant Touko steadily blows out a puff of smoke and speaks around the dryness of her throat.
“You can sit down if you want,” she says, not looking up from something on her desk. She makes another movement, like turning a page or dabbing out her cigarette. Shiki does not see it with her eyes because she looks sharply at the other seats in the room and at the haphazard pile of TVs.
“I don't want to,” Shiki says plainly. She touches one hand to the opposite forearm, rubbing up at down as if there is a chill that only one part of her feels.
“Up to you,” Touko replies, never looking up, her voice pressed down in her recently inflamed throat.
Another glance, and that nagging feeling comes upon Shiki again. The butt of the cigarette still faintly gives off a trail of smoke from its resting place in an ashtray. Shiki feels something in her eyes, the little pinch of a burn – like she is too close to the smoke, or like she is about to see its death. Neither of those things are true.
For a moment, her eyes flit back and forth between the fading trail of smoke and its maker, trying to determine with no special power of her eyes but only with her mind what it means. She usually does not pay attention to things that are of no consequence.
“Mikiya!” Touko calls out. Her hand, now free of the cigarette, comes up to briefly flatten and rub across her forehead. She pushes back a single strand of errant hair. “Sometime today,” she chides him, her eyes never coming to rest directly on Shiki, though Shiki gets the apprehension that this is in response to her. “... I think Shiki is getting restless,” she adds in a somewhat lower tone, conversational enough that it is unclear whether or not Mikiya would be able to hear it. Then her eyes finally lift to meet Shiki's.
Shiki notes that she is not wearing her glasses.
The glare that Shiki responds with feels like more reflex than emotion, like a response to the light filtering in from the window. It might have been the case, too, except she feels that delayed spark of energy, a question on the tip of her tongue, in the back of her mind. Her hands curl so her fingers touch her palms.
The thin trail of smoke is nearly gone. She breathes in again and thinks she is resisting the learned dulling of the scent in her nose. The faint remnant of the smoke smells more of its sweet quality than its sharp, poison edge.
“Do you want one?” Touko asks, leaving Shiki to wonder where exactly she had caught onto the focus on Shiki's attention. The attention to the cigarettes is incidental, unimportant, and certainly not the greater threat between them and the other occupant of the room.
Furrowing her brow, Shiki wonders why she allowed herself to become so distracted. Nevertheless, her eyes fall on the cigarette carton.
“No,” she says, flat and clear.
“I didn't think so. I take it you don't like them?” Touko asks. She turns her attention back to something on her desk in a way that feels almost like beckoning, almost like taunting. Shiki tries to wonder if the little sense of being drawn is the result of a frustratingly active imagination.
“I don't care,” Shiki insists, though she is not sure to what. She is curious and takes a small step toward the desk. She nods down to the carton, then looks back up to observe Touko's face when she answers, not caring whether or not she receives a look from her eyes. “Why do you use them?”
The question is more loaded than it ought to be. Shiki can already feel her response to Touko's reply in the back of her mind, eager and almost playful. She wants to push it from her mind – the idle curiosity of what it must be like, why anyone would bother... to smoke.
To do anything with so unclear a purpose. It is tantalizing. Or it would be, if he were still anywhere within her.
The pull of it, a chosen addiction dragging someone's habits along a certain path for no other reason than to feel... something. Seeking after it, like it was not something from which a person could never escape. That seems, even in this magus's hidden house of dolls, almost normal.
“Well, you know... it's a convenient and stylish source of fire. No one ever suspects,” Touko replies, speaking like she is winding up one of her creations to set it free.
Shiki feels some conflict in the expression trying to play out on her face. One part of her wants to raise her eyebrows. The other part of her wants to glare more deliberately, more intensely than before. For a second, the glare wins out – then, just as quickly, it fades.
She glances away, out at some indistinct part of the cluttered room. When she looks back toward Touko, her eyes change their color and sheen and the world shows in slivers. Touko shows in slivers. One of them is at her throat, changing in its orientation from vertical to horizontal – her jugular, then somewhere near her larynx. Further down her chest, the lines that show over her heart are not unlike those of any other creature that even resembles a human. The lines that are of note that flicker in and out of existence just before Shiki's eyes, ebbing like the smoke she has seen swirling through the room, rest just over and around Touko's lungs.
