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Dissociation Disease

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He doesn't know why it began. The vivid, nonsensical, morbid dreams.

He taps his sparkling blue pen on a blank page, idly enjoying how the sunshine hits the bits of glitter that are still clinging to its cheap outer plastic casing.

It's something he can afford to buy inexorably, no matter if someone attempts to break them all or have them mysteriously disappear.

A few more glitter bits drop off and end up in the crease of his notebook. He leaves them where they land instead of brushing them off. It brings him an odd sense of satisfaction to picture someone waving his book around only to accidentally release stray glitter on an unsuspecting victim.

They should know better by now, anyway.

Not to touch.

Most of his favorite things attain their shine from tiny, obnoxious, difficult-to-contain cheap craft materials like glitter. It'd be just like him, for his flashy preference to bear such consequences, many small lingering reminders that something of his was there.

A shining speck of something ultimately insignificant still found weeks later after cleaning up a mess that wasn't even his fault-

His thoughts are running away from him.

An abrupt gust of wind blows in his face, causing his vision to waver and blur. The cold air pricks his eyes, makes them water. He looks down to shield them with his fringe.

The notebook, right, of course.

The dreams.

Someone else might call them nightmares, if he were to give them only a short summary of their contents. But he wasn't going to do that. There was simply too much to describe and not enough of a willing audience to listen to him. Which was a problem for him because he had a lot to say and none of the right words to speak with. Not to his brothers, his parents, or to the people on the bridge he visited less and less frequently as time passed by.

No matter, if he could not improvise grand story telling in the moment, he'd simply start a more modest practice to build up to it.

As soon as the thought escapes his head, the wind blows again, and this time it cuts through his entire body, scolding him, he thinks. The cold seeps into his hands, makes his joints ache. The faint, numbing pain forces him to reconsider.

No.

Saying that he wants to reveal his dreams to anyone would be a lie, one undeserving to be told to any audience. This was something he'd keep solely to himself for now, for his own sanity.

He taps the pen against his open book again.

Burdened by distractions and ruminations, the frown that creases his brow deepens. The sun is almost about to begin its descent and he's up on the roof, unable to even begin the arduous journey of pulling his thoughts together long enough to write.

The air is brisk even without the wind to stir it into motion, a sure sign that fall has begun, and his time alone is almost up. In a sense.

He recalls that the others are still out on their own misadventures, his brothers might not even return until much later. Sometimes, they regroup before reaching their home and get sidetracked, leaving whoever is left at the house behind for the evening. It's not unusual, and still, like clockwork, they'll all be back in time for dinner.

But fall means more time trapped together inside their shared home and less opportunities for blessed privacy. Unseen, unobserved, undetected. Less moments in which to become reacquainted with an old, habitual, compulsion without scrutiny from anyone who would tease and poke and prod, is it even in a good-natured sense anymore-

Stop.

But there's still time, the sun still shines brightly down upon him as if determined to encourage him with its warmth and he tries to focus.

It's so hard.

Every stray thought brings him to another and another and another. He hasn't really attempted to write since just after high school ended, softly, quietly, with a sense of melancholy. The thought of which, coincidentally, helps bring him right back to where he began today's rooftop session.

The dreams.

After high school, a slow, creeping sort of fog set inside his often-joked-about "empty" head. Neither he nor his brothers had any solid plans for what to do once released from the clutches of compulsory education.

Listlessly, he had used his, by then, signature mirror as a means by which to observe his brothers. No one among them would stare too hard at a man who would seemingly only stare at himself after all.

From beyond the plastic edges of his mirror, he watched as old habits grew worse amidst their group while he himself felt dulled from having no goals set besides the lofty, unreachable, unrealistic types. Things that would probably stay safely ensconced in his waking fantasies.

Back then, Choromatsu seemed to have a gauge filling above his head and every day spent doing nothing worthwhile, as determined by his own unknowable standards, filled another tick on the bar.

It drove him in mental circles, then actual circles, constantly pacing their room with his nose to a book, doing anything to get that feeling of being productive without actually achieving. Anything to keep himself put together, a driving force that he was well acquainted with, but couldn't bring himself to speak of with Choromatsu. This terribly unapproachable, newly emerging Choromatsu, undergoing a metamorphosis into an awful, green, constantly hovering butterfly.

As the gauge filled, it deepened his obsessions, made him more irritable, more likely to begin lecturing others unprompted. He was probably scolding himself most of all, however, internally screaming sentiments of self reprimand.

How deeply downturned his mouth was became an indicator of when the next tick of his gauge would be met, when the next round of fruitless one-sided conversation would begin.

A silent unanimous vote was passed, and Choromatsu was habitually ignored and avoided once he began a tirade.

As a unit, they learned not to speak up for fear of retaliation in the form of what was seen as nagging, but was more likely a warped call for help.

How frustrating, that they, as brothers, could easily work together to avoid a problem instead of tackling it. Frustrating, but not unexpected. The foul habit had already been established and set for years.

Maybe Choromatsu was afraid, or too anxious, to move ahead without the group, without being a group, but the group wasn't budging.

The more Choromatsu stressed the importance of actively doing something, anything he deemed productive, the more Ichimatsu withdrew. From the rooms he'd walk into, from the table at breakfast or dinner, from the house itself. Just to escape for a little bit longer.

Ichimatsu looked and acted as if something invisible was chasing him at all times, something other than any personified mercurial gauge, granting him the stagger and slouch of someone who was perpetually tired. A slow-speed chase, and in response, a measured and silent shuffle out of sight or a swift and tactical dive out of a window. He could be fast when it suited him, the coward. Not that any one among them could judge him for it.

He was the first to sniff out Choromatsu's rising anxiety, the first to sense when he'd come bearing down on them, and the first to flee.

Apparently, Ichimatsu had long ago reached a conclusion that directly opposed Choromatsu's ideals, something he would not share with the rest of them. A harsh and indisputable truth he thought applied to himself, as his ever increasing self deprecating comments seemed to suggest. Maybe it was too personal to say out loud.

Or too personal to say, ever.

He could relate to the phenomenon of things unspeakable so much so that it hurt. Like viscous liquid sentiments that would pool in his stomach, swallowed down and undelivered, collecting and creeping up to stroke his throat from the inside with coaxing fingers, urging him to heave them all out in one agonizing, mortifying retch.

Hand over mouth to keep anything from escaping, the gesture draws his thoughts over to the fifth born.

Jyushimatsu followed Ichimatsu's lead, spending more time outdoors, less time trapped in a room with someone he couldn't talk to because what he had to say wasn't what people wanted to hear.

More likely to flow with moments and crash through obstacles, Jyushimatsu would break them instead of hurdling over them, subsequently not conquering them "properly." But doing anything the "normal way" was never in his stride. He quickly accepted that things were not alright, but also made no move to change them, much like himself.

Jyushimatsu kept active, mostly, but he could occasionally be seen sitting still in a corner, against a wall, staring at nothing. Or maybe at something far away on a horizon he wasn't willing to walk towards just yet, not alone at least. He would leave no one behind.

No mirrors were required for him to reach this state of looking inwards while at the same time looking out, disconcertingly pensive. His eyes and posture would always give him away though, and his brothers would leave him be out of respect, or maybe fear of the unknown, but he was never purposefully ignored, like others.

When he wasn't indoors, he was gone. Faster than Ichimatsu, and much louder than Choromatsu. Boisterous, long sleeved and baseball bat-equipped, Jyushimatsu had his own way of spending his days of newfound freedom from a system that never worked for him.

He had a game to play before getting bogged down by a new set of rules that he didn't yet know how to bend, or more satisfyingly, break. Impossible things to do while unseen like hit a thousand home-runs and possibly drag Ichimatsu out with him to train.

Maybe everyone just needed time to sort out their restless energy as he did his own.

Todomatsu drifted and returned ceaselessly. Like the tides, he'd go out and then come back in, but not as the waves of a gentle ocean. It was more like he was sailing a one-man ship on a sea of his own creation, made to be turbulent and unforgiving in his mind's eye.

Much like Choromatsu, he set his own standards for himself, and everyone else too. His time was spent meeting other people, being rejected by other people, or rejecting them himself.

Based on the kind of state he was in when he returned home, it looked as if he had continually failed to find new land on which to dock at. He would sometimes look queasy, as if quietly desperate to find something new without wanting to leave what was already his.

A never ending sea and only one place to come back to.

That is, until he got his phone and could set sail from within his home as well as without.

A journey filled with people, yet still lonely, a struggle without end and always at his fingertips, maybe this was something relatable he could talk about with Todomatsu.

How he could walk into a room with all of them inside it and have it feel empty.

But Todomatsu had fallen into his own personal bubble. Maybe he would come back for his brothers, but if he did, it would happen only after he had found new land on his own first.

If Todomatsu was trapped in motion over water, and all the others were digging their own circuitous, destination-less paths on land, then he himself was situated at the edge of a cliff overlooking them all.

He could picture it, the creeping fog born from inside his brain, rolling in slowly, over taking the beach just as it did his thoughts. Making the distant figures of his brothers difficult to discern. He was already so far away, even without the fog. He had been for a while.

He thinks he remembers walking his own path up to his high perch.

There was one thing that was visibly constant, a ways away from his seaside cliff.

Osomatsu.

He was the only brother who seemed genuinely content with doing nothing, being no one, and fully at home with the thought that this perpetual state was something to revel in. Solid, in a reassuring way, even if he was a veritable siren's call to a life of not thinking about anything except finding ways to have fun.

Or in this case, to fit the landscape within his musings, a lighthouse. A beacon, calling everyone home.

Ah, mistake!

Correction.

Calling everyone to Him.

Osomatsu would bring Choromatsu down from his temperamental rages, or at least distract him, mislead him, draw him into a meaningless, light-hearted argument over something inane. Making it safe to be in a room with him again.

Osomatsu would offhandedly announce to them all, suspiciously when Ichimatsu was in the room and slouching more than usual, when something particularly good was going to be for dinner, threatening to eat it all if anyone were to not show up. Baiting him like a cat with food to stay with them.

Osomatsu would make the executive decision for them to hang out as a group, to possibly torment their acquaintances-slash-friends when Jyushimatsu would spend a minute too long not causing his usual ruckus. Getting everyone together to be as active as Jyushimatsu for a short while.

And Osomatsu would always pester their youngest brother to call him something or other, an embarrassing endearment, to rile Todomatsu up and get rid of any glassy eyed stare directed at his phone. Barging in if he had been spotted sitting too still, mouth becoming a thin, flat line. Both demanding and giving attention in turn.

Osomatsu was good at coming up with ideas, derailing people if the idea conceived was relatively easy to enact. Good at getting them back on a track he approved of. But only when he actually noticed them.

He couldn't bring himself to do it back then. To talk out loud about something too real, which was ironically the feeling of life slipping into something surreal. To walk to that place where Osomatsu was. He could barely get his thoughts together as words on paper.

From atop his cliff, or more realistically the roof, he sat and did his own imaginary wanderings. Thinking of songs, strumming his guitar to make music, or noise, whichever. Doing whatever he could manage to try and expel any amount of fog swirling about in his head.

He kept a notebook back then too. Days that turned into weeks that turned into months.

Months worth of lyrics he worked on, patched together from fractured thoughts he'd come up with spontaneously, particularly poetic things he remembered reading, lines he'd heard in movies.

He included the observations he made on his brothers, but kept them vague, wrote no names. He hadn't ever needed to. He knew which muses those particular images were pulled from.

Maybe someday he'd finish a song, one for each of them. Except for himself.

He never wrote about himself. Only things outside of himself.

Reworking, crossing out, scribbling, writing, smearing, words, ideas, formless and meaningless. Pages worth of disjointed material that, at first glance, would only seem like empty rambling. But he had ideas, and he was slowly working on the glorious, in his opinion, act of Creation.

All that boundless potential, a different way to say "currently worthless" work, was gone one day. Conception destroyed before completion.

He wasn't the only brother that ever went out onto the roof.

Jyushimatsu had spotted something wrapped up in plastic and wedged under the roof tiles after launching a baseball up there and climbing to retrieve it.

Todomatsu was intrigued, contemplating the thought of someone perhaps doing illicit drugs on the rooftop at night. Why else would anyone go to such lengths to weather proof and hide something up there?

Choromatsu attempted to play the straight-man who would respect boundaries but Osomatsu convinced him it was worth a laugh to see what could possibly be written in such a gaudy notebook. It hadn't actually taken much convincing.

They'd use it as dirt if there was something incriminating written down inside, and if it was nothing, they'd simply put it back.

They forgot to put it back.

The allure of snacks had been strong and the content within was too much of an eyesore to decipher, as it had been written in shitty, sparkling gel-ink.

Ichimatsu had been training the neighborhood cats to destroy his possessions with extreme prejudice.

When they returned to their room, all that was left was a mess on the floor, the couch, the windowsill. A murder scene with shining drops of blue blood, which in reality was just glitter and sequins, complete with torn white scraps covered in spit and scratch marks.

Conveniently, the second born returned home from an activity he can no longer recall just as the other five brothers were about to leave. The memory is hazy, as most of his memories are now. He does remember them all looking a tiny bit eager to exit, rushing past him a bit faster than usual. It's something he only notes afterwards. Each one wearing a different, familiar poker face.

Before he could even ask where everyone was headed off to, Osomatsu solemnly laid a hand on his shoulder.

"Karamatsu," he began, voice pitched lower than normal. The other four brothers were already out the door in the time it took for him to say the name.

Right, that's his name.

Karamatsu.

It echoes in his head whenever someone calls him by name.

"It was an accident," Osomatsu continues on to say and nods to himself, as if playing pretend at giving grave news. But then he brightens up and squeezes Karamatsu's shoulder reassuringly.

Osomatsu lets go, then shoves his shoes on, and in a rush he escapes the house as he calls back, "I'm really sorry, I'll make it up to you some other time okay? Ifitmakesyoufeelbetterwedidn'tevenreaditso! Later!"

The front door slides shut and the sound is almost loud enough to cause him pain, bizarrely enough.

Bewildered, he remembers making his way to their room instead of following his fleeing brothers. He remembers finding the carcass of his work-in-progress, the thing that he'd been occupied with ever since graduation planted an increasing sense of constant heavy dread in his heart.

He remembers feeling nothing and having his surroundings get a little fuzzy, colors becoming muted, edges softening.

Fog.

He cleans up the mess, it isn't enough to be his entire notebook, but it looks like whatever ripped it to shreds took the main body of the book out with it through the window.

There's nothing to salvage.

They hadn't even gotten to read it.

He hadn't made anything worth reading yet anyway. It wasn't that big of a loss. And Osomatsu said it was an accident.

This was nothing.

This meant nothing.

What he wrote down about them was probably wrong anyway.

Everything else was just lines of inspiration he'd taken from somewhere else anyway.

He hadn't done anything yet.

(but he had wanted to finish something, wanted it so much, so badly, he had been so close, all the pieces had been there, they were there and now)

He could start again. Maybe he could try to quickly write down anything he could remember.

Unlikely, seeing as he could barely remember what he looked like on some days, the likes of which were increasing at a disturbing rate. Horribly absurd, considering his sextuplet status.

There's glitter on the couch and he's too tired to remove every last trace of it so he doesn't. He doesn't mention the notebook when his brothers return. He turns down their offering of a few items of junk food from the nearby convenience store, stating everything is fine.

His stomach is empty but he feels oddly nauseous.

"There's nothing to forgive, my brothers," and they predictably tune out the moment he uses English, quick to take an out. They don't even comment on the very obvious traces of glitter on the couch, something they usually berate him for on a daily basis since he's fond of the annoyance. Maybe this proves they care a little bit about making a genuine mistake. He tucks that thought aside for later but for now-

It's perfect, he doesn't want to talk about it, he doesn't want to remember this happening at all, he doesn't want to question whether it was an accident or not, he doesn't want to get angry in case it was, he doesn't care anymore.

He'd get the full story later, the next day, in increments, but he's already skipped the mourning phase, any reaction at all except numbness, and he stops paying attention to the other's individual problems for a while.

When he sits himself down with his mirror, he looks only at himself in truth this time. However, he's gotten too used to looking past his own reflection. The result is that he still can't ever recall what he really looks like, and gets told by Todomatsu, who displays just a hint of worry, that he's apparently making an odd, irritating expression.

A frown, eyebrows permanently arched downward.

He keeps doing it just to see what it looks like on his face, to memorize the image and maybe to be an annoyance just like with the glitter, until he gets a headache. Until he stops getting headaches and can keep up the expression daily.

He doesn't write again.

And a few weeks pass by and he notices a pattern.

Vivid, nonsensical, morbid.

Dreams.

A loud, echoing shout startles him out of his recollections of the past, giving him a jolt that goes straight to his heart, making it jump. His body tenses, but he reminds himself not to spring up into a standing position, as the reflex has caused him to take a tumble off the roof more than a few times in the past. His arm squashes his notebook uncomfortably against his chest without his permission however, and the pen that was in his hand is now rolling and bouncing its way down the roof. He follows its path to the rain gutter before him, and then his eye is drawn past it.

Jyushimatsu and the others have returned home. They're chatting amicably amongst themselves. Everyone is present and Jyushimatsu is enthusiastically waving his long sleeved arms as Ichimatsu is giving their brother a slight nod accompanied with an easy, barely there smile.

Something inside his chest tightens sharply and he quickly looks away.

His body suddenly graces to inform him that the day has grown cold, and it feels as if its warmth has fled all at once with the arrival of his brothers. Which is nonsense, he thinks, as he gazes at the setting sun. He did it again, traveled down the rabbit hole of his own memories and ventured too deep.

He did it to himself, wrapped himself up so tightly he finds it hard to move or see or breathe without experiencing any one of a myriad of discomforts.

Had he simply stared dead ahead of him this whole time with an unseeing gaze? When had the sun dipped down this far into the horizon? At least it's a sight he never tires of seeing, and today's sunset is brilliantly colored.

But it does cast looming, oppressive looking shadows with the figures of his approaching brothers. And the orange hue of the sky and clouds warps their colors in an unsettling way.

Still, he tries to commit the image to memory, willing it to be burned onto his eyes.

With a dawning sense of minor disappointment, he relaxes his posture and closes the still empty notebook. This one isn't blue in color or covered in gaudy material. It's just a normal looking, nondescript black notebook. Nothing denotes that it's his, one would have to open it to find out who it belongs to. But it's still empty inside, regrettably. Empty except for a few sparkles, he idly recalls.

He tucks it into his hoodie, secured for now. He won't hide this one on the roof. The book's cool surface against his skin provides him with chilly reassurance of its safety.

As he hears his brothers entering the house and calling out their return, he gets up cautiously and makes his way to the edge.

Their mother answers them back and welcomes them home in the background as he decides he doesn't care that the pens are expendable, he would like to retrieve the one that fell.

The tiles of the rooftop are now unforgivably cold, and his palms are sweaty which only makes his fingers stiff and harder to bend, but he manages to carefully reach out and grab the pen and quickly shove it into his front pocket.

The front door slides shut and the sound of it seems to be much louder than it can possibly be, as if his brain has taken the sound, magnified, and duplicated it. He didn't ask to remember every instance of that particular, familiar sound, layered over and over and over.

It inspires irrational anxiety to swell in chest, makes his mouth go dry. He swallows and nearly chokes on nothing, embarrassingly enough.

He needs to shove himself out of his own head and soon. He already has a reputation for being self obsessed and he only likes perpetuating the notion if it works to his advantage, which it will not if he truly can't focus on the happenings of Now.

There will be time to order his thoughts later, in the dead of night, since he can't seem to even begin writing until he gets them out of the way. Thoughts of how things started to feel less and less real around him as his dreams got more and more surreal.

More memorable than his actual life.

Someone calls for him from inside and his body involuntarily locks up. He hadn't even heard their arrival into their shared bedroom. Maybe he had left the door open.

"Ooooi, Karamatsu!"

It's Osomatsu's voice and he sounds like his usual self, with maybe just a hint of impatience as he says the name.

Karamatsu, right.

He's Karamatsu.

The voice that snaps him back to reality is much louder this time, Osomatsu must have stuck his head out the window to yell at him. Karamatsu must have taken too long to respond.

"Are you up there? Come on, don't freeze your ass off on the roof. Don't you feel cold?"

Karamatsu almost tunes out again at the sound of Osomatsu's rambling voice. It's calming in a way that eases his body and makes him want to fall asleep, his earlier anxiety leaving as quickly as it came.

He can't find it within himself to feel unsettled over Osomatsu's voice having such sway over him if it yields these kinds of results.

"-going out to Chibita's 'cuz mom isn't making dinner tonight. We're gonna leave without you, you know! Grab your shit and let's go already!"

He kick starts his brain into action, with the firm command to respond already, idiot.

"I'll meet you at the door, brother!" Is the best he can come up with.

His voice is steady, if not a bit hollow sounding, after a full day of being unused. He at least managed to place his usual emphasis on the word "brother."

He hears Osomatsu begin to say something else but he ignores him in favor of focusing on his descent from the roof. He's fallen off so many times that he may have developed a lack of respect and caution for the height when he makes a move to willingly drop down from it.

With ease, he lands onto the small balcony landing that was previously hidden from sight. He memorized its placement long ago, though it still gives him a slight shock every time he sees his legs dangle over the edge of seemingly empty air only to land firmly on a solid platform. He enjoys the miniature thrill and how it sends a weak electrical jolt running through his legs and up his spine.

He swings his legs over the wooden fencing of the tiny balcony and drops down onto the roofing of the first floor. From here, he easily makes his way to the front of the house and drops down onto the ground, directly in front of their door. His legs tremble only the slightest bit.

Karamatsu poses, out of habit and perhaps muscle memory, whipping his shades out and onto his face while looking dramatically to the side with a hand partially obscuring his visage, knowing that once the door opens, the light from within will cast a deep shadow onto him. He is ready to perform.

The door does slide open, but someone barrels past him instead, sending him stumbling back a step and setting his sunglasses askew. He manages to catch a glimpse of yellow, purple, and pink blurs before righting his footing and adjusting his shades.

Jyushimatsu and Ichimatsu seem to be playing "keep away" with Todomatsu's newest beanie, which at the moment is too balled up to be recognizable. Ichimatsu tosses it back to Jyushi while Todomatsu yells at them both to stop playing around because it's, "Too damn cold!"

Jyushimatsu jams the beanie on his own head instead and makes a disturbingly accurate imitation of Todomatsu's usual cat-like, cutesy smile. The effect is ruined though when he places a sleeved hand to his mouth and his smile widens into a grin. Todomatsu takes the opportunity to snatch the hat off of his older brother's head and grumble while Ichimatsu has already returned to his slouched posture, hands finding their way into the pockets of his new jacket.