Closing her eyes tight, Shiki wills herself to stop seeing them so clearly.
She notices then that Touko is watching her just as intently. She has shifted her posture so her chin rests on her hand. She is waiting.
“Those things could be one of the things that lead to your death,” Shiki says. It does not quite happen, but she almost feels a smirking tug at the corner of her lips. The smirk that is not to be is met with a very real one of Touko's own.
“Well, you know what they say: smoking can kill you.”
He comes to visit her where she lives more and more often after the first time he stops by to see if she is alright. What he would do for her if she wasn't, since she is the one who carries a knife, is unclear, but Shiki does not mind when Mikiya decides to visit. She leaves the door open except, sometimes, when she is asleep, because she does not know what happened to the key. It does not matter anyway. Anything that could come in that she does not want there, she can kill anyway. It would be a convenient excuse to exercise her power, to see with her eyes, to scratch at the itch that never quite leaves her alone, even though the one she had thought to be the killer between them gone.
He always knocks and waits for her. She does not know why it bothers her, but no matter how many times she tells him and no matter how certain he is that the door would be unlocked, he never tries the doorknob without asking. Usually, she pads over to the door and opens it with a scowl, showing him how unnecessary his waiting is, and he almost always greets her with a smile. It does not take very long before it becomes a familiar ritual.
And that is when she begins to wonder if every trace of him, every memory, is really gone in Mikiya's presence. Perhaps the thought of the other part of herself had simply been hiding away from him – maybe he was shy. The thought seems almost funny, except she cannot laugh at him. She would not laugh at him. And he is dead. But, she thinks, he had always liked Mikiya, too.
She likes him and it troubles her, even though she needs it now. She needs it now that SHIKI is gone, because no one really wants to be alone. She likes him, so sometimes she sits on her bed, curled against herself, waiting in silence as the cusp of day shifts into night or night turns into morning. She waits for him, whether or not he is coming, and when he doesn't show up it makes her mad, a little.
The way he unsettles her by being there, by not being there, with his very existence settles soon after she meets Fujino Asagami. Through all of that – she remembered what it was like to want to kill him. She knows that most people would not be comforted by that, but for her it is inescapable. She can see his death sometimes, even if she tries not to. To her, knowing death and feeling its pull is like breathing. It is tantalizing and it is relief when she manages to think of Mikiya and feel a knot of frustration and anger and fear and worry that all make her want to seek him out and cut down that existence until the knot will finally untie, until the tension will finally let her go. Only, she does not kill him, and it is a kind of freedom that she has not known with him since she awakened in her hospital bed. She thinks that he knew that freedom with him before...
On a day after that, he is sitting on the floor beside her bed.
She has not offered him any other accommodation since he walked into her room, but he seems peaceful seated there, poring over a stack of papers which no doubt represent some of Touko's business. The part of it that he is tasked with could not bore Shiki more, she thinks, and with the thought a smile tugs at her lips. She is lying back on her bed, and he sits down near her feet. She is watching him with absolutely nothing better to do.
He does not see the smile that she feels tugging at her lips for almost no reason, and she can't help but feel a little offended. Offended, because it is not like her to smile easily at all. Offended, because he does not even notice when it happens because of the stack of paper in his lap. She rolls a little onto her side, momentarily burying her face against her pillow and rubbing back and forth as if to rub the smile itself away. Then she glances down in his direction, her body resting on its side.
She pushes back and squirms a little so that her feet are a little higher, even with the center of his back. He still leans slightly forward, reading, not paying much attention to her discontent. Taking advantage of his obliviousness, Shiki moves one of her bare feet along her mattress and curls and uncurls her toes a little, testing them before they reach him. She stretches them, like standing on her tiptoes, right against the dip of his spine when her foot meets his back. She presses long and deliberately enough for him to feel it. She feels him breathe against the pressure, and she feels the way the muscles in his back tense and arch a little in alarm as he straightens his neck abruptly.
He makes a pleasant humming sound in his throat before he summons up the right string of sounds to talk. He looks around at her along his shoulder, and she thinks his blue eyes look just a little bigger than usual behind his glasses.
“Shiki?” he asks, such a plain and unassuming question. She wonders if it would have ever occurred to him to ask anything else.
She answers him with a noncommittal, thoughtful sound of her own as she looks down toward the half-mussed bedclothes beneath her rather than keeping contact with his eyes. She glances back at them after a moment when her foot has straightened, angled down so it is no longer touching his back.
“Aren't you tired of that yet?” she asks. Her tone is flat as it almost always is, voice low and held close in her throat. She is grumbling, complaining, but she does not let him see the way this complaint makes her want to smile. She thinks it is a leading question – pulling at him, reaching for him, and she thinks that it is something he would have done.
“Well, Miss Touko—” Mikiya begins, but he has clearly missed the point of her question. She scowls before he ever finishes. She has no doubt that he will finish any and all of the work Touko gives him. It is just who he is as a person. He does not even understand what it is to be lazy. Rather than arguing the point which is no point at all, Shiki looks away from him as if the denial of her sight is itself a little chiding. Then, without looking, she gently lifts her foot and drums it against his back, nearer his shoulder blade this time, before she looks at him again.
“I know that,” she says, still complaining. Her gaze stays on him, but less directly as she changes the angle of her body just slightly, trailing her foot up along the dip of his spine until she feels less of a dip and more of a ridge, until she feels – instead of the dark, soft fabric of his shirt – the skin at the back of his neck. She feels him breathe again, too, sharply, as the pad of her big toe touches against him. His eyes widen and he leans forward, either scrambling for some kind of response or scrambling to get away.
Instead of trying to figure out if her feelings are hurt, Shiki does not even try. She just lets her foot fall back into place against the bed and, for a moment, seems almost melted into it as he is slouching forward in an angle that seems too curved for the usual straight lines of his body.
“Don't you think you should get up?” she asks, the low grumble in her tone masking something like disappointment.
Mikiya reaches up and clamps his hand around the back of his neck, rubbing at it. She knows that it is not to nurse any pain, but he seems to worry over it anyway as he turns at his waist to get a better look at her. He sets his papers aside, then seems a little unsure what to do with them as he braces his other hand against the floor, ready to push himself up. He is standing awkwardly before her before he speaks.
“Do you want me to go?” he asks, his tone polite and reserved, but she can still feel an edge of what almost seems to be panic – she knows the sound of that better than this. “If you're tired—” he suggests, trying to find some path, some reason, some convenient excuse to leave her behind without leaving some bitter taste between them. He is kind.
“No,” she interrupts him, insistently enough that she leans up on her elbow to look up at him.
He stops. He stops moving, stops talking, and she thinks for a moment holds his breath.
“No?” he asks, when what she means does not become immediately apparent to him.
“No,” she repeats, then she pushes herself up into a seated position with a huff. Frowning, she meets his eyes from her new orientation. “You can finish Touko's work later,” she tells him, pushing aside the thought for now. She glances down at the papers, thinking, then she nods to herself and looks at him expectantly. “I'm hungry,” she announces.
“Oh,” Mikiya says, as if he is unsure whether or not this is any relief to the feeling that has him still rubbing at the back of his neck. Slowly, he stops and lowers his hand down. He glances toward her refrigerator, but both of them know that she does not really keep food in it. Looking back from the unused kitchen, Mikiya shrugs just a little. “Would you like me to go out and get something—?” he suggests, the question hanging with uncertainty.
“No,” Shiki says, then she swings her legs over so her feet touch the floor. It is cool compared to his skin. “I'm coming with you,” she says. Before standing up, though, she shuffles her feet back and forth against each other, as if trying to warm them against each other. She steadies them again, movements a little languid as she makes up her mind, trying not to feel that this is a change of course from what she had hoped or intended. She does not know what else it would have been.
Then she hears his laugh, gentle and barely escaping from his throat. When she does not come immediately, he reaches for her arms and lifts at them just below the bend of her elbows, and she feels lighter than herself as she gets to her feet. His forearms align with and hold along hers for a moment, even once she is standing, until she looks up at him. He lets go, almost apologetic in the way he takes a quick step back, as if he had been holding on for too long. He hadn't been.
She thinks that this would have been easier for him . She thinks that he would have known what to do. She thinks that he would have touched him more. She thinks that he must have touched him more easily, because it seems like her body remembers something that she can't. She wants to step back toward him, like chasing after a memory.