His cheeks are slightly red and he appears to be pleased after another successful round of temporarily stealing an article of Todomatsu's clothing. It's a newly formed habit he's developed that's specifically targeted at only their youngest brother, ever since the bathhouse incident where he was accused of being a, "totally normal, zero darkness fourth brother!"

While annoying, it seems to be only a benign brotherly prank between the two of them that sometimes spreads to include any others that are nearby when Ichimatsu is feeling mischievous instead of wrathful.

The slow movement of a shadow cast from the doorway behind him drags his attention away from his three youngest brothers, who begin walking in the direction of the oden stand, and he finds himself going still.

Time slows and he feels a tingling sensation in his face and at the tips of his fingers. Goosebumps, and the urge to reach out and take hold of something intangible.

Osomatsu has a soft grin on his face, his eyes set on the trio ahead of them as he casually strolls past Karamatsu.

It's a peaceful expression, one that's fully content.

Karamatsu feels like he's witnessing something he doesn't want to see because it looks too calm for how his world feels. It's a harsh contrast to how hollow his lungs can feel at times, empty of even air, space filled with nothing at all, inverse pressure squeezing them tightly inward.

The scene is too blissful. Nothing could possibly be wrong here. Everything is perfectly fine. Normal.

Karamatsu half expects Osomatsu to comment on how "cute" their little brothers are being, but Osomatsu says nothing and only glances back briefly to look past him, making a motion with his head to beckon someone forward. He goes on ahead, with the expression of someone who wants to stir up more minor trouble to get in on the fun.

Karamatsu feels far away, as if watching a tranquil scene from someone else's life-

"How long have you been standing there? Did you actually wait for us to come out the door..."

The sharp, cutting voice of Choromatsu trails off into something that sounds like a softer version of exasperation. It's a well worn tone of voice, coming from his immediately younger brother, ever playing the role of the fussy mother hen.

...He still sometimes imagines Choromatsu as a constantly hovering butterfly, however, and the image he conjures in his mind is sickly green. Which isn't fair to Choromatsu, he knows.

He knows he's only trapped in this mood because of what he failed to expel out of himself and into the book.

At least there's no rising gauge, there hasn't been one in years. All of them have changed.

The front door slides closed, the sound almost drowns out his brother's voice as he speaks again, even though it couldn't possibly be loud enough to do so in reality.

Anxiety takes hold over him once more, softly squeezing his lungs in a misleadingly gentle reminder of its presence. He curses himself for ever remembering the feeling. Speak of the devil.

"At least pull your sleeves down if that's all you're going to wear," Choromatsu murmurs under his breath with disapproval as he walks past Karamatsu, intentionally loud enough to be heard.

The butterfly's wings flare up into a bright, toxic, poisonous looking combination of colors. Still, it's a striking image, and Karamatsu catalogs it for later before his brain catches up and processes the situation he's gotten into.

Ah, the jackets. Each of his brothers are wearing their new outerwear, they must have only come home to retrieve them before quickly setting off again. Karamatsu thinks he might not have noticed their arrival or departure if not for the incidental things that shook him from his brooding. He almost opted to sleep to Osomatsu's voice...

Just as he's being ignored now, in fact. He looks, this time while actually taking note of his surroundings, and finds that Choromatsu is far off, at the tail end of the group getting further away from home.

Springing into action, forcing his body to move, he figures he can catch up to them with just a few strides and pretend that he never spaced out to begin with.

Stubbornly, he keeps the sleeves of his hoodie rolled up even as he shivers. His body remembers the cold at the worst moments, truly.

The notebook beneath his clothing remains hidden, but he readjusts the way his hoodie sits on his body while he slows his pace once he catches up to Choromatsu. He doesn't want it to show and he feels safer with it on his person, even if it's empty.

If he were to somehow lose this one he feels like he might not procure another for a long time, procrastinating, allowing time and life to get away from him again.

It's too easy to fall into the rhythm of everyday life. Of stagnancy.

If he intends to keep it with him at all times, he'll have to be more vigilant with paying attention to his surroundings. To his brothers. They're used to physically attacking one another and he's a very common target for stray blows. It's something he's come to ironically enjoy, however, just like most other things that would usually annoy anyone else. The blows may be unexpected but they have the welcomed side effect of viciously yanking him back into the moment. But it would only be inconvenient now, if the notebook with him were to be found out or damaged in the aftermath.

Too preoccupied with thinking of imaginary consequences, he accidentally walks straight into Osomatsu's back. He stops dead in his tracks as he feels his cheeks heat up in a harsh and instantaneous spike of self embarrassment. Wasn't he just admonishing himself to avoid this very scenario?

Osomatsu casually swings his body to the side, slowing his gait but still walking forward while facing back, about to reprimand him, before his eyes land on Karamatsu's heated face. He stops walking, leans forward with a tilt to his head and asks, "Are you getting sick or something?"

Karamatsu tries to salvage the situation but stumbles over an exclamation of, "Ah, mistake!" It comes out sounding strangled and inadvertently corroborates Osomatsu's theory, as if his throat were actually sore.

Choromatsu, from beside him, metaphorically pounces in for the kill, voice a dull monotone, as if fully done with him and merely stating what should be obvious by now.

He stares at Karamatsu blankly and drones, "I wouldn't be surprised if you were getting sick, dressed like that. Maybe you should go home and get an early start on dealing with it, stop it from spreading to the rest of us."

Sudden irritation flares up within, which serves only to make his face appear redder.

But Karamatsu merely clears his throat and decides to be obnoxious, announcing, "Non non non, my brothers," and here he can see them both struggle to not just simply turn away. They don't however, because if he were sick in truth, it'd involve them. Knowing he has a captive audience, he continues.

"My passion is a flame that burns brightly," he pauses dramatically and spreads his arms out wide, as if daring a chill wind to blow past him.

Challenge against nature accepted, the wind responds with impeccable timing, but he still finishes with a flourish, holding himself and stating, "so bright and hot that it has turned my body into a furnace."

He further deepens his voice and gravely declares, "I cannot fall ill."

His audience is deathly silent. Even the wind has died down. Success.

Choromatsu just sighs and zips his jacket up all the way, the collar now obscuring the lower half of his face, covering his mouth.

Karamatsu can still imagine the frown growing there, regardless.

From behind the cloth barrier, he hears Choromatsu tiredly break the silence to say, "...you're shivering, idiot. You're unbelievable."

Karamatsu smirks, and shakes his head, the motions well rehearsed. He retorts smoothly, "Heh. My body shivers just as the flames of a fire yet waver in the wind."

His younger brother hunches over and groans, pinching the bridge of his nose. Exasperation in his voice, he quickly snaps back, "What? What the hell does that even mean?"

"It means that he's fine."

Osomatsu finally recovers and steps in, an easy grin on his face.

"I gotcha." He says as he nods to Karamatsu.

Karamatsu is stunned for a moment.

His face stays red and Choromatsu snorts and walks off. He is trapped standing still and facing his only older brother, a scene that keeps repeating. Said older brother takes advantage of his stun-move and swipes the glasses right off of Karamatsu's face.

"So you can actually watch where you're going, yeah?" He offers as explanation.

Osomatsu tucks the stolen item away in his own pockets and moves to catch up with Choromatsu, elbowing him in the side and chatting him up as they walk onwards.

He is left feeling warm and cold at the same time, as if his body can't settle on one temperature, or his brain can't decide which feeling is real. All sound has faded away and the only thing his mind has decided to fixate on is the image of his brothers standing still, mid-step, as Chibita's oden stand comes into view beyond them.

Everything is fine.

Chapter Text

With a sickening drop of his stomach and the sudden urge to double over and wheeze, he is forced to accept that things are most certainly not fine.

He's seated at the oden stand with no recollection of how he got there. There's food in front of him that's half eaten but the taste of it in his mouth makes him nauseous instead of satisfied. He slides it over to whoever is next to him on his right. To the left of him is only empty air seeing as he's seated at the very edge of the bench.

The voice that interrupts his building panic is soft and low, as if trying to whisper.

"You look like you're about to throw up, Karamatsu-niisan."

Niisan.

Todomatsu is speaking to him.

To Karamatsu.

Looking half awake, the youngest has his face resting in the palm of his hand, and a quick glance at the rest of the bench's occupants confirms that the evening has passed and that they've all finished eating. Maybe even some time ago, as he notes how many empty bottles are also set up before them. There are none in front of him, thankfully.

While furiously going through his memories since sunset, trying to find out how he lost so much time, he forgets to respond to Todomatsu, who addresses him again. Voice still low and oddly soft, he manages to sound worried and disapproving all at once.

"Don't ignore me, spacey-matsu, your zone out face is unflattering. You're really pale too. Choromatsu-niisan said earlier you were getting sick?" Pausing, Todomatsu wrinkles his nose as he gingerly sits up from his previously slouched position, hand dropping down from where his cheek was squashed against it.

Gently sighing, he advises, "If you're gonna puke, do it before we get home."

Turning away from him in a clear dismissal, the youngest carefully nudges the brother next to him, who in turn does the same, all the way down the line, until they're all preparing to enact their usual routine of casual robbery.

Chibita has fallen asleep while standing up again, but they are well versed in how quickly he can wake. They'll have to make their escape swiftly enough for Chibita to decide that chasing them is worthless.

Their synchronized movements are soothingly easy to fall back into as Karamatsu goes through the motions of following his brothers. It calms him just a bit to know that he can, at the very least, still do this much.

Despite this, the undertone of panic still quickens his blood and his body feels scooped empty even if his stomach is occupied. He knows with terrible looming certainty that he will find himself throwing up before the hour is up.

Readied, they rise as one quite frankly awful thieving sextuplet hive-mind and make a silent break for it. They work perfectly in sync for the most absurd things, truly, but it still gives him the best kind of rush along with a muted sense of belonging. Usually he feels no guilt until afterwards, when they've broken apart and become individuals once more. However, Karamatsu cannot indulge in the experience this time as bile rises like the physical manifestation of premature guilt in his throat. Instead, he chooses to let himself fall behind as he watches his brothers run towards home. Bearing witness to the strangest rainbow of thieves, he belatedly notices how everyone except him had matching outfits on tonight.

The sight inspires another still image to form in his mind, a mental snapshot that he will try to keep in his memory. The photographic moments he catalogs work better than running memories for him, nowadays.

Distracted as he shuffles through those memories again with shaking metaphorical hands, Karamatsu barely picks up on the sound of someone yelling from behind him. He's too busy trying to make any sort of connection between the loss of his sunglasses to the moment he found himself at the oden stand. While mentally reviewing the image of his brothers walking away from him earlier, he remains unaware of the quickly approaching threat until something smacks the back of his head.

It's enough to push him straight into a distressingly and increasingly common event, one he personally categorizes as the least "cool" thing imaginable that could happen to him.

Bodily betrayal.

Flavor of the night: Uncontrollable Reaction. And oden.

Chibita, he thinks as he violently pukes onto the road, in full view of any passersby, has impeccable timing.

His small friend is quick to jump back to avoid any unfortunate spray and his shouting ceases just as Karamatsu deigns to think back and recall what he'd been yelling. Nothing comes to mind except for background noise, he can only confirm that it was in fact Chibita who had been there behind him. Better his friend than a stranger or an actual mugger.

The sound of his own retching meets his ears and he thinks on how insane is it that he can ignore his own body, even now, on top of everything else.

A bubbling gurgle in his gut warns him before another round of heaving comes to drag him back into acknowledging his mess of a physical state. He isn't sure which experience he'd rather focus on, seeing as both are causing him stress.

As he heaves and struggles to keep the breath from being strangled out of him, Chibita nears him and awkwardly pats his back. Keeping his eyes trained on the gross mess he's produced, Karamatsu uses it as a means to focus and dial in to what the oden stand owner has to say. He stops himself from gagging at the smell as well.

"There's no way you got food poisoning from anything I served-"

And a bark of a laugh forcefully escapes his mouth before he can stop it. Chibita, always on the defensive, always ready to turn that defense to offense. Spitting up what he hopes is the last of what he's got to expel, a hand smacks his back.

"Shut up you idiot, don't interrupt. It's not food poisoning so what's wrong with you?" His words sound harsh as they always do, but he squeezes Karamatsu's shoulder and tries to get him to stand up and shuffle away from the disaster area.

Karamatsu politely stays faced away from him as he spits, trying to rid his mouth of anything unpleasant left behind. Although shaky and recovering from nausea, he's better now that there's nothing churning inside him. Masterfully attempting to avoid the subject, he turns around to face the smaller man and produces his wallet with a jerky flourish.

He probably only looks like some odd drunk fumbling around in his pockets, but he cannot see himself and so it is inconsequential.

"I'll pay for tonight if you let me stay at your place."

Smooth.

Glancing at the cooling puddle of sick behind Karamatsu and making a face, Chibita crosses his arms over his chest. Indignation visibly radiates from his short frame as he confronts the sloppy mess of a person before him head on. Karamatsu flinches back just a bit as Chibita opens his mouth to speak.

"The hell? You'll pay because that's what you're supposed to do, dammit! Tch, and what's this about staying over??"

Grabbing him by the wrist and leading him back to the oden stand, Chibita starts talking again. While attempting to listen, Karamatsu's gaze drifts to the hand on his arm. Its burning warmth rebukes his unnatural coolness.

"You ain't sick or nothin', are you? When you guys came over you were the only one not being a nuisance. I waved in your face and you didn't do jack squat. One of your crappy siblings brushed it off."

Seeing Karamatsu just standing there awkwardly, Chibita shoves him in the direction of the stool behind the oden stand while ranting about his brothers in the background. Karamatsu sits obediently before a cold water bottle is pushed into his hands. The first swig is used to rinse his mouth out, the rest he starts to drink without prompting. In almost no time at all, he's drifting to the sound of Chibita's voice.

"Holy shit, are you spacing out on me already?" Chibita exclaims, and he is physically shaken out of his reverie before it can fully begin.

Coughing on his water, Karamatsu stutters out a reply.

"I'm not ill," he tries to reassure his friend while wiping his mouth, "but I find myself needing to stay away from home tonight. I promise, what I have is non-communicable."

Mistake, he shouldn't have acknowledged something was wrong.

Floundering for only a second, he swiftly remembers his weak attempt at a bribe and pulls out actual money instead of badges with his face on them. This isn't the time for jokes. While Chibita is stunned, Karamatsu unashamedly takes advantage of the moment to look pathetic, pushing the money into his hands with a quiet, "Please."

Frowning, the smaller man cautiously accepts the money, without even checking if it's enough to foot the bill, and needles him for more information.

"Where did you even get the cash?"

After taking another swig of water just to stall for time, Karamatsu responds as best he can.

"Furtive are the foragers preparing doggedly for Winter's coming." He reaches up to adjust glasses that aren't on his face and smoothly transitions to run a hand through his hair instead. He hopes Chibita won't catch on to how it trembles.

Without losing a beat, Chibita responds, "Damn, you can just say you saved it. Hiding money from your brothers, huh? That'll go well." He scoffs before beginning to close up shop. "Do I even want to know what for?"

Karamatsu isn't sure if he should help or not, seeing as his request has neither been rejected or accepted and he's still feeling out of sorts. Clutching the water bottle, he drinks again. Soon, he'll run out of things to fidget with. His stomach clenches around nothing. It hurts.

"Ah. No particular reason. It remains an unknown even to myself. Maybe there will come a time where I'll need the funds. It benefited you this time, did it not? Was that not to your liking?" Trailing off, uneasy, he avoids the mention of pens and books. Instead, he makes a move to stand and assist before being interrupted.

"Stay." Chibita commands. He hadn't even looked in Karamatsu's general direction, hands busy with his work.

Karamatsu sits back down at once. Slouching deeply in his seat, he unknowingly looks like the definition of dejection.

Rolling his eyes as he methodically puts everything back into place, Chibita readies his stand to be mobile once more.

"Don't look like a kicked puppy, jeez. I just don't want you contaminating my stuff."

Doubled over, head in his hands, Karamatsu swallows hard and protests, "Chibita, my friend, please. I'm not sick, alright? Understand?"

Dropping his usual deepened voice, he tries desperately to weasel his way into not having to go home tonight. "I just need some time..."

He has no idea how to explain his predicament. That reality warps when he's awake and doubly so when he's asleep. That he's been overcome with the inexplicable urge to write out his dreams in an attempt to bring back order to himself. That he's been losing time and he's feeling offset and unreal and out of his head.

Looking down at his shoes, he breathes in, then exhales, and pushes words out of his mouth.

"...help me?"

It comes out all wrong.

Was that his really his voice? He almost couldn't hear it himself. Afraid to look up, he isn't sure if he wants to know whether Chibita heard anything at all, but the answer comes to him before he even needs to make a decision.

"Only tonight, Karamatsu."

Only the waver in the way he says the name keeps Chibita from sounding normal.

"Unless you tell me what's wrong. Then maybe, ugh..." Ending with a grumble, Karamatsu looks up to see Chibita stiffly gesturing to stand so he can retrieve the stool. He's ready to leave.

"Maybe you can help me out if you're really not sick and you've got nothing better to do. Idiot."

It's code for, "If you really can't go home, I'll let you stay with me again if I can give you busy work to preserve your pride and mine."

This isn't the first time Chibita has obliged him and he's clearly being offered an out. The relief doesn't feel as good as he thought it would, not when Chibita is attempting to strike a deal that involves revealing everything he can't speak of. Pulling his mouth into a practiced expression, he gives what he hopes is a genuine looking smile instead of a grimace.

"Thank you, Chibita," he says, straightening up only to offer a bow. Forcing back any bodily discomfort he's still feeling, he uses the gesture to think of something more to add. Something to get Chibita as uncomfortable with the oversharing of information as he is.

"Thank you, but I'll have to pass on the work as is my solemn duty as part of a NEET brotherhood. We both know I'm awful with oden, regardless. And quite frankly, I like having my hair where it is."

Flipping his fringe, Karamatsu punctuates his final words with a nonsensical finger gun gesture to his bald friend, complete with a "Bang."

Visibly recoiling and incensed, Chibita stomps towards his home without him, knowing a rebuke when he sees one.

Anger works just fine too.

Karamatsu thinks he can hear discontented muttering coming from one of his only friends. He wonders if Chibita will ever stop offering to help him in exchange for almost nothing but refusal to speak up.

But the path has been temporarily cleared and he can follow it to a night relatively free from distractions.

It doesn't occur to him to even question whether or not his brothers will notice his disappearance. They won't realize he's gone until maybe the following afternoon, he knows.

He's becoming used to using this in his favor for unannounced absences.

Hopefully rumor of his supposed illness will keep them from seeking him out.

Walking together in an uncomfortable silence, Chibita gives off an aura of discontent and neither of them speak. Karamatsu tells himself he'll make it up to his friend some other time, somehow. Maybe, if he can write tonight, he'll share the outcome with him.

The thought chills his blood, frost and rime poking him from the inside. Visibly shivering, he finally pulls his sleeves down.

No, he doesn't want to have other people read anything he writes. Not yet.

He isn't ready to admit that he's the source of anything that could be construed as disturbing or overtly violent. The dreams themselves feel pleasant, no matter what happens during. It's only until after he wakes up that he feels unsettled. Disjointed. Taken apart and left that way.

He's knocked out of his thoughts after almost tripping on his own shoelaces. Appearing before him is the apartment complex Chibita lives in.

They're already here.

A dull pang of shock tickles the back of his head in a hair raising sensation. Judging by the way Chibita glances at him from the corner of his eye, he must have walked here with his unseeing gaze up, his imperfect autopilot stride noticed.

It's barely anything to be worried about, in his opinion. There are worse things that could have happened. Like his earlier complete and nauseating black out. Hopefully Chibita won't bring it up before he can come up with an excuse and a way to ease the tension of the situation away.

Rubbing his eyes tiredly and resisting the urge to drag his hands down his face, Karamatsu slowly begins, "...Thank you again. I really needed this. Sorry for the inconvenience."

Ah, no good at all. A poor performance. Dull delivery. Rote recital. Shit.

Sighing, Chibita opens the door and walks inside with a call of, "Just get in already. And lock the door. I don't wanna deal with any other NEETs tonight, you hear?"

Karamatsu can follow basic instructions. Still, he makes sure not to space out and focuses intently on the sound of the door closing. As he turns the lock in place, it clicks with a satisfying thunk and echo.

The view of the door from inside Chibita's apartment is familiar in a way that makes his head hurt and his brain feel tight under pressure. He doesn't want to remember the last time he was here.

Something hits his head from behind again, something soft this time.

Chibita, he thinks, as he picks up the pillow and holds it loosely in his hand, has impeccable aim. He'd clutch the pillow to himself if not for his soiled sweater. Drops of unmentionable stomach fluids can barely be seen on the fabric but he knows what's there.

"Don't stand there like a ghost, idiot, it's freaking me out."

Given direction, Karamatsu tiredly removes his shoes and shuffles inside. Listening idly as Chibita talks to him, his body calms down, knowing that now that he's made it this far, the chances of Chibita kicking him out are almost nonexistent. Awkwardly, he stands to the side of the diminutive kitchen counter instead of taking a seat anywhere.

"Same rules as last time, got it? Don't break shit, don't steal shit, don't make too much noise. Everything else goes. You look half dead, by the way."

Suddenly, Chibita is beside him, though he's sure he probably just didn't notice the man walk to him. Or maybe Chibita can teleport, because his voice is almost in his ear, despite the fact that he's drastically shorter than Karamatsu.

"Hey. You're doin' that thing again. Are you listening to me?"

The empty water bottle he forgot he was holding is pried out of his hand. There's pressure in and around his skull, gently squeezing him, pulling him under. His head begins to tilt over.

"Seriously..."

The note of urgent worry snaps him out of his fog. Looking up, he directly faces the smaller man for the first time since they arrived. Blinking for the first time in a long time, his eyes water and small prickles of pain bring him back up.

"Sorry."

It's bad when he can't think of anything to say. Trying again, he struggles to say something that will get Chibita relaxed enough to leave him alone. He doesn't want to keep him up late at night over something that can't be easily resolved.

"I'm okay."

Chibita looks fired up to dispute that statement so he quickly tries to avoid a confrontation and continues on.

"I haven't slept in a while, that's all." A lie, he's been oversleeping constantly, his dreams last an eternity.

"Did you know lack of sleep can quite literally drive people mad?" A misstep, why did he have to mention madness of all things?

Unbidden, his heart beats faster, as if trying to ready a supply of oxygen for a dead sprint. Even as he wills his body not to make any jerky motions, he still feels the jump in his blood.

"But ah, that's not really what I'm trying to say. I'm just... tired?" Why did he end that as a question, damn him, seriously why??

"Do you mind if I use your shower?" A wild tangent has appeared. His clenched fist feels clammy against the pillow in his clutches. Hopefully his clumsy deflection will be enough to grant him privacy.

A tense moment passes, but he succeeds, getting poked in the head for his troubles. It's Chibita's way of trying to be sneaky, checking his temperature.

"...Sure? You still have some clothes here from... yeah."

His disastrous attempt at becoming independent goes unmentioned. Fine with him.

"So go on ahead. And get some sleep, alright? I'll see ya in the morning, I guess."

Moving to walk away, Chibita stops to reconsider and turns back to add in a gruff manner, "Try to eat something if you can. If you're not gonna tell me shit, at least take care of yourself while you're here."

Sentiment delivered, he leaves Karamatsu alone and retires to his room without another backwards glance.

Standing still, Karamatsu watches as his friend leaves. When the bedroom door closes with a sound of finality, the tiny hallway before him slowly stretches to an impossible degree, shadows creeping back with a viscous quality of movement they shouldn't have, deepening and pitch black at their furthest point away from him.

Vertigo overtakes him and he is forced to take a heavy step forward to keep his body from tilting horizontally. It's disorienting, how his foot makes no sound even though he's sure he must have stomped on the floor. Stopping himself from falling, he feels his body break out into a cold sweat.

It's time.

With a sense of urgency, he pulls the notebook out from its hiding place and walks to the cramped living area. He stuffs it between the couch cushions of his future throne of insomnia, does the same with his pen.

Vertigo is a persistent fucker and he pushes a palm to his forehead as if to keep his brain from slipping out, as if his skull were only an open bowl. He imagines liquid running over his scalp, through his hair, past his fingers.

The shower. He should take one before he forgets that it hasn't actually happened yet. Breathing deeply, he heads off with purpose to get a change of clothes.

After a rushed shower that wakes him up and chases any lingering sense of wretched imbalance away, he returns to the couch and retrieves his belongings. His dirty clothes are folded and placed into a plastic bag, tied neatly and dropped onto the floor beside him.

When no sound reaches him, it makes him feel as if he's been placed inside a glass pill bottle stuffed full with cotton.

He can't recall if the water in the shower had made noise, unable to tell if he's only imagining the correct sound and inserting it into his memory or truly remembering.

Suddenly fearing he's come down with an actual physical ailment, he snatches his pen and clicks it next to his ear just to check if it will make a sound.

It does, and his temporary deafness drops away.

Sighing, he's relieved, but is now acutely aware of the steady, rhythmic pulsing in his ears.

Placing his hands on his notebook and flipping it open gives him a welcomed feeling of peace. It's not very strong, but it's something he can feel and the sensation of the absence of discomfort is good enough for him right now.

He has decided to scribble notes and everything he remembers from older dreams at the front of the notebook, saving the back for full drafts. Not that he thinks he'll ever write and rewrite them until they are cohesive to the average reader. They only need to be comprehensible to himself after all, he thinks, pen already set to paper.

Even though his hand trembles and his head is pounding, the resultant waves that spread across his scalp aren't painful. He feels as if he's being lifted out of himself a little more with each passing wave. Writing with jerky motions, he's careful enough not to press down so hard that the pages risk being torn.

It'll take a lot of annoying flipping through, back and forth, but it suits how he feels when he tries to stay present and aware of everything around him, failing and being drawn back. He can deal with the annoyance if it's his own choice.

It's easier than he thought it would be, to release a flood of words just to vomit them out, like earlier. Slowly emptying out of himself, he feels better. The pages he has let loose on look like they've been assaulted by tumultuous waves of, this time modest, blue ink, but that's fine.

He finds that he enjoys the idea of a completed book, one half the hurried, desperate scratchings of a madman, the other half a neat, orderly attempt at amateur writing.

Eventually he slows down, doesn't feel urgency running through his writing hand anymore. Looking down at the mess he's made, the motion of tilting his head forward feels odd, as if hands are directing his movement, placing pressure at his jaw and the back of his head.

He starts thinking of ways to pull it all together, to craft even a single legible string of words.

The last time he had constructed only disjointed pieces, it had taken months to get this much material. Glancing at the clock in the room, he notes the time. It's been two hours. Then again, the dreams have lasted for years, building up inside.

It feels like it's only been five minutes, but his hair is no longer wet from his shower and his wrist has a cramp he's only just noticed. Rolling it and stretching his body, feeling light and detached from the aches, he thinks about how best to approach the next step of his writing.

In his dreams, he is rarely "Karamatsu." But he cannot deny that his brothers and the other people he knows are part of a cast of characters that make repeated appearances. But no matter what everyone looks like, they all take on different roles and different names in his vivid dreams.

It may be a bad idea, but he will use real names matched up to the people he's seen "act" in his dreams so that he'll be compelled to face the distinct contrast between reality and fiction.

Contemplating the consequences of failure or discovery or both is something he cannot afford to do right now with such limited time. He needs to take the leap forward, now, before anything else can distract him.

He'll force himself to use his own name as well, as much as he doesn't want to. Being the star of his own dreams is usually quite dangerous. But he has always followed the protagonist's view, has never been a side character.

There is only one exception, the cases where the protagonist dies and a new one is chosen. But he simply switches over to their perspective. A Karamatsu ghost possessing very unfortunate people. Dying but unkillable.

Another glance at the clock and he counts down how many hours he has left to do this, to force a dream into reality, to wrench its pieces from one page and lay them out on another. Something solid dragged out of hiding from within the fog. Hands clenching, the muscles in his arms flex as if already pulling.

There are five hours remaining before he knows Chibita will wake.

The idea of sleep doesn't cross his mind as he flips to the last page of his newly christened dream journal.

Karamatsu will use every minute of every hour to write.

Chapter Text

He is between a state of wakefulness and sleep, a calm contrast to how giddy and excited he felt as he boarded the train that would take him to a place he has always dreamed of going. Remembering his arrival on board many hours ago, he dreamily runs a fingertip down his mental checklist again. Just one more time.

Acceptance letter. Check. The novelty of having a physical, paper letter with printed words on it still blows bubbles of joy in his chest. He can remember every word of it in full detail, can only fall back on the memory of it now since he has folded and unfolded it so many times he fears the creases may tear at the slightest pressure. Still, he carries it with him always.

Agency Supplied AIOD. Check. A more mundane item, but still the most vital piece of technology he will ever carry. An all-in-one-device that has all of his personal information, a digital copy of his acceptance letter, several terms of service, acceptance, conduct, etc. contracts and documentation, and all the information he needs to begin his training. The Device also acts as his entry pass for anywhere he will be allowed in based on clearance level. In other words, it is the key to his dorm room in the shape of a modern phone. Handy.

Sleepily smiling, he remembers the fascinating update he got earlier. Information on his future teammates came in this morning and he read and reread it as soon as he received it, anxiousness and hope battling one another to claim his heart. He wants to lead his team to greatness.

Uniform. Check. He is already wearing the standard gear, which is just casual wear for his first day. He only needs to get settled in after all. Once he reaches his dorm, he can acquire a full wardrobe including tactical gear specially suited for him. He can even customize it if he wants. He already knows he'll choose blue accents on everything he owns, even if it is a common color choice. Blue has always belonged to him, though he can't for the life of him come up with a reason why at the moment...

Setting that thought aside, he figures that the most important thing he'll do today is meet and greet his team. Hopefully, they will get along right away, but from what he read on his Device, teammates are chosen with high compatibility set as a priority, of course. No matter what their designations are, erstwhile Agents have established that any team with any set-up can be successful if they have excellent cooperative skills. Regardless, he was still pleased to discover that his team appears to be balanced. A lucky stroke of fate, he feels.

He is unburdened by luggage or weapons, as nothing except Agency supplied items will be allowed once he arrives at the station. His memento letter will be accepted due to this loophole. Check.

Mental checklist completed, he rouses himself from his nap to take in his surroundings. As he opens his eyes, he is softly greeted by rising light which gently pushes back against the moderate darkness. The train must have already begun its trek through the Mountain and his heart gleefully leaps at the thought. The journey to the Academy at the Peninsula is almost complete.

Wrestling down his excitement, he takes time to admire the stylistic lighting choices inside the cabin. Slowly dripping upwards and out from winding, cursive etchings on the walls is a soothing green glow. Passing a hand through a nearby trickle of flowing light causes it to gently disperse into twinkling droplets that rise to settle at the roof of the cabin before fading away.

He wonders if he can get such effects inside his dorm room. It's like experiencing rain in reverse, slowed down and infused with living color. A curious desire to see it dyed in a rainbow of colors and furiously shaken to brilliance in a stoppered bottle pops up. Experiencing the ghost of thirst, he forgets about it, for now.

Righting himself from his sleeping position, he sits up and stretches his limbs as he curiously takes a look through the windows.

The Mountain the train is passing through is massive and the section it is currently traveling through is cavernous. It is an enormous enclosure, and in the distance he can see a single bridge, perhaps one other train track, he muses. There are eerie, scarlet colored lamps that run across its length at even intervals.

The lamp lights are reflected on the perfectly still surface of some body of water that stretches out as far as he can see in either direction. There is not a ripple to be seen, even with the motion of a train running over tracks that are only just above the cavern's lake. It is so dark that he cannot fathom a guess at how deep its depths are. The water appears as black as a starless night, darker than even the roof of the cavern far above.

It is a mystery to him, the sort of creatures that could live beneath the surface. If something were to jump out, it could easily reach the height of the cabin windows.

Immediate regret surfaces as he chastises himself for thinking of such a thing. Too late, the thought has been planted.

Cold unease brushes sharply nailed fingertips down the back of his neck as he forces his gaze to return to the interior of the cabin with its soothing light. An irrational sense of vulnerability grips him as he turns his back to the window, but he hurriedly shoves it aside. In the same moment, a door at the furthest end of the empty cabin opens to reveal three new passengers.

Finally, he is no longer alone. Just how rare were admissions to the Agency this year?

Unabashedly, he takes a look at the newcomers and instantly grins, recognizing his teammates. He immediately stands and waves them over, confident he will make a good first impression.

"Hello, my friends!" Bowing and springing up, his grin morphs into a face splitting smile. He can't help it. "I'm Kara, your new Cover. Allow me to make your acquaintance." Kara finishes with a glamorous flourish of his hands and a well practiced, only slightly off-regulation Agency salute.

All three of his teammates are silent and unmoving.

Kara hopes he hasn't intimidated them with his magnificence. Perhaps he came on a little too strong?

While hastily trying to think of a way to rectify the situation, the young man with yellow bands on the sleeves of his uniform lets out a roaring laugh, hands in front of his mouth as if he cannot decide whether to smother himself or not. Shoulders trembling, his knees bend as if he's about to collapse.

Before Kara can feel self conscious at the failure to introduce himself properly, the laughing man leaps to his side and grasps his hand, shaking it until he fears his arm will fall off.

"I'm Jyushi, Cover-man!" Jyushi exclaims, squeezing his hand so hard it goes numb. Jyushi's other hand rises to tap his own cheek, as if in mock shock. "You haven't screamed yet, so that must mean you're pretty strong, huh?"

"Well of course he is." Interrupting, the green banded man speaks, "He'd have to be durable, as a Cover. Though, you seem abnormally strong yourself, Jyushi."

With the enthusiasm of a delighted dog, Jyushi whips around and smiles with a wide open mouth, turning his head to face the newest speaker so suddenly that Kara feels second hand whiplash.

"I'm Support, a Gambit, super strong! I can't take hits like Cover-man though." Pouting, he finally lets go of Kara's hand so he can shake the green banded man half to death.

Or he tries to, but the man quickly seeks shelter behind Kara with impressive speed. Nervously, he speaks as Kara shakes the pins and needles from his newly freed hand. Amusement brings smugness to Kara's smile at the thought of the prudent man instinctively choosing his new Cover to defend him so soon.

"Please don't. Ah, by the way, I'm Choro. A Closer... but I also can't take hits. So if you would refrain..."

Having picked up on Choro's cowardice, the last man to act takes this as his cue to boldly push Jyushi back. Making a show of pretending to stumble backwards, Jyushi lands in a heap on a cushioned seat.

"Don't attack your own teammates, I think is what he wants to say. Guy must be fragile, a real glass cannon." Glancing up sharply at Kara, the youngest looking man among them bows stiffly before introducing himself.

"Chibita. I'm also Support, specifically a Sense." Glaring now, his eye is trained on Kara as if daring him to look disappointed in any way.

Not missing a beat, Kara responds with a suave, "Pleased to meet you all. I'm delighted to have you as teammates." Kara is compelled to make the man feel comfortable. Taking the opportunity to quell any unease Chibita seems to have, and with a carefully pitched voice of praise, he says, "I've heard that the Sense is exceedingly rare. When I read that there would be one on the team I was overjoyed, truly! It's so incredibly useful, to be able to know enemy placement. I'm sure that together, we'll become an unstoppable force to be reckoned with."

Choro's wavering voice speaks up from behind him in a tone of agreement, insisting, "I've heard that too. About the Sense. Anyone who thinks a non-combat specialty is inferior just doesn't know how to utilize their teammates skills to their advantage..." Hesitantly, Choro steps out from behind Kara and readjusts his already perfectly positioned clothes. He cautiously eyes Jyushi as the smiling man excitedly waves at him and pats the seat next to him in a clear invitation.

Straightening his posture, Choro bravely decides to get used to close proximity with his boisterous teammate as Kara catches a glimpse of Chibita relaxing his stance. He's glad the smaller man knows he will be fully accepted among the team. Together, he and Chibita take the seats opposite Jyushi and Choro.

"So," Chibita asks, "What kind of Closer are you, Choro? The info I got on all of you was pretty bare bones. Guess they wanna force us to talk right away. Tch, sneaky of them, eh?"

Startled at being directly addressed, Choro grips the edges of his seat and gives an answer that sounds rehearsed. "I can deal critical damage at close range, of course. More specifically, I'm talented at avoiding attacks while advancing through enemy ranks thanks to my speed. Both my accuracy and precision have been tested and marked as excellent." Tilting his head down and slouching, Choro finishes with a nervous edge to his voice. "But ah, I have low stamina and I'm unable to withstand even lesser injuries... In other words, I can't afford to take a hit and I'm only able to land a few hits."

Embarrassment colors his face, but the flush is obscured by the green glow inside the cabin. Bumping shoulders with him, Jyushi dives right into trying to cheer Choro up. "Accuracy and precision? Aren't those two the same?" Tilting his head and leaning downward, Jyushi gets right in Choro's face, forcing the man to sit back up with wide eyes. In his haste to preserve the sanctity of his personal space, Choro comically slams his back into his seat. The movement is politely ignored by everyone.

"It ain't. Man, don't you read?" Chibita sharply cuts in and clarifies even though he's sure Jyushi doesn't actually need the explanation. Crossing his arms over his chest he states, "One means he can hit a specified target every time, the other means his hits always land in the same place."

Pondering this for an exaggerated moment, Jyushi's pupils dilate, giving him the illusion of having an alien appearance with cat-like eyes that reflect the green light of the cabin. Suddenly as if on an invisible cue, he excitedly waves his arms, scattering all the light nearby his seat. The resulting flurry of drops creates the appearance of an emerald super nova around him as he exclaims, "Glass-Cannon-Closer Choro can hit the ball AND score a home run every time?!"

Promptly snapping his fingers, Kara directs a proud finger gun motion at Jyushimatsu. "Heh, precisely. Our Choro has impressive strengths. Any weakness can be overcome if we work together. It's nothing to be ashamed of."

Closing his eyes and placing a hand to his chest, Kara tilts his chin up to deliver encouragement. "Worry not about fiendish blows, for I will be your Valiant Shield and you will be our Spear of Justice." Opening one eye to peek at his comrades, Kara sees that Choro has doubled over and is chest to knees in his seat with his head in his hands. He notes that the Closer truly is as fast as he claims to be.

"Spear of Justice, huh. What am I?" Jyushi grins, poking Choro in the side as if prodding a corpse. The man remains silent and still.

Without having to think for even a moment, having read all about Jyushi beforehand, Kara answers. In the back of his mind, however, he wonders if the information he received was more in-depth than what everyone else seems to have gotten. Peculiar.

"You are our proof that fate and destiny intertwine as one to blow wind in our sails. The boon that will lead us to glorious victory."

Jyushi looks thoroughly bemused.

Placing two fingers to his forehead and giving his most confident smirk, Kara continues on. "A Gambit is a wild card, no? I have full faith in your ability to defy all reason and logic for the good of the team."

Jyushi has a faraway look in his eyes, a placid smile on his face, and a sleeve covered hand over his mouth.

Sensing that he's losing his audience, Kara wraps up and grandly announces, standing up and pointing sharply at Jyushi, "You are Lady Luck herself!"

After a beat, nothing happens. And then-

"Haaa? I'm a lady?!" Eyes wide, Jyushi glances down at his chest and feels himself up in wonder.

Choro's body twitches and he groans lowly as if his soul is escaping him. The expression on Kara's face freezes.

Another beat of silence. A choked sound followed by an ugly snort breaks the moment.

"Damn idiots, how are the two of you real? How were we all matched up together?" Chibita says, sounding condemnatory, but the effect is ruined by how breathless he is, gasping as he laughs. Relaxing his face into a more easygoing expression, Kara watches as his bald friend tilts onto his side to lie on the seat cushion, slamming his fist against it like a drunk at an oden stand.

"Is this how I die?! I can't breathe..!"

Uncurling from his position, Choro rubs at his forehead as if he's suddenly aged several decades. Sighing and visibly collecting himself, he levels a blank eyed stare at Chibita as the short man recovers from his fit. Perhaps Choro is making sure that their teammate will not need medical assitance, Kara hopes. How thoughtful.

After Chibita wipes the tears from his eyes, Choro's humorless gaze drifts to Kara. Resolutely ignoring the past several minutes, he begins their earlier conversation anew. "Anyway... So Kara, what kind of Cover are you?"

Kara is glad to see that their most anxious member has seemingly overcome his hang ups and already feels safe enough to express himself, even if that expression is one of exasperation.

Icebreaker, success.

Choro's willingness to continue on must be commended, and so Kara obliges him. "What kind of Cover am I? Why, the most stunning kind, of course!" He runs a hand through his hair to accompany his announcement and attempts to show off his best smoldering stare. Bait laid, he waits to see if anyone received more in depth information on him. A red flag is raised in his mind at the discrepancy between them all. Perhaps this is some form of test? Or is it just a way to force interaction, as Chibita suggested?

Disappointingly, Choro remains unaffected by his expressive prowess. Sighing and leaning forward, his serious teammate adopts a downturned frown, mouth oddly V shaped. Next to him, Jyushi has thankfully placed his hands on his knees and away from his chest, though his uniform remains rumpled and creased.

Jyushi fidgets during their teammate's long contemplating pause, leaning forward to mimic Choro's posture. Eerily, his expression, down to the size of his pupils, becomes matched perfectly to Choro.

Kara blinks and does a double take, bewildered and completely unaware as to how he overlooked their similar likeness. Before he can comment on their appearance and Jyushi's burgeoning mimicry abilities, Choro finally insists with a no-nonsense tone that Kara elaborate. "Kara, a real answer, please? I was only provided with your names and designations but nothing else."

Jyushi quickly nods at this and Chibita, righting his body so that he's no longer lying on the seat, adds with annoyance and none of the earlier mirth left in his voice, "Same."

Frowning, Kara reaches into his pocket, decision made without hesitation at the confirmation of his suspicions. Pulling out his AIOD, he lightly suggests, "Let's rectify that, shall we? All of you, sync up to my Device if you would."

Chibita shoots Kara a suspicious glance as Choro raises an eyebrow in confusion. Jyushi already has his own Device in his hand, fingers typing away as he commands it to communicate with Kara's. With faint hesitation, the other two reluctantly follow suit, but soon enough all four of their Devices have synced up.

Suddenly, each one loses its empowering light and turns itself off.

Before any of them can react, a symbol appears on each of their screens. Distended and warped, a harsh red Agency mark flickers to life and thrusts itself into the air like a spear.

Unlike the watery trickles of gentle green light that flow continuously upwards in the cabin, the red light is jagged and stands motionless. Threatening, it looks as if it could cut through anything. The image of a clay block being cleaved in half by wire comes to Kara's mind.

No one makes an attempt to touch their respective lights.

"I don't think this is normal." Choro stutters in a small voice. He has his Device held out carefully before him, hand steady in a way that his voice is not, Kara notes.

With a derisive scoff, Chibita instantly responds, "Yeah, no shit."

Self-consciously, Choro curls back in his seat and Chibita rubs his head in self-targeted aggravation, spitting out a quick, "Sorry." He looks as if he has more to add but stays silent in the end, turning his Device over with extreme caution, as if he too believes the light can cut.

Odd, that they all reached the same conclusion.

Jyushi seems to be the only one ready to take action as he eyes the twisted symbol up close with a tight lipped smile that sits strangely on his face. Before he can do anything, Kara silently and decisively passes his hand through the light over his own device, bravely stepping forward to perform his duty as their Cover. Choro makes a choked sound in his throat in an aborted attempt to warn him off, but the light simply scatters as normal and the symbol shatters to pieces that fade away.

The Device turns back on as if nothing happened.

With a shaky grin and a single, "Heh," Kara swipes his hand over the rest of their Devices, breaking the red light for them. The result is the same, and they are free to check if anything has changed.

Silence reigns in the cabin as each of them recovers from the minor scare. It doesn't last long however as Choro speaks up again, quietly. "What you did was dangerous you know. I mean, it could have cut your fingers off. There's light like that and... I don't... It might have just been a test but still. Be more cautious, Kara." Frowning worriedly down at his screen, Choro shuffles through the newly acquired set of files, keeping his hands busy. "We don't have any sort of Medic on the team. And it says here that you're not Invulnerable."

Shrugging casually and forgetting his usual embellishments, Kara responds, "But it's my job to defend you all." Clearing his throat, he continues more confidently, "And I will always do so to the best of my abilities. Even if that means triggering a trap."

A look of disapproval spreads across Choro's face. He opens his mouth but no words come out and his lips only twist back into a frown. Tension settles in the cabin and even the flowing light seems to freeze as their other teammates tap at their Devices, listening in.

Dropping his usual tone, Kara attempts to end the weighty conversation, voice deadpan. "You asked what kind of Cover I was earlier, correct? I can withstand an abnormally high amount of bodily harm and still survive. I have no other great strengths or weaknesses except for this trait. I've been told that it is irregular even within my designation."

It goes unsaid that he thinks this is all he may be good for among a team of such talented individuals.

Having been unusually quiet for too long, Jyushi speaks up to refute the sentiment. "Cover-man, you can't take every hit for us every time. Everyone has their turn to take as batter. I wanna swing too." Pocketing his Device, he smiles genuinely at Kara with a look about him that says that he's trying to show his concern while he gathers his words. Before Jyushi can elaborate, Chibita interrupts the disgustingly saccharine moment with a snarl.