She thinks they talked about it . Only, it would not have been so much talking. Not in the normal way that anyone else could understand. She thinks that she remembers one day – only she doesn't – when he had walked with him, when he had been with him, holding his arm easily.
“Come on,” she says, trying to get some bearing as she walks over to get her jacket and then her shoes. “I don't know what you're standing there for,” she mumbles.
“I'm just waiting for you,” Mikiya says, chuckling in the way that she knows means she won't get by with just anything without complaint, no matter how patient he is.
Knowing Mikiya's sister feels like another step toward a boundary which Shiki should dare not cross. It is his domain, what he would have wished for.
“Ah, my sister is stopping by today,” Mikiya tells her, not very long after she has started to work for Touko. It sounds like an afterthought, but when she glances at him she wonders if forgetting it until now had been deliberate and convenient. Shiki narrows her eyes at him a little.
“Your sister,” she says, evaluating the idea out loud. She secures her arms around her own waist as she studies him, as if trying to find some line between the word and his eyes or his mouth – only, those aren't the kinds of lines her eyes allow her to see. She is trying to remember if he has ever mentioned her before, but the idea seems to suit him like the dark, simple shirt he wears.
“Yes. You—” Mikiya starts to explain, his voice a low, patient huff that is abruptly cut off by a clamor at the door. It is difficult to tell if there is any knocking involved or if the young woman on the other side is somehow accosted by the door.
“Brother!” Mikiya's sister cries out as soon as she stands clear of the door frame. The greeting is clear, loud, and enthusiastic, leaving no question as to whether or not this is the sister Mikiya had been talking about. Shiki still cannot decide whether or not she looks familiar. If she is frowning when she looks at her, the creeping sense of unfamiliarity is why. At least, she thinks so until her own expression, whatever it might be, is met with a particularly reddened scowl on Mikiya's sister's part. “Shiki,” she says, an accusation that slices right past Shiki's whole person like a knife. It certainly feels like that kind of confrontation. “What is she doing here?”
“Azaka,” Mikiya says, lifting his hands to try and placate her. His own brow is tense, but not with any obvious anger. “Shiki is working with Miss Touko now,” he explains. “She has been since she got out of the hospital.”
“I knew she was awake,” Azaka says impatiently. “But it's been two years! I would think that she would want to be with her family now instead of hanging around with you,” she says, pointing her glower back in Shiki's direction.
“I see you know my name,” Shiki says when she has Azaka's eyes again. They have not been properly introduced – have they? She glances at Mikiya, but she tries not to let any confusion show in her face.
“Of course I do,” Azaka says, crossing her arms and closing her eyes as she looks off with a proud huff. “You're not exactly an easy person to forget when Mikiya won't.”
“Azaka, you shouldn't be unkind,” Mikiya scolds, just barely scolding but finding some grounding to speak up against his sister's rather abrupt entry into the room. “You'll remember... Shiki is my friend.”
Shiki focuses on Mikiya's gaze from the side, watching him watch his sister with a clarity in his eyes that she sharply envies. She does not need to ask any longer about the shape of the confusion, the gap in her mind that comes into dim focus when she thinks of Mikiya's sister. There are a lot of things she does not remember about the time before he – before SHIKI – died in her place. Many of those gaps frighten her with a deadly, curious allure that she looks away from, like dark spots in her eyes as she looks away from the sun, like blood on her kimono that she does not understand. This one is different. It stuns her quietly and abruptly. It doesn't frighten her – it only makes her feel out of place where she stands, embarrassed at Kokutou's side as she glances back and forth between two people who probably have no such gaps in their recollection of each other.
This missing piece of her past is warmer than most of them – sickly hot like the blush she refuses to let shine on her face. Letting her teeth click briefly, she looks away from both of them with a proud sweep in her posture, somehow different from the same kind of defiance in Azaka.
“Of course I remember that Shiki is your friend,” Azaka says, biting at the word like it tastes bitter. “You wouldn't let me forget!”
“Azaka—” Mikiya interjects again, starting to sound perplexed. Shiki isn't perplexed, and she closes her eyes, cursing her eyesight without as much venom as she had found for it before.