"Shut the hell up for a sec, you damn saps, something is seriously wrong here." Tapping forcefully at his screen, he throws forth a map of their location into the air. "Forget about why only Kara had all of our fucking personal info, which is really creepy by the way, thanks for sharing," He says, shooting Kara a glance of irritated acknowledgement. Sternly, Kara nods back.

As if he would keep secrets from his team.

Chibita hastily continues, "Check this out, according to the map snagged from Kara's Device, we should have arrived an hour ago, the Mountain path ain't this long."

Frowning in disbelief, Choro attempts to take a look for himself as he shoots back, "So? Maybe you're just reading it wro-"

The cabin door abruptly slams open and startles them into assuming a fighting stance. In the back of his mind, Kara is exhilarated at how in sync they are. But a cry pierces the tense cabin air and it steals his full attention.

"Fuck man! Get your asses up front, we're in deep shit!"

Urging them forward with harried motions is a young man dressed as they are, the only difference being the red bands on his uniform. His eyes are wide with fear as echoing screams can be heard from the cabin behind him.

Kara is the first to spring forward and his team seamlessly matches his stride. Underneath the rising concern, he feels giddy at their willingness to follow his lead without question.

Sprinting and catching up to the man, he shouts, "What's going on?"

Immediate and blunt, the man answers, "Just open your fucking eyes and you'll see when we get there! Be ready to fight and don't let them grab you!" In a gesture Kara doesn't yet understand, the man points aggressively at the floor, or maybe his own legs.

At this, Chibita goes pale and his lip curls up in distaste. He hurriedly alerts his teammates to what he's Sensed. "They're all over the underside and outer walls of the first cabin!" In a split second, fear turns to anger and he spits out, "There's one for each of us, the red guy, and the three idiots already up front. Dammit, we don't have any fucking weapons...!"

Thanks to the enclosed space inside the train, they burst into the front cabin in an ungainly single file line. As the red banded man leaps forward to aid his team, who is already present and engaged in combat, Kara ducks down and to the side to clear the path for Choro to sprint past him. As a Closer, this should be the perfect environment for him to shine.

Crouched down, Kara hastens to take stock of the disaster. The dripping light in the cabin is being continuously churned, creating a nauseating display. Paths of violently swirling green mist are laid with every frantic swipe of alien limbs, making individual battles difficult to survey.

Low light notwithstanding, Kara realizes with a rising sense of urgency that the Things clinging to the sides of the cabin have already shattered the windows. Water, jagged glass, and what he assumes is blood based on the smell, litters the floor.

Slick, fleshy, four limbed creatures are frantically struggling to shove their girth through the empty frames, having no regard for their own health as they push past shards of broken glass, ripping their own skin open. Raving and writhing, their limbs are disgustingly swift. They have no discernible head and therefore no immediately obvious weak point, Kara observes, deeply unsettled.

One of the creatures wildly squirms near where he is crouched, already squeezed halfway through a window and forcing itself further inside. Every frenzied snap of its limbs slaps and dents the walls of the cabin, driving its weight forward. Grotesquely, its entire body bends as if boneless.

With a delayed sense of shock, he spots that the very ends of each of its colorless limbs taper off and meld into a corpse gray human forearm, complete with an inky-black tipped hand.

It's an image that makes no sense in his mind, it cannot be anatomically feasible.

With jerky movements its human fingers horridly scrabble at the wall beside him, grasping for him as if it can sense him, spurring him into action at a speed only achieved through fear.

He already has a sizable shard of glass gripped in his hand and no memory of picking it up.

Before he can overthink it, he throws his empty hand out in offering to the creature's closest limb. With inhuman reflexes, it latches onto him with its human hand and yanks with an awful force that wrenches his entire body forward.

Prepared for the violent motion, he uses the momentum to drive the glass as deep as possible into the meatiest part of its body even as its other free limb forcefully wraps itself around his back in a horrid facsimile of an embrace. Instantaneously, Kara feels its bony fingers puncture the flesh of his side and instinct tells him it won't ever let go while still alive.

Belatedly and with terror, he remembers being told not to let them grab him just a short minute ago.

The lung crushing weight draped over his back and the muscles that contract and flex against him infuse him with skyrocketing levels of alarm, screaming of his immediate danger.

With strength drawn from a bottomless well of desperation, he cruelly twists the glass shard and rips it free from its living sheath, slicing a deep trench into the creature's flesh with his makeshift dagger.

Running like water, its blood comes down over his front in a flood. Ironically, he has forgotten to breathe since he was grabbed, and so the smell is unable to overpower his senses.

The thick limbs pressed directly against his back and arm shudder violently, which in turn makes every drop of blood in his body jump in revulsion as he's forced to feel each dying convulsion. Blessedly, they go slack after a long second and he is free to shove the dead Thing back out the window with one hurried heave.

Visceral satisfaction is taken from the splash it makes as its corpse drops back into the water.

Body trembling and without pausing for rest, he hastily scans the length of the cabin to assess the situation, fearing for his teammates and beyond ready to throw himself at anything to defend them.

A sudden cone of blinding light appears at the front of the train and instantly spreads outward to bathe the entire cabin in white.

His mind scrambles for an explanation as his eyes recover, then relief jarringly springs up within him, fighting against the residual repugnance of the much-too-physical close encounter he's just dealt with.

A literal light at the end of the tunnel, the train must have finally passed out of the Mountain.

Rallied, he blinks past his blindness and opens his eyes, expecting to see tracks leading to their final destination, and hopefully help in the form of actual armed Agents.

What he sees instead slams the air out of his lungs in a way that not even the monster he just defeated could. Wheezing, choking on his own spit in a coughing fit, his trembling eyes latch onto the destruction.

The crowning centerpiece at the tip of the Peninsula, the Monolithic Spire, is falling to perfectly cut pieces, speared through by the red light of a glitched and twisting Agency symbol.

Distantly, he picks up on the collective gasps and cries of disbelief of his fellows on board, signalling their survival. But all Kara can see is the red, red halo of the setting sun bleeding behind the Academy as its massive pieces collapse and crush the smaller surrounding towers, sending blooming crimson clouds of rubble and dust rushing outwards.

It is a vision of annihilation that their train is hurtling into, moving at a speed that lends the spiraling towers they are passing the illusion of drilling upwards to add to the chaos.

The mechanical wrenching sound of the cabin doors being forced open finally pulls his eyes away from the destruction. It is Jyushi, Kara is startled to see, looking uncharacteristically rattled. Their wide eyes meet and he locks gazes with him.

"Everybody, we need to go now!" He screams, jerking his head to the front of the train, and with gut-punching horror Kara sees what Jyushi is warning them of.

The station is frightfully near, but more significantly, the bridge suspended tracks end shortly after, fallen debris having demolished the structure. The train is rushing forward to a fall into open air above spire topped buildings.

They will die if they do not time their escape to land on the long stretch of the station's platform.

In the fleeting moment it takes everyone to understand the dire nature of their situation, the train has reached their stop.

Without hesitation, and after delivering a final cry to call them into action, Jyushi makes his escape with a controlled fall out of the train.

Kara, having been at the back end of the cabin, forces himself to stay calm as he dashes closer to the opened door, watching as the others swiftly jump out after Jyushi's example. There is no time to spare for fear or hesitation. The only ones left on board are himself and a taller man in a uniform sporting mauve colored bands, who stands petrified, blocking the exit. An unseen wound darkens one of his pant legs with blood.

Without the threat of impossible creatures to fight, Kara is temporarily unshakable as he easily picks the man up and jumps out with him draped over his shoulder. As he lands on the final stretch of the platform, the cacophonous sound of the train taking its tumbling crash drowns out the heavy beating of his heart and any complaints the man he is holding may have.

They cut it extremely close.

Fatigue hits him hard and he recognizes the weakness in his legs right before they give out under him. As Kara releases the man he saved and angles his fall so that he doesn't crush the poor man half under his weight, he hears twin calls of worry through the final dying screeches of their literal train wreck.

"Iyami!"

"Kara!"

After the man in red bands from earlier pulls the one named Iyami off of him, Choro turns Kara over so that he's resting with his back to the floor.
His teammates' pupils are so small, Kara notes, as Choro runs steady hands over his torso, checking for and finding his injuries. Small, nearly silent whimpers of, "Oh no, no, no, no, no," are escaping uncontrollably from his new friend.

Realizing that he's been needlessly worrying his teammate while in a daze, he attempts to sit up before finding hands pushing his shoulders down with gentle firmness. Jyushi's upside-down face is staring at him intently, and as their gazes meet for a second time, Jyushi finally breaks into his usual smile.

Before any of them can speak, Chibita appears to pull Choro's hands away from where they hover over Kara's side and he holds them still, speaking with irritation but in a steady voice. "Our idiot is fine. I mean, he's covered in freaky monster water-blood, but the point is that it's not his blood. Relax, will ya? Gettin' nervous just looking at you." Chibita pauses, then jerks his head down at Kara, putting up a brash front but asking with a nearly imperceptible wobble to his voice, "You're fine, yeah?" He releases Choro's hands to prod at the tears in Kara's uniform, looking closely for a reaction. "These had better just be scratches, you damn fool. Saw what you did by the way. You're absolutely fucking insane, or stupid..."

As the bald man trails off, Kara forces himself not to flinch at the prodding and then squeezes Jyushi's hand in a silent order to let him sit up. Jyushi pulls away slowly but pipes up to defend his honor. "It was crazy though, he killed it in one hit! Nice form, you sure do have a strong arm!" Jyushi squeezes Kara's arm in a show of admiration, but he does so right above where the monster seized him. Refusing to show any discomfort as he is praised, Jyushi lets go after seeing no response. His smile never wavers, but a tightness to his face that wasn't there before appears.

Chibita can only scoff at this, eye still trained on Kara, who is now sitting up under his own power. Adrenaline no longer in his veins, the weight of everything that has occurred makes him weary and brings him to the edge of exhaustion. But he has a team to answer to, one who is already showing their support of him and it nearly drives him to happy tears.

"Heh. Thank you for the gracious compliment, Jyushi. But Chibita is..."

He blinks, and finds his eyes wet with unshed tears. Frustration muddies the brief joy he felt, and he feels nearly overwhelmed with a sense of self-reproach. Resolutely, he pushes on, "But Chibita is right. I disregarded the advice given to us and took a foolish risk. It paid off this time but I was so engrossed in my own battle that I never even had a chance to help any of you." And here, his voice finally cracks, just as a bitter snarl nearly cuts him off.

"Shut up."

The voice is so cutting he flinches and jerks his head upwards, worst fears coming true as he believes he is about to be harshly reprimanded.

It's unnerving to see Choro look furious, even more so when he has his hands around the collar of Kara's uniform so he can abruptly shake him with unexpected force. Jyushi and Chibita are frozen as well, watching in wide eyed shock.

"What the hell did I say? I told you, you're not supposed to only think of protecting us all the damn time!" He chokes out in a stutter, "We're a team, we're a fucking team and you can't do this to me!"

Choro is yelling in his face and Kara can barely register the words coming out of his mouth. He hadn't known their serious, uptight, seemingly timid comrade could be this loud and full of wrath. Realizing his error in judgement of character, the meaning to Choro's words finally register in Kara's brain and he remains shocked into speechlessness.

"We don't need your fucking help-"

Kara's heart stutters.

"-with every single fight because we're just as capable as you, you arrogant, conceited little shit. You could have gotten crushed to death over nothing because you wouldn't wait a damn second for me to get to you!"

And it beats faster as he's held in an awkward hug.

"...you're unbelievable. You know that?" Choro sniffs, and Kara can't see his face but he can feel the man take a shuddering breath. "I thought I was going to watch you die. Our team is barely an hour old and I thought it was all over. Stupid. It would have been such a stupid way... to..." He gasps and takes a deep breath.

As Kara is about to reassure Choro, the most horrendous, booming, rumbling, noise he's ever heard cuts off all sound and Choro clutches at him in panic or possibly pain. His mouth is moving next to his ear, but Kara cannot hear what is being said, feels as if he'll go permanently deaf, can only see Jyushi point back towards the Mountain with a shaking hand and absolute terror twisting his smile into a grimace.

No, it's not possible, what he's seeing cannot be real, Kara thinks, as for the third time within the same hour his mind struggles to comprehend the image presented before it. Instead of fear or disbelief, this time he is overcome by nothing but mind-wiping despair.

But then something gives, and as the ground jumps and shakes violently, he is forced to feel its rumbling anger beneath him.

The other team that escaped with them is already staggering into the station, the mauve banded man hoisted onto the back of the red, supported and driven forward by two men with pink and violet banded uniforms.

Seeking shelter from the impossible, for the Mountain is moving.

Or perhaps, Kara thinks hysterically, the surface of the world is bending inwards, drawing the ground up to meet between two points as it apparently wants to do.

As the Mountain folds towards them, or the Peninsula is lifted towards it, Chibita makes a futile attempt to drag Kara and Choro towards the inner enclosure of the station, to where the other team fled. Ever alert, Jyushi wastes no time prying Choro off of Kara to carry him away with a stumbling hurtle, out of sight.

It won't matter, Kara thinks, even if they take shelter, the Mountain will quash the entire Peninsula to nothing. Will force it back into the ocean beneath its weight. The world is bending, the sky is shrinking, and he feels as if the air itself is clutching him with a grasping hand, as if his body is being crushed by a pneumatic press.

Vision vignetting, unable to hear any sound at all, not even a ringing in his ears, he feels himself being dragged away. The ground is shuddering, as if it will ripple or break apart at any moment to launch them into the air or to swallow them whole. Chibita, he thinks, is remarkable for being the type of man to never give up.

Kara does not want Chibita's effort to go to waste, as far as final acts go.

Rubble falls around them, from both the Mountain and the Monolith, dangerously close to hitting the station dead on, as he forces himself to stand and allows Chibita to guide him inside with urgency and clumsy steps. Every time his feet meet the ground, vibrations run through his legs to set him off kilter and the trembling almost forces him to crawl.

Both teams are huddled in a single mass in a corner of the waiting area seeing as there is nowhere else to go. There are trams neatly lined up inside the station, trams that would have been their next stop, a short ride to the Academy, and then to the dorms. They are, or they were, the main source of transportation for the Peninsula.

But they are inactive, swaying back and forth and threatening to topple over. And the destruction raining down outside has surely destroyed all of their tracks.

Despondent and with nothing better to do, Kara goes along without a struggle as Chibita sets him down between Jyushi and Choro, who grab for him before he is even fully on the quaking ground.

He feels lightheaded and the growing pressure around him squeezes his full body in its fist as if trying to pop his head off. Despairing as he is, he still wants to stay awake, wants to see the end, if it comes. Kara cannot let his teammates face it alone, without him.

But his body betrays him and pulls him under.

And the last thing he feels is the tight grip of two hands clutching his own.

And the last thing he sees is Chibita's back, the only one among them who remains standing, at the ready for a threat he cannot fathom.

Chapter Text

He's between a state of wakefulness and sleep as his eyes refuse to open, seeing nothing but darkness. At first it presses up against him, uncomfortably close and insistent, urging his skin to prickle in acknowledgement of its sheer vastness. But it quickly loses its place at the forefront of his attention as his hearing returns to him. The scuffling of shoes reaches his ears but it is faint behind the hushed snarls and snapped rebukes of a whispered argument taking place somewhere in front of him.

Tiredly, he decides he does not yet have the mental fortitude required to face whatever that conversation is about, so he forces his eyelids to open instead. Surveying the landscape, he slowly begins to wake, but his rise to consciousness is accompanied by a jarring fork to the brain, whisking his thoughts into a liquid mess of confusion.

Distant but adamant, a pang of hunger makes itself known.

All around him is a misleadingly gentle red glow, one that fills him with nothing but trepidation. Beyond that is the return to pure darkness, which is completely alien to him, imperceptible. He refuses to question what may lurk within this time, lest he summon beasts to himself with thoughts alone, asinine as that may seem. Whether darkness or light, both inspire wariness to keep his eyes open for when something inevitably comes for him.

More than uneasy, he concludes that he must be inside the Mountain again. The still water is just the same as it was before, but this time there is no train cabin between him and it, not even the illusion of a barrier. The scarlet lamp light, he recalls, is from the distant bridge he saw earlier, ages ago, back when all he had to worry about was first impressions.

Concern grasps at his heart with an icy hand. He has to find his team, needs to know if they're alright.

A rallying warmth at his front does moderately well to dispel the familiar but highly unwelcome vulnerability he feels. Sluggishly, he recognizes it as someone's back and that his cheek is pressed up against it. It's comforting, especially so when there's a dearth of pleasant feelings to be found. He's being carried, much like Iyami was before, he recalls.

During...

The catastrophe.

Brain re-solidifying and back in order, he is compelled to take action, fortified once more with his usual vigor. Recovering swiftly, he mentally sweeps away his sleepy thoughts, already forgetting some of his fears. Carefully, Kara pushes himself off the back of the person who so graciously has been carrying him through a trek in a hostile environment. Though, thus far, that hostile environment has been eerily silent and still. It only bolsters his anticipation of an attack.

"Cover-man!" Jyushi gives a hushed cheer after turning around to check his charge. He motions for Kara to get back on however, ever-present smile trembling the slightest bit.

Shaking his head in a silent refusal but following it up with a bow, Kara smiles genuinely in return to show his gratitude. He motions to the group in front of them, currently still locked in a heated discussion, though all of them refuse to stir the air with anything louder than a whisper. Jyushi shakes his head right back and nervously tugs on his sleeves in a rare show of hesitation. Coming from a man who jumped out of a speeding train without issue, it only highlights how atypical the behavior is.

Regardless, Kara's relieved to see both teams still live, somehow. It fills him with determination, which he uses to power his stride directly into the fray, hoping Jyushi will be inspired to bravely follow. Meekness doesn't suit the man, and he'll do anything to restore his teammate to his usual boisterous self. A conversation shouldn't be allowed to faze him more than an imminent crash.

Noticing him first, Chibita snaps his head towards Kara, worriedly checking him over, sharp eyes quickly locking onto his arm and side. The others take note and the conversation comes to a dead stop, but he catches on to the paleness of the other team in the face of Choro's flushed, angrily red face. Like the embodiment of a wrathful deity, unstoppable in a rampage. Maybe Jyushi was right after all, Kara reconsiders.

In the blink of an eye, Choro has his hands on Kara's arm. He doesn't even have time to feel startled, though he attributes the lack of a reaction more to trust in his teammate rather than a failure of reflexes. The sleeve of his uniform is pushed back swiftly but with care, revealing his arm to all.

"He has it too, and this is all your fucking fault, you morons!" Choro hisses.

Kara's arm remains in the iron grip of his Closer friend as Choro once again directs his righteous ire at the other team. With a sense of deliberate detachment, he looks down at his limb to check the damage.

Colorless at the point of entry where the train Thing pierced his skin, which he hadn't even felt in the moment, his arm then fades to gray, and finally black at the tips of his pinky and ring fingers. The puncture marks are closed, but he can see where they used to be, outlined by patterns reminiscent of fractures in glass. The colorless parts of his forearm look oddly translucent though they do not actually reveal anything beneath his skin. Maybe, eventually, they will, he muses with distant and artificially enforced calm. Overall, it would look cool if not for being a terrifying sign of an unknown alien infection.

Clearing his throat, Kara gently taps Choro's hand where it is fastened to his wrist. "Bring me up to speed, friend, what's going on exactly?"

Dropping his wrist, Choro savagely points at the other team, as if he could stab them all with the gesture alone by putting enough force behind it. As a Closer, it is an actual ability that might manifest, but Kara has seen Choro's steady hands and has faith in the man's control. Just, not over his minor rages.

"Iyami is a Lure, and Oso," he jerks his head in the direction of the red banded man, who gives a relaxed shrug, "dared him to use his ability while on board the train." Iyami has shrunken back behind his other two teammates, who look as if they want to defend themselves, but they are silenced by Choro making a harsh cutting movement with his arm. Kara notes that if it were an attack, Choro's aim would have been perfectly centered for a fatal one hit strike. Concerned yet oddly proud, he debates on stepping in before Choro continues his domination of the conversation.

"No, shut up, this isn't up for discussion. Do something useful instead. Come here Ichi, you're a Medic. You owe us."

The violet banded man nervously points to himself in question, alarm evident in the stiffness of his movements. Scowling deeply in response with his V shaped mouth, which has seen more and more usage lately, Choro delivers a commanding gesture as if to say Get up here right this instant.

Sensing Kara's unabated confusion, Chibita sighs and elaborates as the newly revealed Ichi shuffles over to place cold, trembling fingertips on Kara's arm. "So these guys," he says, motioning to the other team, "Are a temp team. You know, people that aren't assigned a permanent team? 'Cuz they've all got abilities that need to be fine-tuned before bein' let out into the field-"

Interjecting, the pink banded man says indignantly, "Hey you, baldy, you don't have to be rude. Not even bothering with an introduction?" He winks at Kara and smiles cutely in a way that is terribly incongruous with their situation. It's made worse by the scarlet mood lightning and for a moment Kara envisions a smirking devil.

"I'm Todo and on behalf of my team I apologize for the accident we may or may not have caused on the train." He says as he makes a show of looking penitent, but it is ineffective when combined with the taunting cat-like smile he sports.

From beside Kara, Choro takes a second from overseeing Ichi's work to shoot Todo a scathing glare. The phrase If looks could kill idly flashes before Kara. It's a good thing Choro is confined to melee ranged attacks.

Seemingly taking pleasure in ignoring Choro, Todo continues on adamantly, "But we had absolutely nothing to do with everything else that happened. I mean, if anything, you guys might have more of a connection with that." Raising an eyebrow, he tilts his head, expecting answers. Or demanding them, with the way his eyes sharpen from their original watery sparkle.

Kara assumes he's referring to the red light that sprung forth from their Devices, but he stays silent for now, wanting to get caught up as soon as possible. Pretending to be vapid, he shows off an empty grin and a shrug.

Crossing his arms over his chest, Chibita rolls his eyes. "Don't try to change the subject, ya sneaky weasel." He turns to Kara as Todo levels a surprisingly disturbing grimace at the back of his head, which goes unnoticed by its intended target. "Anyway, while we were messing about with our phones-"

"Devices, my dear Chibita. A mere phone has far less functionality." Kara blurts out. He receives a fierce stare in response.

"Devices then," Chibita humors him with sarcasm before going on, "our buddies here in the front cabin were so bored they decided to test out their shit. Todo is a Parser, so basically an analyst. They thought Iyami would only Lure like, whatever normal animals lived in the water here. Obviously, that didn't happen."