“Quiet down,” she scolds Azaka without even looking at her. Without looking at anything, she turns and passes through into another part of Touko's workplace, finding that its paths and clutter have become at least that familiar. “It has nothing to do with me,” she complains, trying not to wonder if Azaka has a real reason for such a reaction to her presence, hidden in the parts of her mind that have gone dark.
It is a dull thrumming and a sick, clenching pull like metal between her teeth that draws Shiki toward him. It is not interest, nor anger, nor even the intent to kill him. The thought of actually killing him does not cross her mind, even as he taunts, even as he practically offers it to her, even as he nearly begs... until...
Why did SHIKI have to die...?
To protect his dream.
That had been the conclusion she had reached.
They had never been going to have a normal life. She had never been going to have a normal life. He had never been going to have a normal life. And yet only one of them was ever allowed to grieve for it...
But every time he touched them—every time he touched him, every time he touched her—there was just the taste of something almost normal and almost real. Something they could almost have and something they couldn't escape, even when she tried to. They tried to warn him. They tried to make him stay away, because nothing so normal, so ordinary, so perfect as that could ever be allowed to exist... to keep existing.
They needed it to be nothing. She needed it to be quiet. He needed it to be his, to be real, and it never, ever could be.
Why hadn't Mikiya died?
The knife to his throat and her weight above him, and she did not know if the memory was even wholly hers. He had been there, his life seconds from ending and his life seconds from being hers.
The choice to run away hadn't been a real choice. There was no choice but to try and end it, one way or another, because it was something that could not ever be.
In the darkness, in the hospital, in that place where they constantly hovered and floated together, until they grew apart and he fell away into the emptiness of death, there had still been that choice. The reason they were there in the first place, and he – that boy whose name she couldn't remember – was out there somewhere, alive. SHIKI had died to protect the dream of taking his hand, of walking away from all of it just to simply be...
All of it floods back when the blond, mad, weak, and bloody young man in the alleyway threatens him.
There is only one person who holds her back.
This dirty, bloody double of hers speaks only one truth in the middle of all his delusions and taunts, and it pricks at something inside of her that makes her wonder, all at once, if they are in any way alike after all. Even the thought of it seems like the threshold of insanity itself – the way he lopes and pants like a rabid dog and something more vicious than that. His laugh is a hyena, and the color of his jagged-cut hair is like a—
Only his voice is what cuts through nearly everything that is holding her back.
She can't help but wonder...
Mikiya who had refused to believe that she was a murderer. Mikiya who had refused to stay away even when she warned him that he was going to die. Mikiya who did not, who could not, whom she would not let die.
There are so many things from that year before her coma that she does not remember. So many little gaps, darkened points, and hazy memories that are only half her own. She wonders if there is any of them that would give him away. She wonders if there are any of them in which the slobbering maw behind her inhabit that only he knew. Her muscles still feel the tension from fending him off and from showing her knife to his throat before casting him aside, and she wonders if SHIKI might have known the very same dance. What had happened before – she wonders at his part in it, and she wants to ask him. For months, she has chased her former self in her mind and through streets that seem like half-remembered, faded photographs as often as they have seemed real. But now that this person – now that this Shirazumi Lio – stands before her and threatens him – threatens Mikiya – she knows that she has not been closer to him – to SHIKI, to the other, departed part of herself – this whole year.
For an instant, when her weight moves to her boot and she is moving, it is hard to believe that she is still alone. It is hard to believe that this is not some part of him still left in her, the whole of what she is that wants to affirm the destruction of this threat to Mikiya's life, to deny its existence altogether. As she aims for the line she sees that will kill one of his limbs, that will spill his blood across this empty hollow of a street, she almost feels that he might still be alive.
Then, bloodied and howling, Lio makes his escape with one less arm and his life and what is left behind with Shiki is that same silence. She is still alone, and it had never not been the case. As she watches him go, as she loses sight of him but still feels his blood splashed on her clothes and her flesh, she knows that he has touched some part of herself she has been outrunning for a while, some part of her she does not know if she will always be able to outrun.
He had killed – he had killed himself – for him. He had died and left her alone in that dark because one of them had to die for it. And one of them would have to kill for it. She would kill... and kill and kill again if she had to. She had always wanted to, she had always had this desire in her heart, but she had not broken his yet. But if she had to – without hesitation – she would kill, to protect him. He had died, to protect him.