Catching a glimpse of Todo about to speak, Chibita cuts him off before he can. "To be fair, I guess no one would have ever expected honest to god monsters, even if this place is creepy as all hell."

Expression darkening, Chibita reveals, "When we were on board earlier, I didn't Sense anything in the water at all. Not until that Oso guy came running in screaming for help."

Said guy finally speaks up from his oddly relaxed slouch against a bridge lamppost. "Yeah well maybe you're a shitty Sense. Ever think of that?" Though the words are abrasive, they are delivered in a smooth, easy-going tone. Oso smirks in a way that would be charming if not for the fact that he's just insulted one of Kara's own.

Bristling but visibly reigning himself in, Chibita instantly shoots back, "Tch, shut the hell up. We don't got time for this petty crap." Dropping off with a whispered, "Asshole," he motions over to the water, face grim. "After the shit that went down and the Mountain fucking ate the Peninsula-"

"What?!" Kara exclaims and his arm jerks out of Ichi's hold.

Grabbing at him with shockingly quick reflexes, the Medic attempts to harshly command him but fails to keep his voice from wavering. "Hold still... I'm not done."

Scowling, Chibita looks frustrated at being interrupted for the third time as Jyushi slowly eases his way into the group again and firmly holds out Kara's arm for Ichi. Minutely relaxing at the contact, Kara tries to patiently wait for anyone to explain what the hell is going on.

Wide eyed with an unreadable gaze upon Kara's strangely modified arm, Jyushi answers him first. "It was weird," he says simply.

Everyone around makes a noise of agreement at this at least.

"We didn't get to see it since we were inside the station, but somehow, the whole place got sucked into the Mountain. At least we didn't get crushed to death, right?" Jyushi widens his smile, but under the red light it looks unintentionally frightening.

"Then, everything started flooding. Did you know the water is actually black? I'm not even sure if it's really water. It wouldn't wet our clothes and it sucked all the blood off your uniform. Creepy!" Pausing for a moment, Jyushi pinches at Kara's rolled up sleeve to demonstrate before speaking again. "You and Chompers," he angles his head to Iyami, who looks comically offended at the moniker from his defensive cover behind Todo, "were out cold so we had to work together to get everyone out before we could drown." Blunt with his words, the silence of their group is magnified for a moment as they all think back on the heavy memory.

"Go team." Jyushi says, deadpan, forcing a sudden chuckle out of Kara. He gets a snicker in return as Jyushi brightens up again, happy at others' happiness.

Calmer but now somber, Choro speaks up after their brief interlude. "Jyushi probably saved us all, again. First at the train, and now at the trams." Shooting Jyushi a grateful look, Choro gets an enthusiastic nod back and a rallying cheer of, "No one left behind!" Loud enough for only Kara to hear, Jyushi murmurs, "Not with Lady Luck up to bat."

Continuing with an undertone of awe in his voice, Choro commends, "I've never seen a Gambit in action so I didn't think it was possible, but he was able to push a tram out of the station with us on top of it before the water could trap us inside. By the time we were out..." Breathing deeply, Choro readies his words to describe the indescribable.

"If we're doing story time, I want a go at it too." Oso interrupts with an easy smile and roll of his shoulders, much to the vexation of two out of three of Kara's teammates. Straightening out his back, he looks up to the roof of the cavern and continues conversationally, as if just telling a funny story. "So yeah, we're floating on top of this tiny tram and the entire Peninsula is inside the Mountain. The water gets freakier than your pal said, it moved like it didn't want to move, you know?"

Kara absolutely doesn't know and can't picture it from the description. Beside him, Choro begins to go red in the face again at being cut off.

"Anyway, we floated over to this bridge, but that was maybe an hour ago. It's probably good that we got off the tram before the water stopped moving on its own because I sure as hell don't want to be in it now." At this, Oso receives reluctant nods from Kara's teammates, but he speaks before they can interrupt him.

"One last thing before someone else takes the torch. I've been dying to say this." With a mischievous grin he casually comments, "You can still see what's left of the Spire. Check it out." His gaze flickers to the path before them and they all take a pause to look.

Far into the distance, spears of light obstinately pierce impenetrable darkness and flay it into looming red illumination. The twisted symbol is still active though there is nothing left to slice, still turning though there is nothing left in its path. The sight of the agent of destruction against the Monolithic Spire, the Academy he never graced with his presence, pricks Kara's heart with many needles of emotion. Fear, disbelief, depression.

Oso's voice unknowingly continues on with no regard for this.

"Looks like school's out. Forever." Oso grins, without a trace of worry on his face. It's terribly off putting and Kara frowns at his flippancy. The only thing keeping him from casting unfair judgment on this strange man is the memory of his face as he screamed for help.

"Even I think that's in poor taste." Ichi comments monotonously, apparently too absorbed in his work to care about being nervous anymore.

Ignoring Oso's murmuring of, "What, I thought it was funny," and Choro's subsequent hiss of "No one but you would!" Ichi pulls his cold hands away from Kara's arm and tugs at his outer uniform.

"Remove your top. I need to see the rest." Ichi says, clinical in his delivery, prompting Todo to look over in unfeigned interest.

Releasing Kara's forearm and with his back to Kara and Ichi, Jyushi takes a wide stance in front of them to shield them from view. Smiling widely at Todo while showing teeth, he states simply, "No peeking."

It's enough to get Todo to scoff lightly and turn to the side, hand to his chest in mock protest. "What? It won't be anything we haven't seen before. Iyami's got the same on his leg." He says politely, as if trying to make Jyushi look too disagreeable.

Jyushi only shakes his head and says with a pop to his lips, "Nope."

Following his lead, Chibita flanks Jyushi, eyes focused on the water, however, appearing as if he has something pressing to say but is holding off until the Medic's verdict is delivered.

Sighing in defeat, Todo backs off and pulls out his Device to browse through it, taking a seat on the center of the bridge, unwilling to go near the sides. Having lost his cover, Iyami makes his way forward to give Jyushi an appraising once over as he attempts to speak past him to Kara.

As Kara is disrobing from the waist up, he hears an acerbic voice addressing him.

"Hey, boy. I don't know what I did in a previous life to deserve getting stuck with all you brats, but I'll have you know I'm a highly respected Lure of great standing where I'm from. Which is better than this hell, I might add. If I hadn't gotten attacked by those foul things and injured my leg, I would have been just fine, you hear? I didn't need your help. But... Thank you anyway. Be grateful you're getting anything from me at all, sheeh!"

Weakly, Iyami runs out of steam and falls silent, apparently at war with himself and unable to commit to either thanking or cursing his rescuer.

Flinching from Ichi's icy fingertips once again tapping over his body, Kara attempts to set the peculiar, faltering man at ease.

"As my companion said earlier, no one would have suspected such evils to be present beneath these still waters. As for the train, you were just in my way. Forgive me for moving you." He says with absolutely no remorse while turning his head to the side, hand over his face, showing off a dramatic angle of his smirk in profile.

Smothering a laugh, Jyushi has graciously hunched over just to reveal Kara's stunning visage in a show of superb intuition. Perfect assist.

"Don't move." Ichi commands, straightforward and brief. Kara smoothly drops his pose to stand still for the Medic while Jyushi straightens out to re-assume his shielding stance. Ichi grumbles at the show, but is distracted nearly immediately by his work.

Confounded and repelled for now, Iyami turns about-face with a harrumph to instead observe a muffled shouting match taking place between Choro and Oso underneath the red glow of a lamppost further ahead. Though from the looks of it, the only one aggravated is Choro as Oso expertly taunts him. Irritated but unable to rescue his raging friend, Kara makes a mental note to attempt some form of payback later.

Since there is no one left to speak to, as each person seems preoccupied with their own thoughts or verbal spats, Kara is free to observe Ichi's work. The Medic's movements falter for less than a second as he feels eyes on him, but he continues his unerring prodding at the punctures on Kara's side.

These ones appear different from the ones on his arm. Instead of colorless entry points, they are an inky-black which fades to a dark gray. The coloring, or lack of which, spreads in a perfect gradient, and Kara would mistakenly appreciate it as artistry if he did not already know the terrible truth of its source. Again, he wishes the circumstances were different because the image is striking and unique.

Despite its abnormal appearance, he doesn't feel any pain coming from either wound. Come to think of it, he hasn't felt pain in those areas since waking up. He does, however, note that Ichi's fingers on his skin become colder and colder as time passes by. After visibly shivering, he decides now is a good time to pry the man of few words for information.

"Why is your touch so frigid, if I may ask, my new ally?"

The moment Kara's voice breaks the silence, Ichi stops and drops his hands away. He deliberately stares Kara down with a dead expression, as if irritated at being addressed in the middle of his poking.

Unperturbed, having faced down the faceless horrors of the Mountain, Kara only quirks an eyebrow in an act of silent inquiry. He can wait. Patience is a virtue, after all.

Ichi is the first to break eye contact after his face goes red for reasons unknown to Kara. Holding out his hand he roughly demands, "Give me your other hand. Tell me how this feels and I'll explain the rest."

Curiosity peaked, Kara extends his uninjured arm. Uninjured except for a long, deep gash in his palm. He's honestly shocked he forgot about his self inflicted injury from when he held his makeshift weapon. His grip must have been phenomenal, to dig so deep into his own flesh. It's a wonder the glass hadn't just shattered in his fist, or broken off inside the monster.

Brushing aside his ruminations, he does as instructed. Holding his hand palm up, Ichi begins tapping and lifting his fingers around the wound in a pattern that remains a mystery to Kara. The immediate sharp contrast in sensation almost makes him jerk away reflexively. With discomfort plainly in his voice he gasps, "It's incredibly hot! Is this supposed to happen? I cannot..." Embarrassingly, he's forced to collect himself before continuing, "This is on the edge of unbearable. Ichi, please..."

"Almost done. Removing the glass, don't move." Ichi responds flatly with no compassion. Lazily, he follows up with, "If you can't stay still, have your friend hold you down." and ends the sentiment with a slight smirk, as if daring Kara to give in.

Might be revenge for earlier, Kara thinks as he grits his teeth. It may be petty, but he refuses to give in even though he spots Jyushi fidgeting from his peripheral. While contemplating the pros and cons of allowing his teammate to assist him versus waiting it out, the procedure is completed and he blinks back involuntary tears. Exhaling a breath he didn't know he was holding in, Kara makes a closed fist with his newly healed hand. A compliment rises out of him before he can stop it. "There isn't even a scar and that barely took any time at all. Your skills are magnificent, why were you assigned to a temporary team?"

Slouching at his words, Ichi gives him a noncommittal shrug. Chibita and Jyushi look over after hearing Kara's praise, the latter taking Kara's hand to see for himself. Kara obliges Jyushi and reveals his palm as Ichi replies with a hint of scorn, "That's not your problem."

Changing tangents, he settles back on a clinical tone while eyeing Kara's still naked torso. "Iyami felt cold too, around the discolored areas. The marks stopped spreading a while ago, but I still want to check them. Maybe every hour. Hope you don't mind." He ends with a leer.

Recognizing when he's being baited, Kara shrugs, then reconsiders and shoots back a lesser smoldering look. He only feels slightly guilty when the man coughs and looks away, chagrined.

"...anyway, the hot feeling, that's also unusual." Apparently he has standards as a Medic, which Kara can appreciate as Ichi continues while trying to look anywhere but at him. "The extremes mean that amputation isn't an option, for your arm at least, because something is already changing in your entire body, I think. I mean, obviously something is going on, but I've never seen shit like this. I've also never seen much of anything at all except for mundane stuff."

Pausing for breath, Ichi realizes he has a captive audience tuning in to the sound of his voice as he speaks more than he's ever spoken thus far. Kara, Jyushi, and Chibita are watching him directly front and center while the other four further away have stopped talking and gone stiff. The attention makes him slouch further and Ichi looks down, shoving his hands into his pockets.

"...Might be nothing. Don't get your hopes up, but from what I could tell, you've both just got some freaky new tattoo work. I won't be able to know for sure until whatever is happening stops happening, which means checking you out once in a while. But if it doesn't stop on its own and it's not cosmetic..." Shrugging, he looks up and his eyes take on the appearance of being startlingly, endlessly hollow.

Kara stops himself from taking a step back as fear wedges itself in between his ribs to poke teasingly at his heart.

"I'm not a fully trained Medic."

Ichi's new, worse than dead gaze snaps from Iyami to Kara before wearily settling on the darkness beyond.

"I would have been stuck in classes for a decade. As I am now, I can't stop what I don't understand. Just to be clear, so no one can bitch about it later, I'm saying that if this shit doesn't stop on its own and it ends up being fatal or worse, that's it. It's over for you two."

Iyami looks close to tears as Ichi gives his final verdict. Everyone else remains silent and unmoving until Choro jerks into motion and makes his way over to his team. His movement triggers the two teams into action, clustering up again, awkwardly close but still unwilling or unready to become one unit.

Kara keeps his face neutral and his head empty. Distantly, he feels Jyushi squeeze his hand before letting go to press something against it. He finds his clothes in his grip and he sluggishly pulls them on as Ichi says one last thing that he's already considered long ago, since when he first got a good look at the monsters on the train.

"They had human arms and hands."

There's no need to elaborate on what he's referring to.

"Iyami's leg wound and the one on Kara's torso look the same." Slowly, Ichi turns his head to look somewhere over Kara's shoulder, giving the illusion of looking straight at him with only half the infinite pressure.

Choro presses his shoulder against Kara's own, the one attached to his discolored arm, as if to say he's not afraid to touch him. Chibita looks away and over to the water again, vigilant in his watch, focused on the real threat. Jyushi holds his hand once more, slotting their fingers together beneath his sleeve.

"But the injury on Kara's arm, the way it spread and how it's colored. It's the same as... As the arms that weren't attached to people." Ichi says, oddly tactful.

But he drops all subtleties as he swiftly and harshly follows up with, "We should decide now, how to handle this if they turn into something else. I can euthanize them both, as a last resort, but only if they're still mostly humanoid. When, if, you decide... on that..."

Reaching his limit, Ichi drops down heavily on the ground right where he's standing and doesn't speak again, placing his head down so that his face is hidden behind his knees. The silence is broken before it can really begin by a low whistle. Oso takes a seat next to Ichi and slings an arm around his Medic. The man shudders but doesn't push Oso off.

"Man, that's rough." Looking around the group, Oso shrugs, his body language unreadable, much like his poker face.

For once, words speak louder than actions, Kara broods. Oso is an enigma to him, but he decides he wants that unorthodox behavior on his side rather than against it, even if it sets him askew.

"Okay. If no one else wants to talk, I'll just put this out there. I'll do it. We're obviously all thinking the same thing right? We're not gonna kill off our teammates while they still look human-ish. Plenty of humanoid fish in the sea? No need to get hasty over some minor changes."

Glaring at Oso with no force behind it, Choro nods stiffly and sighs, "You're finally saying something I agree with. So, it's settled then. Oso's got Iyami."

Facing Kara, Choro straightens out his uniform for him, knuckles white as he grips the fabric.

"And I've got you."

The finality of the statement eases something in Kara and he feels reassured at having a contingency plan even while facing the possibility of his own death. A mercy killing by his own teammate, a young man who he hasn't even known for a day but trusts implicitly. It would be swift, coming from Choro. Perfectly precise. Still, he keeps himself emptied of emotions as he looks at his jet-black tipped fingers.

Chibita startles everyone with a simple statement.

"Underneath us."

Before everyone can panic, he clarifies. "Got your attention now, don't I? Alright, listen up, since we're getting all the heavy shit out of the way." He scowls down at the bridge as if he can see through it. For all Kara knows, maybe he can.

"Like I was saying earlier, before... Oso interrupted me. On the train, I didn't Sense anything in the water. I don't usually keep it up all the time, and not at a crazy range either, but seeing a place like this makes a guy wonder, ya know." Pausing, Chibita kicks at the ground in a gesture that speaks of ill intent against their surroundings, damning the Mountain to hell.

"I'm not bragging, wouldn't dick around at a time like this. You all ought to know, my Sense is strong. I don't only pick up on hostiles. There was nothing, get it? Nothing at all. But now, there's something. A lot of something. It sprung up on me, during the quake. I knew for sure once we hit water."

Shuddering, Chibita rubs at his arms, not keeping them in suspense for long as he spits out with venom, "It's disgusting. Like, worst thing I've ever Sensed. Lots of things, moving things. The only good news is that whatever that gross shit is, it's really far down below. Right on the edge of my range to Sense. Even if something were to come at us from down there, I'd have time to warn ya'll. That said, it should be common sense, haha puns," he snarls with nothing but aggravation, "but don't test your damn luck. No one go into the water, no one drop anything in the water, no one even fucking breathe over it, got it?"

Chibita's last warning is tailed by a high pitched whine, which draws everyone's eye to Todo, who claps his hands over his mouth, face pale with fear and mortification at his involuntary reaction. Chibita grimaces, never wanting to scare anyone this badly, Kara assumes, but his gruff way of wording things just makes consolation difficult.

Firmly in the spotlight, Todo decisively scrubs at his face with his hands before popping back up with a fiery forced smile bolted on. Appearing maniacal or staunch, Kara cannot decide, Todo pipes up, "There's something that's been bothering me."

Oso snorts from his seat on the ground and jostles Ichi with a friendly shake. "Oh wow, really? What could it be, out of all the things around us. Maybe, literally everything?" His grin widens, taunting, before he is brutally shoved face first into the bridge by Ichi, who seems unable to tolerate any more touching.

Smile lighting up and morphing back into something cute, Todo brightly acknowledges Ichi with a simple, "Thank you."

Shrugging, but face a bright red, Ichi takes a seat on Oso's back before the obnoxious man can recover. A mumbled, "Fuck you guys..." is heard from the pinned man but ignored by the rest. Kara notes that Choro has a happy V shaped smirk on his face and that he isn't the only one buoyed by the brief antics of the other team.

Device in hand and back to business, Todo marches up to Kara, who hastens to pull his expression together into something more serious as the Parser faces him. "I want to sync up to your Device." He states rather than asks, holding out his own Device at the ready. He will not be refused this time.

Kara blinks, patently unready for Todo's emerging upfront and decisive nature.

Rolling his eyes at Kara's blank look, Todo elaborates further, "The green one, Choro? Told me about what happened in your cabin before everything turned into this mess we're trapped in. I want to see if we can recreate it. You four barely did any testing on that light and I want to know what sort of information you've got too. None of us have much on our own Devices." As expected of a Parser, he wants to know everything.

Impatiently, Todo taps the screen of his Device and from behind him Ichi shuffles over to flank his teammate with a short grumbled demand of, "Sync with me too. Might as well."

Kara looks to his teammates for council and Choro nods, though he appears troubled. "Todo's right, we didn't have the chance earlier, but now we can check if the red light is the same as that up there," Choro spares a brief glance to the ruined Monolith, "and if it is... That means you can break it. " He ends, glancing down at Kara's hand, brow furrowed in thought.

"Are we all about to cut ourselves with some fancy symbols like some weird cult?" Oso interrupts, good at barging his way into serious moments, knocking them down without care. Flipping himself over onto his back but staying lying down, Oso pulls out his Device and taps at it. "I'm up for it, let's do this then. You too, Iyami. That's right, I didn't forget about you." He says offhandedly, making the decision for the man.

Scowling, Iyami hastily pulls his Device out too, even while growling out, "Sheeh, don't tell me what to do, brat."

Pointing to himself smugly, Oso brags, "Team leader here, I tell you what to do. Sort of my job, yeah? You have a brain rattling around in your head, don't you? Or is it all teeth?" As he snickers at his own joke, each of his teammates turns to face him as one.

Kara admires their synchronicity from a safe distance away as Oso gets kicked for his transgressions. Spotting the elation on his teammate's face, he nudges Choro and whispers, "Don't gain too much satisfaction from the misfortune of others, my friend."

Scoffing in response, Chibita encourages, "Nah, don't listen to Mr. Valiant Shield. Besides, they have a Medic, that asshole will be fine."

Tired and bored of roughhousing he can't join in on, Jyushi grabs Kara by the shoulders and shakes him with a groan and a wordless command, smiling but clearly irritable. Gently butting heads with him, Kara smirks, easily communicating without words. The fleeting spark of joy is enough to power him through pushing his sleeves up, exposing both arms. He might as well get used to seeing his affected limb so it won't startle him later. A darker thought passes him by, one that states that this way, everyone will be able to see if the mark spreads.

Clearing his throat, Kara holds his Device and announces, "You may want to keep your fingers clear of your screens."

He politely waits for the other team to sort themselves out before syncing up with them.

Just as before, their light dies before being replaced by a harsh red spear, a tiny manifestation of what befell their Academy. The symbol of Agency remains warped.

Leaning over Kara's device, Jyushi passes his sleeve through the very edge of the mark without preamble. It slices through the cloth so perfectly that if Kara hadn't witnessed it himself, he would have thought the sleeve was never whole to begin with. It's now even floppier than before and Jyushi seems torn between admiring it and worrying over how it came to be.

"Jyushi!" Choro hisses, admonishing but clearly worried. "Can we not just-"

A high pitched grating sound interrupts him and Kara's team snaps to attention at Oso's group. Immediately pulling his Device away from Iyami's, Todo gives a nervous giggle, "Okay, so the light can't cut itself. That's good to know, isn't it?" He reassures himself. Iyami, meanwhile, almost drops his Device before setting it on the ground, unable to bear holding it.

Finally sitting up, Oso angles his light at the floor of the bridge. Together they watch as he suddenly pierces the ground. Oso blinks and carefully, with slightly more caution than none at all, picks up his Device and places it screen up on the ground as well. Only the slightest bit shaken, he comments, "It's too bad we can't just make this light appear whenever, huh?"

"As if any of us would trust you with that as a weapon." Withering comment delivered, Choro cycles back to being passive to preserve his own sanity in the face of the recklessness around him. Kara squeezes his shoulder with his free hand, his discolored one, and Choro's shoulders slump.

"...Guess it's my turn." Ichi states, mouth thinning as the group focuses on him now. Muttering something incomprehensible, he makes a show of lazily brushing the back of his hand down the edge of the light, unconcerned. The others flinch as his skin splits open, blood beading up and dripping down in an instant, though Ichi himself is unaffected. His only reaction is to admire the clean-cut incision.

Having seen enough, Kara readies himself and grabs everyone's attention. "Has this satisfied your curiosity, Todo? Are we ready to move on?"

Despite their earlier squabble, Todo makes eye contact with his teammates before looking to Oso, who shrugs heavily and nods back without much outward consideration. "We're good. Now, let's see if you're still impervious to the light, Cover." Todo says it as a challenge, but there's a tightness to his eyes that only relaxes when he sees Ichi place his full attention on Kara. The cut on the back of his hand is already healed, as if it never happened. The blood on his sleeve is the only evidence that remains.

Steeling himself, Kara strides forward and boldly swipes his marked hand across each symbol, saving his own Device for last. As expected, the light yields to him once more, shattering and fading away without a fight.

"You know, if you weren't possibly dying or turning into a monster, I'd say that's pretty damn suspicious." Oso offhandedly comments as he taps at his newly updated Device. "But since we're all stuck in the same hell, I guess I-"

Oso is cut off as Chibita flinches out a warning in a high voice, "Get in the middle of the bridge! Now. Right the fuck now."

Scrambling to assemble far from the sides of the bridge, each one of them looks to Chibita for answers. Pale and staring with wide eyes down at the ground, Chibita wheezes, "Rising. Everything is moving. Stay still. They're not hostile..." The yet goes unspoken but implied and fully understood.

Oso opens his mouth but Todo claps a trembling hand over it as everyone else goes stock-still at Chibita's warning.

Everyone except Kara, who takes a relaxed stance and slides his hands into his pockets, feeling dangerously apathetic. Fingertips touching the edge of his acceptance letter, Kara assumes it must surely be ruined by now. His sudden darkening expression and change in demeanor doesn't go unnoticed by his teammates, but they stay standing at the ready. There will be time for a friendly confrontation later.

As the minutes pass by, the previously imperceptible darkness dies as the environment comes to life. The winding spires and numerous archways of the ruins around them are gradually revealed as many tiny scarlet lights eke their way out from beneath the jet-black depths, drifting upwards, sticking to the first surface they encounter. They look like stars in the gloom, creating a hauntingly alluring display with the grand cathedral-like structures that had been common on the Peninsula.

Chibita nearly flinches at the sight of each of them.

Booming, thunderous and deep, the sound of a glacier breaking apart suddenly cracks through the air, causing them all to jump at the assault of sheer noise. Painfully deafening high spikes of sound, like violently shattering glass, pierce through the low, bone shaking echo.

Keeling over, Iyami curls up, clapping his hands over his ears as Todo clings to Oso, who tries to pry Todo's fear clenched hand off of his face. The rest shield their ears as best they can as the sound bounces back and forth. It is all encompassing, sending shock-waves running through their bodies, causing Choro and Ichi to stumble next as they're forced to kneel on the ground. The only one who seems unaffected is Kara, still standing in his relaxed pose, barely moving.

Miserably slowly, the sound fades away and the air finally settles. Minutes pass as the two shaken teams take time to let their hearing return. Before they can fully recover, Jyushi grabs the group's attention to silently point out at the water, beyond the bridge. Fractures have appeared on its inky-black, presumably now solid surface. The breaks are filling up, but not overflowing, with an oozing red liquid that casts pulsating light. At their brightest point they are almost too blinding to look at. Although bearing the sound of shattering glass during their creation, the patterns the fissures assume are identical to drops of blood dispersed in water, frozen in a photograph.

Collectively they stare at their new surroundings without even getting up, some in panic, others in a state of shock. The silence of the cavern becomes just as disorienting as the noise had been.

Shivering uncontrollably, Chibita announces, "...Everything froze. I think we're alright for now. Fucking hell...!" Rubbing his arms, he takes a moment to himself and walks away, scanning the new terrain with uncharacteristic anxiety and none of his usual thunder.

Shaken out of his fugue by the sound of Chibita's wavering voice, Kara suddenly snaps back to himself and begins helping people up, carefully offering the fallen only his unmarked hand. Iyami is the last to get up, needing a minute more than the rest to recover. This time, he seems grateful for the assist.

Job done, Kara looks over and spots Jyushi crouched down next to Chibita, having an unusually hushed conversation between two of the loudest members of their group. Leaving them alone for now, Kara's gaze idly follows the path of the bridge until he sucks in a sharp breath and curses.

"Friends, comrades, whatever, we have a problem."

Unexpectedly disparaging, Kara's tone snares everyone's undivided attention.

Before anyone can confront him about his temperamental behavior, he flatly points out, "The bridge has cracked, its broken body sunken beneath... That shit."

Three fingers of his void-touched hand twitch.

"The path that might have lead us out of the Mountain is destroyed. We are trapped."

Chapter Text

After running down a short length of the bridge in a panic to verify its destruction, a tense discussion begins on what course of action to take next. Turmoil and unease weigh the air around them as if threatening to drop them like the fallen wreckage, to grind them into red paste against the surface of the lake, the equivalent of human rubble.

He ignores it.

Tuning everyone out, Kara directs a morose stare at the sad, crumbling edges of the only way back to the other side of the Mountain, the way that doesn't lead to the nothingness the Peninsula used to occupy. The entire length behind them has broken to untraversable bits for as far as he can see, the only remaining span of bridge leads into the ruins, and even the path forward has some worrying gaps.

Sulking, he thinks it wouldn't have mattered, regardless. By train, it had taken hours to clear the Mountain. On foot, it would probably have taken days. It is an estimate solely reliant on the assumption that the strange scarlet bridge ever ran the entire length of the Mountain. There's no guarantee that it ever did, Kara reasons. There's no use in thinking about it now. They will never know.

The other bridge, the train's bridge, has completely vanished. It was much closer to the surface of the water, Kara recalls, and it was surely submerged after the Peninsula was partially swallowed up by the imitation lake. Most likely, it lays broken and suspended somewhere beneath them now. Encased in solid darkness and splattered with liquid red goop, possibly trapped with and surrounded by Things. A broken bridge with tracks leading to nowhere. Another dead end thought.

The train itself must rest somewhere beneath them. Kara imagines its twisted corpse with its green glow snuffed out, faux water drowning its etchings, poisoning it like mercury injected into delicate veins at the time it was submerged. That beautiful light, which he never had the chance to capture in a bottle, living only in his memories. What must the cabins look like now, encapsulated in a moment of ruination...

Walking along the surface of the lake itself is an option that would be vehemently struck down, and for good reason. They'd be fully vulnerable out there and it has gone through one transformation already, who's to say it won't go through another? Even now he questions: Is it fully solid or would it break beneath their weight? Would the cracks widen just as they walked past, to swallow them in that red ooze? Are the Things here to aid in digestion? Add them to, what Kara is more and more referring to in his mind, this cesspit of a cavernous stomach? Kara would set fire to it all himself if he could, to complete the image of hell, being exiled from the outside world and consumed by the Mountain.

Hands in his pockets, his fingers once more touch upon his acceptance letter. Morbidly curious, he pulls it out to verify its condition, ready to experience its loss. One more amongst several larger losses won't be too hard to swallow, even if he feels on the verge of being filled to bursting by gallons of despondency. Like a human-shaped water balloon that would pop and spray clear blood-scented liquid. Like those Things. Is he becoming one of them, he wonders...

Unexpectedly, he finds that the letter has changed. Turning it this way and that, holding it up to the light of a lamppost on the brink of collapse, he marvels at its metamorphosis, quickly forgetting his gory brooding.

It has turned to glass, he thinks, though he is unwilling to shatter it to confirm that notion. The body of the letter, the paper it used to be, is perfectly clear. Folded in on itself the way it was during its alteration, the printed words are now red and layered over one another, though Kara can still make out each separate plane of text if he tries, there's enough of a glass gap between the clear folds to keep it from being a jumbled mess. Its edges are sharp as he curiously tests it against his palm and it feels weighty, sturdy even. Triangular in shape, it fits snugly in his hand but it's not large enough to use as a dagger. It's too late to fold it into a different shape now, but it could still come in handy as a tiny knife.

Attempting to come up with an explanation, Kara can only reckon one thing. Maybe being covered in monster water-blood as Chibita described it, and then being submerged in the false water of the cavern produced the transformation in his memento as the blood was drawn away. It's all he can think of when everything else has ceased to make sense around him. He wonders if his body underwent a similar process or if there's something more to both phenomena.

No matter how it came to be, the fact that he's managed to keep this one item of his reinvigorates him. Facing away from the edge of the broken bridge, he looks out into the new horizon as something bright lights up in his mind, chasing away his former mood. As he passes his gaze from one red light to the next in the distance, Kara tries to search for his normal self again. And then he spots it.

A single green light.

"We should go there." Blurting out the words without consciously meaning to, Kara straightens his posture and slips the glass note back into his pocket.

"Look who decided to stop being a freak in a corner all by himself." Oso says jokingly though his face is off somehow, Kara thinks. He sets off a chain reaction throughout the group.

"Go where, Cover-man?" Jyushi asks, sounding a bit strained.

Beginning to rant, Choro growls out, "Leave him alone, Oso. Can you stop trying to antagonize everyone every time you open your mouth?"

"Focus on getting me, us, out of here! I can't die in a place like this!" Iyami demands, irritably stomping his foot.

"The mark..." Ichi begins, going unnoticed by everyone except Todo.

"The mark spread!" Announcing on Ichi's behalf, Todo's exclamation quiets the group and focuses all attention on Kara.

Looking down, he finds that indeed, his middle finger is now as dark as the void beyond their accursed red prison world. His high spirits refuse to be quashed however, as he gives a jaunty salute to the group. "Yes, thank you for pointing that out to me. It failed to reach my attention for I was fully mesmerized by the Emerald Starlight." Dropping all pretense of his usual routine, he reiterates, "We should go there. There's nothing more for us here."

"Whoa buddy." Oso marches up to Kara and jabs a finger against his sternum. Kara refuses to step back, finding that either Oso isn't particularly strong or that his body is rejecting the notion of pain. Subsequent jabs punctuate Oso's words as he scowls for the first time ever. "Why would we ever take your advice? You know what I said earlier, about letting you off the hook? I changed my mind. Everything that's happened so far connects you to that red light and about two-thirds of the freaky shit around us."

Even Kara's team remains silent. Although sensing their doubt in him, he remains stalwart, "I admit, the sundering of the light was suspiciously well timed with proceeding events but—"

"Why is it only you." Unkindly shoving him into the center of the group, who scatters to form a circle around them both, Oso points an accusing finger at him. "Why doesn't the light hurt you?"

"I don't know." He really doesn't. The best Kara can come up with is that it's a latent Cover ability.

"Why does your Device have so much more on it than ours?"

"I don't know." Seeing Oso begin to question him again, Kara rushes to get a word in, "I truly don't know, I assumed everyone had the same! It came as a shock to me as well when I discovered the discrepancy, but I shared everything I had once I knew!"

Grabbing him by the collar, Oso growls out in his face, "Yeah, and both times someone synced up with you, Shit. Went. Down."

At a loss, Kara can only shake his head and hold his hands up in a sign of non-aggression. "...I don't know why things have happened the way they have. I'm sorry? I just wanted to help. We still need to find a way to escape this place before it becomes our grave site."

Clearing his throat and nodding at Oso, Todo smiles sweetly and gives a put-upon sigh, delivering his ruling, "He checks out."

Kara blinks.

Releasing him at once, Oso gives his back a friendly pat, though it comes off a bit strong, and unlike earlier jabs it sends him stumbling forward a step. "You've just got the worst luck, huh? Even out of everyone here. Oi, Ichi, you can check out our two cursed buddies now. Interrogating people is tiring."

"What just happened?" Kara asks no one in particular. His teammates regroup with him, seeming contrite. Beyond their little barrier, Iyami nervously rolls up his pant leg to let Ichi take a look at him. It's made a bit more difficult than it should be since the man refuses to look down at himself, fearing the sight of his own leg.

"I feel like an asshole." Chibita starts off first. "For ever thinkin' you might be involved with anything, even for a second. We were all in the same boat to begin with, since all this started. I'm bein' paranoid, I know I am, and it's not fair to you. I should know better, I should trust in my Sense..." Glaring out to the side of the bridge, he goes silent and pensive.

Picking up where Chibita left off, Choro adds, "There have been a few times where you seemed like you weren't yourself. I was getting worried that maybe you—But it's this whole situation. We're all likely to snap at points and I'm..."

Jyushi bumps shoulders with Choro as he falters, encouraging him to continue. "I'm sorry. I'm supposed to be looking out for you the most! I volunteered... And yet here I am, scared, not thinking straight."

"You don't want to have to do it." Kara states bluntly. "No one would. But you've felt compelled to keep an eye on me. I understand. Any odd behavior of mine would be jarring, a constant threat to keep track of, right?"

The silence that follows is broken by Jyushi trying to steer away from talk of certain doom. "That was kind of a mean trick they played on us, huh?" At Kara's inquiring raise of an eyebrow, he explains, "Todo's a Parser, so he can read plays! Ah, I mean," Struggling to come up with non-sports related vernacular, Jyushi tries again, "He... can... Read your mind? No, it's not that. He sees something and then takes it apart!"

Startling them all, Ichi creeps up from behind to interject, "Todo is an annoyingly 'gifted' Parser. I don't want to explain it all, Kara should have it on his Device now—" Ichi cuts himself off to pull out his own Device.

"The three of you, sync with me. We should isolate communication with Kara's Device for now, but between everyone else in the group, we have everything already."

They sync up to Ichi's device, anxiously waiting for something unusual to happen.

Nothing happens.

"...anyway, now you can read about Todo. It'll piss him off." Ichi gives a mean sharp-toothed grin just thinking about it as he takes Kara's arm in his hands without even asking for permission. "The short explanation is basically what Jyushi said. Todo sees something and then infers things about what he saw. Oso and Todo work disgustingly well together. Oso set you up to get answers from you while Todo verified your responses. So, you're really just as clueless as us? Disappointing."

Waving his arm as if in class, Jyushi jumps into the air a few times.

"...Yes?" Ichi answers, half perplexed, half amused. Kara didn't think Ichi was capable of smiling, but there it is, faint as it is.

"Why can't Parser-Boy take a look at Kara's arm and just tell us what's wrong?" Jyushi asks, staring intensely at Ichi with large pupils.

Ichi snorts, "...oh god, Parser-Boy. Don't say that." Dropping Kara's arm, he shrugs and relays, "For the same reason I can't. He might be good, but he's not omniscient. This is completely alien to us. Our temp team was meant to go through years of training and instruction to supplement our talents. We're not like you guys, we wouldn't have gotten better just by being in the field. Todo being a lie detector has more to do with him having experience as a socialite, for example. Parsing might seem like a bullshit magic trick but he needs to compile all sorts of visual information before he can learn and know anything. His brain is wired differently, Todo will never forget something he's seen even once... Sounds like a curse to me, personally. Though it would have made studying easier."

Kara readjusts his sleeve to stay rolled up on his arm as Ichi tiredly sighs, "No more questions, I'm done. Just read his profile and look up Parsing." Gesturing towards Kara, he delivers his final statements. "The mark spread a little but nothing else has happened. Iyami's leg wound is the same as it was." With no regard to personal privacy, Ichi lifts Kara's uniform up to casually glance at his side. "Looks the same here as well." He drops the cloth as if it's trash. "Don't talk to me again for at least an hour."

"Is that really any way to treat your patients, Ichi?" Todo's saccharine voice drips from behind the Medic. A hand tightly grips Ichi's shoulder before he can flee. Behind Ichi, the other team has assembled.

Todo hums, "I'll get you back for that 'annoying' comment later, Medic. But for now." He waves his Device, "There's a map of this place. I think our Devices updated themselves during the scarlet light show. Feels like crazy conspiracy theory events, doesn't it?"

"That isn't creepy at all." Oso murmurs.

Shaking his head, Jyushi counters, "No, it's super creepy! Have you been asleep this whole time, Jack?" Placing his sleeved hand over his mouth, his eyes narrow with mirth. Kara snorts from behind his hand at Oso's blank expression. He hopes Jyushi will continue to pester and bait Oso at every turn, a minor act of revenge for doing the same to nearly everyone else so far.

Recovering, Oso barks out, "Don't call me Jack—"

Elbowing Oso out of the way, Todo throws a three-dimensional holographic representation of the area into the air with his Device. The group huddles around it leaving Oso to squeeze his way in.

Deeply troubled, Choro is the first to point out, "Most of the buildings are still intact above the flooded areas. I would have expected more of them to be fully collapsed after the lake... Solidified? And then cracked, but this seems almost intentional if we take what happened to the bridge into account..."

"We should just camp out somewhere and wait to die peacefully." Ichi suggests, somber.

Nodding in agreement, Jyushi pats Ichi's back and cheers, "Yes! I'm starting to get hungry. Do you think we can get into a dormitory from here?"

"Forget food!" Iyami whines, "Medicine for my leg, there has to be something!" At Ichi's immediate and brief dismissal of, "Nope," Iyami wails until Oso pushes him out of the circle.

"What's this green thing here?" Oso asks, pointing.

Taking a closer look at the hologram, and then back out over the scenery, Kara smirks and victoriously declares, "It is as I predicted, the Emerald Star was our guide all along." Heads turn to stare at him and he takes the opportunity to run a hand through his hair and deliver a single, "Heh."

"You have to stop doing that." Oso remarks, caught halfway between a grin and a bemused frown. "Are you sure you're only a Cover? Being the center of so many coincidental events makes me think you've got the wrong Designation. Maybe your Trait is like, Ragnarok, I mean there's even shitty water and—"

Pushing Oso back with a hand to the face, Todo talks over him, managing to make a simple statement sound like a threat. "Let's stay on track." His cat-like smile is present but his eyes are tight at the corners and lit up with the reflection of the unholy red light.

After deliberately waiting for and receiving nods of coerced agreement, Todo gestures at the map's interface with the ease of a Professional, causing hundreds of gray dots to appear. Another hand motion and eight red dots light up at their location.

"The red marks are us, I'm assuming our signals became red after syncing up with Kara. The green dot is another active Device." Todo pauses, hand hovering over the hologram, as if afraid to point at the gray dots even if they're just lights on display. "But all these others are dead signals. Anything gray is a Device that's deactivated. Their last known locations are what we're seeing here."

Immediately following up, Oso asks without beating around the bush, "If we go to a gray dot, do you think we'll find a dead body? Or maybe even a monster?"

Chibita strikes before Choro can, kicking Oso in the shin and growling out in agitation, "What the hell is wrong with you, you tactless moron?! Why wouldya' say shit like that like it's nothin'?"

"What? I'm only asking what everyone is thinking! You can't ignore unpleasant shit forever." Rubbing at his leg, Oso flips Chibita off before pointing out, "Besides, you haven't had the guts to say it, but they're dead right? You don't Sense living People around, do you?"

With all eyes on him, Chibita widens his stance as if readying for an attack is his way of preparing for anything. "...So far no. But the buildings could be gettin' in my way!" Although speaking in his usual gruff manner, by Chibita's standards he sounds unsure of himself.

"Yeah right." About to start another argument, Oso stops himself and just shakes his head, pulling a grin back on his face. "Never mind. If that's true, then we'll find out once we get somewhere. And then we'll know for sure, if anyone else is alive in here."

"It's settled then?" Kara marches forward, eager to get going. "Onwards, to the lonely Green Maiden!"

Ignoring Oso's sudden interest at the word Maiden, Todo minimizes his map and yanks on the scruff of Kara's uniform. "Hold it, dandy-man. Before we go marching off anywhere, let's at least decide on a plan."

"Are we not headed to the only active Device in the area?" Kara questions.

Sighing, Todo shoots everyone a worried look. "That signal hasn't moved at all since I first checked the map. I've tried sending messages to that Device but they aren't being read. It might just be a Device laying on the ground."

"But it's our only lead! Regardless, shouldn't we make an attempt to help any unfortunate soul that's trapped in here with us? What if they need our help?" Kara takes another step forward before being pulled back again.

Commanding and brisk, Todo loses his patience and hisses, "I will slap you unconscious and have Jyushi carry you again if you don't let me finish."

Kara deigns to stay silent instead of reminding Todo that he is a Cover and therefore would be incredibly difficult to subdue.

Condescending, Todo pats Kara's head, intentionally mussing his hair. "Good boy. Now, I do want to check out the green signal, but only because it's on the way to a dormitory that we can use to get to the Spire." He holds out a hand before anyone can interrupt him, large eyes and tight-lipped smile promising death if he's stopped even one more time.

"We can gear up at the dorm, rest, grab supplies. I can try to use a terminal there to send out a distress call to Orbit, get some real Professionals down here, reach the highest of the high-ups, assuming they don't already know some sort of catastrophe hit. That's step one. Step two, we try to get out of here on our own instead of waiting for rescue." Head angled towards the Monolithic Spire, he purses his lips. "It's a wreck but the middle levels are still mostly intact. If we can restore power to a Shifter, we can get into Orbit ourselves without waiting. But that means grabbing enough Source power to send us all."

Waving his arms again, Jyushi asks without waiting to be called on, "Why isn't the Shifter already powered?"

"Finally, an acceptable question." Todo pats him on the head too, ruffling his hair, much to Jyushi's amusement. "They're supposedly for medical emergencies only, on par with quarantine levels of bad, when the best option is to isolate in Orbit if Academy Medics aren't enough. Our problem is that the Source storage for the Shifters in the Spire was destroyed. We can't siphon power from other parts of the Monolith because it's too dangerous to walk around there. It might still be structurally sound in general but that could change with falling debris. It's safer and easier to just grab power from the surrounding buildings beforehand and only risk entering the Spire once we're absolutely ready to use a Shifter. There are only eight of us, so if we fully drain one dorm, it should be more than enough, but that means shutting down running power as we move through the building."

"Aren't you afraid of the dark? I'm shocked you didn't faint from fear before the lake lit up with its horror version of Christmas lights. It'll only get darker in the ruins, all those tight spaces and buildings jammed together." Oso waves his Device at Todo, taunting him. As Todo pales, Oso smirks and reveals, "Oh yeah, your full file has all your weaknesses listed. All of them. Don't worry though, I'll protect you." He leers, making a crude come-hither motion.

Surprisingly, Iyami is the first to react with a screech, "Do you think this is a joke?! We're not playing a game here you obnoxious demon spawn of a team leader!" Forcefully shoving him from behind, Iyami sends Oso sprawling onto the ground at the center of the group.

Springing up, Oso snarls, ready to brawl, but he gets knocked flat on his back as Iyami screams out a "Sheeeeh!" at him while adopting a peculiar pose, attacking him with invisible force.

Judging by the stunned looks being leveled at the taller man, that particular move wasn't written down anywhere on Iyami's profile, Kara assumes. Stepping in to shield Oso from Iyami's sudden wrath, Kara attempts to stop the fight before it can escalate. "Please, new ally, calm yourself. We're one team now, we have a plan of action, we have a goal to work towards. Let's work together and—"

He gets decked in the face.

Several things happen in quick succession as Kara recovers, more stunned than actually harmed. His passive reaction, due to refusing to be combat ready against other teammates, pales in comparison to Choro and Chibita's.

Choro, being a Closer and probably the fastest one in the group, gets to Iyami first to backhand him, which perfectly sets him up as he falls to get a nose-breaking knee to the face courtesy of Chibita. Backing away slowly, Ichi has his arms up defensively, more for Todo's benefit than his own as the Parser has chosen him to be his human shield.

Grabbing both their teammates, Jyushi and Kara pull them away before any more damage can be done. Heart beating quickly, Kara doesn't know whether to be impressed or mortified as he predicts he'll have a lot of smoothing over to do between the two teams.

From the ground, Oso snorts. "So that's what a 'real' team is like, huh?"

Choro rounds on Oso but Jyushi slaps a sleeve over his mouth before he can start. "You're way over three strikes, Jack."

Despite flinching at Jyushi's unsettling serious tone of voice, Oso still manages to growl out, "Do. Not. Call me Jack."

Ichi is already fixing Iyami's face, having dragged the man to one side with his team, further emphasizing the rift between them. Kara feels slightly ill at the amount of work in front of him before he bolsters himself, mouth open and ready to begin a grand speech. Jyushi however, has reached his limit.

"But you're a Jack." Releasing Choro, he pulls up his other sleeve to reveal the Device in his hand. "Jack-of-All-Trades. Bad at everything, a reserve player unless you leech off of other people enough to copy a Trait. Is that why you're picking fights? How naughty." Jyushi smiles down at Oso, angelic, alien and serene. Otherworldly, Kara feels as if he's witnessing the prelude to a divine act of absolution that will only cost Oso his soul.

"I'll grind you into the dirt until you become a Gambit if that's what you want, Jack. You'll pick it up fast with me as your personal trainer."

Jumping in front of Oso to defend him yet again, hands up, Kara stammers, "Please stop." He isn't speaking to only Jyushi.

Words empty out of his head like water out of an uncapped bottle as he cannot think of what to say to pacify them all. Jyushi was the last person he ever expected to snap. However, he doesn't need to say anything as the group's eyes are drawn to his arm. He had forgotten, for a brief moment, that he might be living on borrowed time. Evidently, they had as well. Iyami pales drastically in a way that has nothing to do with his bleeding nose and he picks himself off the ground as soon as Ichi is done with him.

Helping Oso up despite his earlier taunts, Todo displays loyalty Kara isn't sure the Jack deserves. Softly, Todo suggests, "Let's just go. We might as well try to make it to the dorms as soon as possible. I think we all need some rest or else we'll end up killing each other before this awful place can."

Clearly divided, the two teams silently begin an uncomfortable walk down the battered bridge, towards the ruins. The tension lasts only for a few minutes before Kara can't stand it. Pulling out his Device, he motions to his team before shining a regular white light from it. Affixing it to a place on his uniform, he makes sure the light stays pointed in front of Todo, who is trying his best to lead the way. Kara struggles to keep his expression from breaking into a smile as his team and the rest catch on.

Together, Todo spearheads the group with Kara and Oso flanking him, Chibita and Jyushi behind him, and the rest forming the rear. Their group forms a moving beacon, an odd white ghost ship in a sea of red.

"Everything will be able to see us coming..." Iyami whines.

Chibita scoffs, "I'll Sense it before anything can even reach us. This is fine."

The conversation stays brief, the fight is still too recent, a single gesture is not enough to make them comfortable with one another yet. Better than nothing, Kara concludes, at least they're walking together and the lines dividing them aren't so obviously visible anymore. Todo seems more relaxed in their corona of white light which drives away the red ambient glow, and he isn't the only one to appreciate it. Kara will take that as a win, for now, because it won't last forever. The closer they get to the ruins, the more red light there will be, stuck onto every surface of every building.

An hour later, and after several moments of mandatory cooperation to cross gaps in the broken bridge, tensions have eased greatly. All that's left is an easy drop down to an archway that will lead them straight to the green light. They stand together as they've finally come close enough to see someone in the distance.

Swallowing audibly, Todo whispers just loud enough to be heard, "...They're just standing there, in front of the door we need to go through. The signal hasn't moved at all this entire time."

Heads turn to Chibita who closes his eyes, frowning in concentration. Shaking his head, he verifies, "They ain't hostile. But it doesn't feel human. Pretty close though. If I hadn't triple checked I wouldn't have Sensed anything off."

Kara swings his legs over the railing of the bridge, readying to drop down. Giving a look back to his team for permission, he reasons, "I'll speak to them first. I'm the most amiable among us, I believe." He doesn't mention that Todo could have also greeted the odd being if not for his twin fears of the dark and the stranger themselves.

"I've also got this," he lifts his marked arm, "so perhaps they'll be willing to talk to me." The idea that he may be not quite human anymore also goes unsaid. Kara could always ask Chibita later, privately with his team, what the smaller man can Sense about him. "If anything uncouth happens, I'll live long enough for you to assist me. So, leave it to me?" Smirking confidently, he flexes both arms and nearly unbalances himself right off the edge of his perch.

Choro grabs him before he can fall and sighs, though it almost sounds fond at this point. "I guess that's the best plan we have. Any objections?"

Shrugging, Oso speaks for his team and simply says, "Nah." Roughly smacking Kara on the back, he calls out, "Off you go, decoy!"

Expecting such antics, Kara still manages to smoothly drop down onto the archway. As he lands he hears the brief echo of what must be a slap to the back of the head. Could be anyone really, he thinks. Oso seems to enjoy making himself a target and if what Jyushi said was true, he may be attempting to 'Jack' lesser versions of all of their traits through physical contact.

Thinking back on it, the people who've come into bodily contact with Oso the most are Choro and Todo. Kara didn't expect Choro to be the type for physical violence but then again, the man is a Closer. The only one who hasn't touched Oso yet, despite the threat, is Jyushi. Oso really should just ask, Kara would oblige him if he wanted Cover durability, but how exactly does Oso copy traits...?

Kara's idle musings are abruptly washed away as he notices the archway almost touches the surface of the false lake. Due to its position, the underside of the stone arch is nearly completely illuminated with bright red light. The hairs on the back of his neck rise as he forces himself not to sprint straight to the door where his stranger awaits. Restraining himself, Kara takes measured steps and walks the short distance, opting to stay on high alert. Focused as he is, he twitches and nearly jumps up when he spots tiny, barely-there scarlet tendrils creeping over the edge of the path he walks. They've invaded every minuscule crack and imperfection of the smooth stone.

Chibita had been fearful of the scarlet lights when they first rose, he recalls. He had Sensed their coming. What kind of life are they? Are they growing, like vines clinging to a trellis? Will they continue to creep forward and overtake all they touch? What sort of things could possibly be born of these growths?

Kara forces himself to stop thinking about it. Refusing to fully acknowledge the thoughts, they are weighted and tossed away into watery depths. He does not want answers to his questions, he will not wait to see and find out. There's no time to waste and he needs to help everyone escape this place.

Making sure his sleeves are rolled up and his arm is on display, he stops a few paces away from the stranger and politely waves. Taking in their appearance, Kara almost audibly gasps in awe.

The image of them is unearthly. Clothed in methodically crisscrossed strips of black cloth that wrap around their torso and end above the knee, Kara cannot tell if they are male or female. What he does note is a lantern, held and slotted in place by their clothing, kept flush against their chest. Their head is bald and their face is covered by a smooth oval-shaped black mask that appears to be stuck on, as he cannot see any ties or bands. Centered on the mask is a single, empty, large white ring. It doesn't have the appearance of being painted on, the mask itself seamlessly transitions from black, to white, to black again.

Fantastically, flawless glass makes up their body, which is filled with an opaque, shimmering liquid. Transparent arms are wrapped around themselves, clutching and protecting the lantern which shines a brilliant emerald green, bathing them and the surrounding area in its color, driving away the red as the two colors of light refuse to mix. As the light bounces and refracts off of their body, he can see the sluggish movement of the fluid inside of them, ceaselessly slowly swirling. With a slight quickening of breath, Kara discovers that their fingers darken from clear glass to pitch black.

Inside of the lantern, which holds a familiar green liquid light instead of a flame, is the active Device trapped in suspension.

Harsh and ear splitting, a high pitched whine rings out and ends with the crunch of broken glass crushed underfoot. The sound travels directly into his ear and Kara takes a faltering step back, belatedly coming to the understanding that there were words somewhere in that noise.

Hesitantly, he asks, "...Come again?"

The Lantern Bearer jerks forward in a hunch and snarls, curving their entire body towards him with their mask faced straight ahead. Reverberating high tones slice through him like wire as he hears, "Shithead, I said don't stare at me! Fuck off, you annoying pest."

Kara wasn't expecting that. Shaking his head in an effort to dispel the sharp sound from his suffering ears, he steps forward and bows, extending his marked hand for a handshake while introducing himself. "I deeply apologize for staring. My name is Kara, perhaps we can begin again?" He would have added a compliment about their stunning appearance but he's positive that it would not be appreciated or accepted.

An earful of grating noise bodily pierces him as the being shrieks, "Stupid, you're a fool if you think I'll let go for one instant to shake your filthy grasping hand!" Their fingers tighten around the lantern at their chest.

"Ah, I'm sorry yet again! I didn't realize that uh, that I was being rude, yes of course. Apologies." Quickly dropping his hand and rubbing at his chest to ease odd phantom pains, Kara decides to avoid any talk of the lantern they seem greatly protective of and instead points to the ruined door behind them. Once large and surely filled with stained glass, as was the style of the Peninsula, it is now only a grand, empty frame. Curiously enough, there are no broken shards of glass to be seen on the ground around it.

Kara inquires, "Are you guarding this door? My friends and I wish to enter this building. You can see them, over there." Pointing out to the bridge, he motions for the group to come down, signalling his safety. Though if he's honest with himself, he's a bit intimidated by this Lantern Bearer and just doesn't want to be alone if they're going to scream at him. His body already feels strangely sore, not in a dangerous way, but the discomfort is there nonetheless.

"It's like everything you say is made to intentionally piss me off." This time their speech is of glass being ground up, low and unpleasant but much more bearable to his poor ears. "No, I'm not guarding this door, you dimwit. You and your idiotic troupe can go prance right on in. I won't stop you. Now go on, ask me another question. Make it good this time. Fucking amuse me."

The more they speak, the less harsh their voice becomes to Kara. He straightens up, encouraged enough to pose for them. With a hand to his chin and an exaggerated smirk pulled on, he plays into their game. "Of course, I'll give it my best shot! If it is a question you seek... You won't bar us from entry into this place, correct? What do you know that we do not?"

Tinkling glass and the sound of shattering crystal flutes echo around him, thankfully painless this time. Kara assumes it's the equivalent of derisive laughter for the Lantern Bearer. As the two teams regroup and stand with him, the being shouts out, "Everything!"

As the others cringe back at the sudden reveal of such an inhuman voice, Kara presses onward, "Please elaborate. What sort of Things can hurt us from within?" He asks, ignoring Chibita's murmur of, "The fuck? You understand this thing?"

"There you go saying stupid shit again." Scoffing, the liquid running through them bubbles, their voice now heavy rain hitting glass. Kara likes to imagine this is a conversational tone of voice, one that accentuates details. It feels pleasant, almost soothing, until he hears the words, "Hurt you? In this place, everything is only out to do two things. Devour or be devoured."

Wasting no time and keenly grabbing Kara's marked arm, Ichi holds it out and asks in a brusque manner, "Is this a sign of being devoured?"

Instantly shivering in the Medic's merciless grasp and terribly emotionally unprepared to have that question answered, Kara can still admire Ichi's dauntless approach. It's... actually quite cool.

The rain falls harder, meaner, as they tilt their masked head and lean forward menacingly, shoulders hunched back and chin jutting out. "You think you're smart, dontcha, Violet? I like the dumb ones more." Before Ichi can snarl a demand for an answer, the Lantern Bearer taps their fingers against their prized possession and continues, "That coloring, that arm. Met a Clasper, did you? That means Blue's an Eater now. One who consumes, obviously. Other Things that eat will want Blue and your loser Mauve buddy too. Devour an Eater and you gain strength while eliminating competition. The rest of you Living are only future victims if you cannot eat."

Flinching severely, Kara tries to yank his arm from Ichi's steel grasp, but the Medic only spares him a stern look before addressing the Lantern Bearer again. Meanwhile, Jyushi's arms wind around his waist in a hug from behind, sensing Kara's mounting urge to flee. Claspers, Eaters, Devour or be Devoured? Panic is sinking into his skin, tainting his blood, infiltrating his heart. Trembling in a way he hopes isn't visible, Kara leans into Jyushi, accepting his comfort.

"If it's eat or be eaten, Kara is better off being an Eater." It's Ichi's unsubtle hint to Kara to calm the fuck down. "So tell me, trick-or-treater, how would our Eaters eat?" The Medic's fingers start to feel icy against his skin as they wait for an answer. Somewhere behind him, Kara hears Iyami's harsh breathing, punctuated by tiny exhalations of "Sheeeh!"

Angrily shattered glass and a low irritating hum reverbs through their mask, answering Ichi's brash words, "You're getting on my nerves, shit-fucker. But that's fine, I can respect your moxy. As long as you keep entertaining me." The mask turns to face only Ichi dead on before the patter of heavy rainfall against window panes returns. "They'd eat like a Clasper. All they have to do is grab and hold and never let go. If they grasp and think of Eating, they will eat. They'll yank out everything the Devoured ever was and ever used to be. But keep in mind, anything eaten becomes a part of the Eater. The more you consume, the more you are, the less you were. Do you understand?"

Who knew rain could sound so mocking? Kara can't look away from the Lantern Bearer, their information has him locked in place. All this talk of eating is making him sick with dread as it fills his stomach with every new bit of information. Feeling his mouth salivate in preparation for a heave, Kara tries to discreetly swallow down the urge to spill. The last thing he wants is for someone to mistaken it as hunger.

Of course, Ichi's eyes slide over to level an inscrutable stare at Kara's face at that exact moment. The Medic's fingers tighten their grip on his arm and Kara fears he might get frostbite from the cold they exude. Deliberately slowly, Ichi lets go, apparently having made a choice. Giving his full attention to the Lantern Bearer, Ichi huffs, ill-tempered, "You are what you eat, got it. So eventually, they'd stop being themselves."

Stepping a littler closer to the glass-being with a slouch and shoving his hands back into his pockets, Ichi questions with a critical edge, "But Devour or be Devoured? Fuck that. There's always a third option, to abstain. They can do that, can't they? And don't feed me any bullshit."

Jyushi tightens his hug around Kara reassuringly as Chibita wordlessly steps forward to stand next to him, occupying the space Ichi left behind. Being steadily boxed in by his teammates calms Kara down in a morbid way, as he can only imagine scenarios in which they successfully take him down.

The tinkling laughter returns, glass carelessly tossed and smashed at their feet, almost musical, light and clear. "If they're stupid, they'll refuse. Doing nothing is always an option for fools."

Breathing out a sigh of relief, Choro steps forward next, ready to release a relentless battery of questions. He gently pries Kara's clenched hand away from his rumpled uniform before asking, "What other Things are there besides Claspers? How do we defeat them? And what are you, why are you helping us?"

Kara's hand lays limply in Choro's. He doesn't have to eat, he won't be compelled. The relief has numbed his body, but it has also flushed the panic out of his blood. Unfortunately, as a result Kara leans back into Jyushi as if he's about to collapse from the sudden change in blood pressure.

The Lantern Bearer goes silent, letting the last echo of their laughter fade away while taking a long look at Choro. The white ring on their mask seems to grow brighter though it sheds no light. Piercing yet airy, wavering and bright somehow, Kara hears a sound he likens to that of a wine glass filled with water when its rim is played. A single wavering tone answers Choro, sounding incomplete and lacking compared to their previous voices. Despite this, it is the most beautiful voice they have spoken with thus far.

"Green... Finally, someone with somewhat good taste." Stroking their lantern with their dark fingers, they divulge, "I'm an Eater as well, one with higher standards than the other shit stains I've had the misfortune of dealing with. You aren't made of quality glass, so you're worth less than trash to me, in that regard. As for why I'd help you, why not? I do whatever the hell I want. If you end up killing some of the more brutish Eaters, those pigs, well that's just a nice bonus for me."

Their fingers tap together, producing two low tones, adding gravity to their voice as they advise, "How to take out the trash... If you won't become Eaters and your peons won't devour the nuisances, then you'll have to pay close attention to those scum. The stronger they are, the more obvious their weakness. Too many limbs? Unburden them. Missing something? Give it to them, attack that spot. If you come across a Thing that has no mouth, rip that fucker a new one, gift it a maw to screech with as it dies. You don't have to exploit a weakness, brute strength can get the job done, severe bodily damage is fatal. But only an absolute moron wouldn't go for the instant kill. Even brainless gluttons would do the same to you."

Todo quickly whispers something in Choro's ear, electing to use him as a mouth piece due to the Lantern Bearer being almost cordial with the Closer out of everyone else. Nodding, Choro steels himself and tightens his grip on Kara's hand before asking, because the Parser has to know it all, "How would we become Eaters? How did it happen to our teammates?"

Kara tenses, his sore body aching at the many emotional shifts he's just gone through. Despite this, he's recovered enough to stand a little straighter, squeezing back at Choro's hand. Anxiously, he watches the Lantern Bearer, mentally preparing himself to receive their answer.

Separating their fingers, all sound ceases at once.

The two teams end up huddling closer together as they nervously wait for a response. From behind the mask, the most ethereal sound Kara has ever heard begins to drift into the air, expanding to encompass them. Something about it makes his head spin in slow, dizzying circles. It slides right into his skull, touching his brain by sending resonating sound through the fluid surrounding it. Judging by the sudden weight on his back as Jyushi leans on him this time, Kara isn't the only one physically affected.

Unlike the piercing brightness of earlier, this sound is ghostly, able to effortlessly move into their bodies and sway inside. It feels complete, many tones spoken as a melody to create one eerie voice. Floating upwards from the depths of his memory, Kara recalls hearing something that comes close to this sound, though the experience of the earthly version was infinitely less invasive and intimate. He only saw it once, an instrument made of many glass bowls stacked together. A glass armonica.

"A good question, Green and Pink. Brains of the operation, I take it? Take my advice and become Eaters like me. Consume only the finest..." The Lantern Bearer drifts, taking a soundless step to the side to sit facing the group while overlooking the false lake. "Find something strong and let it start to consume you. If you can kill it before it finishes eating, what's left of you will become an Eater. You'll adopt the strengths, weaknesses, and consumption method of the Eater that failed to devour you. I've never met anyone who has done this more than once, but there are rumors. Rumors that say gaining Traits this way is different from the usual method, when you just Eat. Maybe defiance is superior to gluttony."

The moment Kara hears the words "what's left of you" he feels bereft, suddenly aware of a gap in his brain he'd been overlooking until now. Just how much of himself did he lose in his seconds-long struggle with that Thing, now dubbed Clasper? Enough, apparently, to widen the hole where all his darker thoughts are tossed, allowing for more of them to escape back into his conscious mind. A new one comes up just in time to drag him down. Kara's arm is proof that he's part Clasper now, and he could eat with it if he so chose. What would that be like? What would that even look like?

Kara lets go of Choro's hand and folds both his arms over his chest.

The Lantern Bearer falls silent, allowing their voice to almost fade before continuing, "I should warn you though, if you become a delicacy, everyone will be out to eat you, even if it's just to snag a little piece. But I'm curious now, what you would become. Would it be worth seeing? Do me a favor and become something beautiful, a work of art. There are too many piles of unburnable garbage in this dump. There's too much damn Red..."

Their words drift away, but the sound continues to echo and gently caress the air. Ceasing to speak, the Lantern Bearer's body goes motionless and perfectly still. Even the liquid inside of them halts its flow and the light of their lantern dims, going from radiant to gloomy, casting an eerie shifting light instead of the emerald beacon Kara saw back on the bridge.

There is only music now.

"Guess they're done talking." Oso remarks flatly. Nudging Chibita's back, he asks, "Sense anything?"

Slapping Oso's hand away and grunting, "Don't touch me, jeez," Chibita keeps his distance a few paces away in front of the Lantern Bearer and observes them intently, reporting, "They're alive and still neutral. We should leave 'em be and get a move on. We can track the Device in their lantern if we want to talk to them again. They gave us a lot to think about."

Frazzled, Todo whines, "A lot to think about? This is insane, this place is insane...!" Turning away and marching towards the door, he murmurs to himself, "Keep it together, don't panic until we're in a safe place, don't panic..." Clutching his Device, Todo swiftly switches over from the three dimensional area map to a flat two dimensional floor plan style hologram of the dormitory. Using fear as fuel for focus, his eyes rapidly dart from one section of the map to the next before swiping at the air with his hand to display the next floor and the next and the next, memorizing the layout by Parsing even as he walks forward.

Noting Todo's tolerance being tested, Kara hastens to catch up, setting all his unease aside for now. Gently easing Jyushi's grip from around his middle, Kara crouches down, wordlessly offering him a ride on his back. His teammate looks pale, the haunting music having a definite effect on him, making him ill. Smiling weakly and taking a moment to rub his head, Jyushi accepts the offer and climbs on.

As Kara hurries to follow Todo, the other half of his team flanks him, shedding bright white light with their Devices, expelling the eerie green light and ambient red glow. Oso, Ichi, and a badly shaken Iyami take up the rear as they step through the empty door frame and finally enter the Dormitory.

Before them stretches out a long, grand hall, bordered by two rows of columns and topped by a rib vault ceiling that looms overhead, almost fully shrouded in shadow. Beyond his team's white halo, the etched columns cast a weak green glow in the form of sparse droplets of liquid light. Unlike in the train, the liquid cannot sustain motion and they remain sadly fixed in place. Their feeble illumination is easily overtaken wherever there is a window with an empty frame due to the red gleam of the living lights stuck to the outer walls bleeding inside.

Unbidden, the thought of the scarlet lights growing and creeping inside just as they are beginning to on the archway asserts itself before Kara can stamp it out. If only he could extinguish them so easily, somehow he doubts they can be killed with mundane methods.

Every single window Kara can see has been divested of its glass, leaving behind only the steel frames of whatever image they once held. There is a common decorative theme displayed, one of four shapes slotted together to make a completely new one. Repeating patterns of the same theme are set in the tiles of the floor, which are made of smooth, reflective marble flecked with glass. Barely noticeable, Kara observes that everything made of glass inside this hall bears a ghostly luminescence. It's almost distracting because it results in Kara seeing faint shimmers of something on the edge of his periphery no matter where he looks.

Map out and standing in the faint light between two columns, Todo waves Chibita over. Taking his cue, the small man sticks close to Todo as everyone else forms a half circle around them.

Gearing himself up before they go anywhere, Chibita divulges, "...It's hard for me to tell what's inside the building. Those lights that stuck to everything outside, they interfere with my Sense. To me, they feel alive. They're neutral, but asleep. The feelin' I get is that the moment they wake up, they'll be hostile. That lantern person was neutral too, but I never felt like they would jump at us, even if they were mouthy as hell."

Pausing for breath, Chibita looks up into the high ceiling for a moment, brows furrowed. Exhaling a slow sigh, he discloses, "If we take this slow, I should still be able to Sense shit hidden in rooms we're about to pass. Indoor range is about, maybe from here to the roof in all directions. But if we're close to the outer walls, it gets confusing for me. It's like the lights are a wall of information that blocks me from Sensing anything else but them. The shit is damn annoyin' and freaky, you guys have no idea what this feels like."

Tightly gripping his Device, Todo nods stiffly, purposefully ignoring the last statement and jumping ahead to say, "That's perfectly fine, I can work with that." After one more glance at his map, out of nervous habit rather than the need to see it again, Todo decides on a route and starts leading them.

As they climb a set of ornate dark green carpeted stairs, he informs them, "For now, let's camp out on the top floor. When we get to an unclaimed dorm room, we can Claim it and gear up. After that, I want to go through some exit paths and escape plans with all of you. From the roof, we can run away if we have to and jump to another building, everything is built so close together that it should be easy. Siphoning Source can wait until I brief you all, 'kay?" Swallowing thickly, Todo leads them to the floor of final landing.

More elaborately patterned tiles greet Kara's sight, and the ghostly pale light of the glass bits glint all the way down the hall wherever there is a gap of darkness between broken windows. The damage must have happened when the Mountain consumed the area, Kara decides, or during the imitation lake's cacophonous transmutation.

Unfortunately, they are still positioned next to the outer walls of the dormitory. The glass bereft steel gratings cast haunting shadows in the ambient red gloom. What a hall they must walk down. It would be beautiful under different circumstances, in a haunted castle sort of way. There are no safe thrills to be had here though, only the very real and sinister threat of some Thing jumping out at them to do much more than spook them. Eaters, Kara reminds himself, not just Things anymore. And he's one of them.

"Can all of that wait? I need sleep. As soon as possible." Ichi announces, grumbling. While avoiding all the stained glass from the shattered windows of the top floor, he looks out into the hazy red distance beyond them, expressionless. "I used up all that energy trying to identify those marks earlier. But it turned out to be something that can't be reversed."

Flinching, Iyami harshly demands an explanation, "Why not? Are you sure?"

Nodding lethargically, Ichi explains, "Yeah. I know from the way that Being explained it. I heard it in their voice. You didn't understand? It was pretty clear to me. You lost something that you can't get back. The change is permanent. How it develops from here on out is up to you."

Those walking beside Ichi turn their heads to stare at him. Oso punctuates the moment by carelessly kicking a large shard of glass out of his way as he comments, "That's fucking weird and you're already a strange guy. I couldn't understand half of what they said."

Blinking, pulled from his brief ruminations, Kara exclaims, "Really? I could hear them clearly by the time the rest of you joined me, though it took me a few moments to adjust."

Pitching in, Iyami complains, "Sheeh, I couldn't understand them at all!" Shuddering, he discloses, "There weren't words, just feelings coming from that Thing. The awful noises they made! I still have a headache."

"Migraine." Jyushi groans before leaning his head back down to rest on Kara's shoulder. Whispering in his ear so only Kara can hear, Jyushi says, "Heard it all. Too clear."

Angling a curious look at Jyushi, Ichi hums, "I'll check you out once we get to a room."

"So we all heard different things from them..." Choro thinks out loud. "They sounded normal to me, mostly. Behind their voice was sound, or music."

Todo and Chibita look at one another before Todo answers back, "That was definitely not normal, not at all! Their voice was—It was like...! Painful to my ears and just, ugh!" Dangerously close to pouting, Todo fails to describe it.

Picking up where Todo left off, Chibita tries, "I think we're both like Kara. It sounded like noise and then music before I could hear words."

The conversation drifts off as they warily trek through the long and narrow hallway with too many broken floor-to-ceiling windows. Hurriedly, Todo leads them away from the tight space and into the middle of the dormitory as quickly and safely as possible, checking in with Chibita with only glances shared between them.

Cold stone walls give way to warm wood accents as they start slowly shuffling past many identical doors on high alert. The floor remains the same, and this time the glinting glass actually helps somewhat to illuminate the many small, branching hive-like paths available to them in the distance beyond the group's ring of white Device light.

Stopping at a set of two doors that face each other in the smaller corridor, Todo tilts his head at Chibita, silently asking if the coast is clear.

Taking a moment to look around in all directions, appearing as if he's looking through the geography of the building, Chibita nods. "...This floor. It's empty. I don't know if I should be glad or fuckin' scared. I know it's not really part of your skill set, but could ya' pick up on whether that lantern Thing was lyin' or not? They made it seem like there was a lot of shit running around here."

Shaking his head and using his Device to unlock and Claim the first door, Todo answers, "They didn't have a face I could read and their movements were normal even if they were angry at times. I don't think they told any lies. Maybe... Maybe they scared off whatever was in here?" Nodding, reassuring himself, he continues, "The floor we entered on didn't have any glass left on it. I think they must have eaten it all. Maybe they'll come up here too for all the broken windows, that'd be convenient..."

"Convenient for some of us, maybe." Oso reminds him. "The other half of us got fucked up by the sound." Watching as Todo gingerly opens the door and steps into the room, looking both ways into the darkness just in case, Oso leans on the door frame and makes a shooing motion at Choro. "Ehhh, kid always ignores me. Ah well, go on then, dorm rooms are made for teams of four. Gear up and get in our room when you're done. Ichi still needs to check out Jyushi so hurry up, yeah?"

As Choro is about to tell him off, Oso slides into the room, the last one of his team to enter, and shuts the door with a dismissive click.

"...That guy." Peeved, Choro whips his device out, quickly Claims the door opposite the other team and opens it without hesitation, marching right on in and tapping the light switch.

After Chibita shrugs helplessly and follows suit, Kara enters last with Jyushi on his back, shutting the door slowly with his foot. He's delighted to find that the dorm walls do have etchings on them that still emit flowing green light, even if their light is much more faint compared to the train's. Letting Jyushi off his back and onto a comfortable looking couch in their communal living room, Kara stretches while watching Choro struggle to work with an intricate terminal depressed in the wall.

Deeply troubled, a common look on the Closer, Choro raises some concerns while still attempting to use the terminal. "This isn't normal. I think we have a huge problem on our hands."

Groaning, Chibita curses, "Shit, what is it now? How does this get worse?"

Even Jyushi eases himself to sit up on the couch though he keeps his head in his hands. Kara searches for and quickly finds the bathroom, unable to stand by and watch his friend in pain. Knowing that is it a vain hope, he still wants to check and see if there are painkillers inside. As he steps in, Kara deliberately avoids looking at himself in the large mirror that nearly covers one entire wall. His brain supplies him with a whisper, telling him he has the reflection of an Eater for now and forever, and that he'll have to look sometime, eventually.

Luckily, Choro's voice reaches him while he rifles through empty drawers and cabinets, giving him something else to listen to.

"The terminal isn't powered enough to Produce anything larger than a glove. Something or someone has already drained most of the Source. I'm going to Spawn an item for Jyushi while there's still power left but dammit, this means Todo's plan won't work if every terminal is in the same condition. And I'm betting it is, based on the low light levels we've seen everywhere."

Against all odds, Kara finds a blister pack of exactly what he was looking for wedged underneath some folded towels. Exiting the spacious bathroom, he sees Choro impatiently waiting for something to Spawn and be deployed by the terminal while Chibita seems focused on keeping his Sense up.

"So we're fucked, is what you're sayin'. What are we gonna do for food and water if the terminals are about to go down?" Chibita asks. There's no bite to his voice, only dull concern, as if he doesn't have the energy to waste on feeling upset in the least.

As Choro ruminates, Kara squeezes Jyushi's shoulder and holds the blister pack in front of him. "I'm sorry my friend, you'll have to swallow these dry."

Jyushi isn't deterred, raising his head carefully to give Kara a wobbly grin before downing a couple pills. Together, they watch as the terminal creates an object within its hollow spherical center, the process looking like a cross between the motions of a three-dimensional printer and an orderly laser light show. Kara is finally witnessing a rainbow of colored light in action. A pity it'll be over soon.

As they collectively watch and wait, Choro infers, "Power is being siphoned or used somewhere. If we can track the Source, see where it's being consumed or being drawn to, we can still recover it. I heavily doubt someone is Spawning using all that Source though. Sheer availability of material in here would limit Source usage. Even if someone was creating something, with the amount of Source that's missing, the object would have to be massive or numerous and we'd know right away. So if Source isn't being expended to Spawn objects, it might be powering something instead. Maybe someone beat us to the Shifters already..."

Too soon, the rainbow lights fade away and Kara silently mourns their leaving.

Exclaiming in victory, Choro jumps up and grabs the item straight from the terminal's Spawn point, without even waiting for it to be dispensed, just as the whole thing powers down. The lights in the room dim even more, but it doesn't stop Choro from eagerly tearing away at the worthless packaging of his Spawned gear.

"Alright Jyushi!" He excitedly thrusts a pair of yellow accented but otherwise plain looking black gloves at their Gambit. "Fireproof, freeze resistant, shock absorbing, non-conductive, Source augmented, charge holding fist weapons! If we come across Source, you should be able to touch it and store or transfer the power into other Source augmented materials."

Kara is glad to see a rare happy V of a smile on the Closer's face.

"Or he can just punch the shit out of somethin' and hope his Gambit blows it the fuck up." Chibita whoops with a wicked grin, "At least one of us is kinda armed now, hell yeah."

Bleary-eyed but still smiling, Jyushi pulls the gloves on just as Chibita tenses and jerks towards the door. His warning cry comes just before a shrill scream pierces the air from across the hall. Todo, Kara recognizes, with a jolt that electrifies his muscles, priming them.

Howling in frustration, Chibita spits the words out, "Huge one in their room! Fuck shit how?!"

Wasting no time on responding or panicking, Choro is the first one out, slamming their door open, followed directly by Jyushi. Leaping after them, Kara reaches the hallway right in time to see Jyushi kick the other team's door in as if it were cardboard, allowing Choro to sprint past him.

"Get out get out get out!"

Oso's bellowing voice precedes his appearance in the doorway, dragging an unresponsive Ichi behind him. There's so much blood flowing down the Medic's front. Following after them not a second later is Todo, pale and clutching his Device in a bloody hand, map out and lighting up with far more than eight red signals. He only wheezes out, "Run!" before time seems to slow as Kara and Chibita look at one another. A split second decision is made by both of them.

Chibita screams, "Oso, Todo, with me, to the roof!"

Kara and the rest will have to stay behind and fight if they want any chance at saving Ichi. Hopefully, Chibita and Todo can work together to avoid any more Things, guiding Oso to bring Ichi somewhere safe.

Hearing the three of them run away, shoes squeaking and slapping against the smooth floor, Kara nods to Jyushi as they both ready themselves to spring into the room. Bursting out before they can enter is Choro, with Iyami draped over his back.

The Lure.

Thinking quickly, Kara yells a heralding call of, "Lure and head back!" as he runs down the way they came. Following Kara without hesitation, the Closer demands Iyami keep his Lure active before tossing him to Jyushi so he can lead the pack with his superior speed. Behind them, something blasts its way through the dormitory room's empty door frame, splintering wood and sending it scattering far across the floor. A stray wood chip hits the back of Kara's shoe even as he sprints away.

Running through the hive-like corridors and back into the straight and narrow stone hall of broken stained glass, Kara hears Iyami stutter out, "I have it, it's up, it's up!" The Lure's uncontrollable crying goes ignored as the sound of something heavy and grating, slipping and sliding over the smooth floors directly behind them takes precedence. Beyond his heavy breathing, Kara hears glass scraping against glass, and further, several hundred smaller clicking noises.

Reflected in broken shards of window-panes, Kara barely catches a glimpse of a massive Thing before it takes an almighty jump to grapple onto the high ceiling above them. It has far better purchase on the rib vault ceiling and they all hear it outpace them just as they reach the ornate staircase.

Vaulting over the railing and bypassing the stairs completely, Choro leads them into a three-story drop. Kara feels his heavy landing through his legs before even registering that he consciously made the jump. Every action he takes feels automatic, there's no time to think.

Together they rush to clear the area around the staircase and finally reach the grand entry hall. Without slowing his sprint, Jyushi tosses Iyami towards the exit, the empty door frame, a direct command to deactivate his Lure and run away if he cannot fight. Surprisingly, Iyami perfectly uses the momentum of the toss to clear the door and flee without a single backwards glance. Beyond the glass-bereft frame there is no sign of the Lantern Bearer, the air is disturbed by only the stomping and crashing sound of the Thing landing in a sprawl before them, followed by many smaller Things. Readying up, the team of three assume a fighting stance as they take in the sight of their enemy.

Like glass, some of the tiny ones shatter on impact against the tiles, and they are quickly set upon by those that survived the fall, the opportunistic Eaters. A single scarlet light burns in the center of their bodies, a multicolored glass palm with fingers for legs. From a distance they could be mistaken for spiders but seeing them up close, they are clearly hands.

With a pang of dread, Kara has a horrible thought, hypothesizing that the scarlet lights truly are slowly eating away at the buildings, making Eaters out of the inanimate ruins. Iyami's active Lure must have roused the scarlet lights just outside the long hall of broken stained-glass as they fled, prompting the creation of dozens of new Things. And small beginnings will lead to monstrosities, like the one before them, which viciously swipes at the floor with its long, thin arms to shatter every Hand, pests in the way of its real meal. As the sound of so much screeching and scraping fills the large hall, Kara forces himself not to rear back from the almost physical wave of noise.

Three times his height and humanoid, though far thinner than any human, the Eater's twisted body straightens out and ambient light glints off of many shards of obsidian glass embedded everywhere into corpse gray flesh. Impaled in its arms, the colored glass of the broken Hands angle themselves to reveal their sharpest points and then blacken as the Eater Devours them, adding them to itself. Every swipe will cut them to ribbons and literally Eat away at their bodies.

Howling wordlessly at them with a maw that opens to reveal too many orderly rows of pointed black glass teeth, Kara is startled into staring at the Eater's pale, milky white head. The sound of a thousand popping light-bulbs erupts around them in an explosion of discordant noise, but Kara doesn't let it distract him as his eyes hone in on their salvation.

The Eater has no eyes, not even empty spaces where they should be. There's only a smooth plane of flesh that must be hiding the Eater's weak point, and Kara has no better option but to trust in the Lantern Bearer's advice.

Already running forward to distract it, Kara cries, "Take it Down! I'll go for the head!"

Immediately sprinting forward before Kara even finishes giving his commands, Jyushi flanks the Eater at one end as Kara takes the other, aiming to help him so they can create an opening for Choro to literally cut it down, to sever its long legs in an effort to reach its head. They have only one or two shots with Choro's limited stamina, they have to succeed on the first try.

But it is far from human. Twisting and compressing its chest in a way they couldn't predict, the Eater swivels with sickening squishy snaps and pops that crack the air. The arm Kara was predicting would swing at him swings away and towards Jyushi as Jyushi's target limb is about to slice Kara in the back. Fear and instinct grant Kara the insight and speed for a split second dive as he throws himself down to the floor, and the glass littered arm whistles overhead, impotent.

Scrambling to stand and riding the high of a dodged attack, Kara springs up in time to bear witness to an explosion of dark obsidian glass, split open gray flesh, and clear blood tumbling through the air. In an incredible stroke of luck, their Gambit has punched straight through the joint of the arm that swung at him, tearing its forearm clean off. Before the chunk can even thud onto the ground, Choro is at a glittering glass spiked leg, close enough to prick his fingers, and he leaps up to go the extra mile, severing it far above the knee with nothing but a gesture of his arm. The cut is flawless.

Roaring like a beast in agony, expelling another noise wall of shattering light-bulb massacre, the Eater tips backwards, mindlessly thrashing its stumps in pain while mid-fall. Kara goes for the kill, aiming to be at its head right as it falls to the ground, but in the corner of his eye, he sees it. A flailing arm, the one that he dodged, bodily slapping Choro away into a column. Blood arcs, forcefully drawn out by the cruel and unforgiving passage of glass, splattering onto the adjacent column. On the Eater's arm, the rest of Choro's blood bubbles and blackens before being Devoured.

Chest suddenly home to a mercilessly crushing black hole, Kara instantly recalls Choro's voice from eons ago saying "I can't afford to take a hit." Hoarsely, Kara wails out Choro's name, hoping that Jyushi will get to him in time.

When he's next aware of himself, Kara is already at the head of the Eater, straddling its long glass adorned neck with no regard for his own safety, his glass acceptance letter clutched in both hands, the only weapon he has. Raising his arms and bringing them down with all the force he can muster, he maliciously stabs and gouges out one eye hole, viciously twisting the note to dig further, deeper, widening the wound.

The second makeshift glass weapon Kara's held today stays true to him, refusing to shatter in his hands as it bores through any resistance it meets inside the Eater's head. Clear fluid and the overpowering smell of blood immediately greet him and Kara welcomes the gore with both arms, readying a second blow.

Screaming and screeching at him in animalistic rage, the Eater is about to clamp its jaws shut around his arm but he drives the edge of his folded-letter-turned-weapon into its pale head once more, making a second bloody, flesh rending puncture. Kara can't hear its dying cries as his heart beats in his ears, protecting him from its wails, so he stabs it again, over and over, willing it to die.

Hysterically, he's driven to saw and hack at its neck, he isn't done yet, he has to assure its death! The glass note proves to be much sharper than he ever thought and he thanks it a hundred times as he severs the head from its neck and clutches it in his hands.

Behind him, the body's twitching goes unnoticed.

Slowly, Kara stands, peering deeply into the eye sockets he gifted to this Thing. And inside...

A red iris with a rapidly expanding pupil.

Soundlessly gasping Kara promptly drops it in horror, barely feeling as he slices his palm open around his glass note for what must be the nth time, drawing his arms in defensively over his chest. The ruined head bursts open like a rotten egg as it hits the floor with a heavy, wet splat, and the gooey and thick vitreous humors of the singular giant eyeball that was hidden within oozes around his shoes.

Too late he feels it creeping up his legs, locking him in place. Fear is his friend and Kara's quick to react, but cutting through the jellylike flesh proves futile as it reforms as soon as he slices through it. Failing to escape, he only manages to stumble, landing hard on his knees, sinking further into the mass of goop. Exponentially growing around him, the Eye is covering the floor and spreading, trapping him in the center of its dilating pupil. As he feels something alien move against his legs, Kara's brain short circuits at the impossibility and all the information about weaknesses and Eaters and devouring flees his head, leaving him to die.

It's a giant eyeball. It's growing around him. He's trapped inside it. When did things go wrong?

Knowing what's coming next, out of options, out of time, out of luck, Kara casts one last despairing look to his teammates.

Gagging up thick strings of pink, blood tinged spit, Choro lives. Jyushi is with him, has a supporting arm around him, but his wide eyes are on Kara and his even wider mouth is open as if he's about to scream.

Caging Kara in, dark lashes unfurl as eyelids take shape, the Eye having reached the pinnacle of its ghastly growth in what can only have been less than six seconds but has felt like an eternity of struggle. Unmitigated terror, provoked by how closely a corner of the Eye reaches his precious friends, compels Kara to command Jyushi, beating him to the punch to shriek his final words into the echoing hall turned personal mausoleum.

"Run away!"

Fleetingly, Kara wishes he had more time to scream.

Run away, leave me behind, I swear it's alright. Find the others, save yourselves, you must survive. I'm sorry. I'm so sorry you had to see this. I couldn't even take the hit for Choro, forgive me for failing as a Cover. Please be okay. Run away.

But he's out of time. He has to make a choice now.

Knee deep, sunken into a pupil of darkest black ringed by red, always red, Kara thrusts his void-touched arm into the gelatinous mass of the eyeball as it closes its eyelids over him, entombing him in the dark.

Fleeing up the stairs with Choro draped over his back and hot blood seeping into his uniform, Jyushi looks down as the closed eye sinks into the floor, melting a hole into the marble and glass tiles, disappearing into the pit of its creation.

Taken away in the blink of an eye, Kara is gone.

Chapter Text

It starts small.

Not in terms of intensity or sensation, but in size. The feeling however. The pain is becoming his everything.

Eyes locked in place, wide open because it's the only expression they are allowed to have, forced to stare directly ahead into nothing, not darkness or light, simply nothing, he senses a blistering heat. About the diameter of a cigarette, something invisible begins to steadily press in, growing hotter over time, pushing against his eyeballs. The pressure is painful, yes, but it is horrifically accompanied and complemented by the queer discomfort one can only experience when they touch their own eye. Except for him, it's worse, a number cannot describe how many more times worse this is. Discomfort is completely bypassed, he is thrown straight into suffering, suffering which leads into trauma, trauma against a vital organ, and he needs his eyes, he can't be about to lose them, it can't be—

This can't be happening, not to him, this can't ever be allowed to happen to anyone, so why?

Solid heat forces itself onto his eyes so insistently that he can feel the orbs being pushed back into his head, and he knows that eventually something will give way, they'll either be punctured or squashed in their sockets. And the burning, the searing heat! He stopped being able to produce tears long ago, there isn't any protective fluid left over his eyes, the only wetness they have left is inside, and soon, he knows, this Thing won't stop until it burns that away too.

It's unbearable, how long has he been like this, when will it stop?!

The being he envisions, because he sees nothing, takes a drag on their cigarette, the very same one somehow pressed against both his eyes at once. Brilliant spots of agony blind his senses and when the spots refuse to fade, he imagines someone leisurely exhaling smoke in his face, taking their sweet time.

Then, just like a smoker putting out their spent cigarette in an ashtray, the pressure and heat dig in and twist with an easy, practiced motion. He feels a squishy pop, and directly after that, another. His corneas have definitely been breached, something might have even gone through his pupils, he has no idea, all he knows is that it's inside him and the intolerable burning sensation hasn't been extinguished.

It isn't like fire. It's so much more focused and controlled. Surgically methodical. There's intent behind the act being done to him.

Gently easing, turning, drilling their way through the already ruined mass of his eyes, so miserably sedate, is something that feels like heated rods. If he had the presence of mind to make wishes, he'd beg to be sedated. But no one comes to offer him mercy. Instead, he is only allowed to have the absolute anguish of the experience, the burning, the searing, the brightness of pain. Like a gift that cannot be refused from a person chanting Open it, open it, open it. Accept it.

With obscene precision and care, the things he envisions as red hot rods never touch anywhere else, not his eyelashes, not the skin of his eyelids, and they never scrape against his orbital sockets. He's so perversely glad that the overwhelming pain keeps him from hearing or smelling, because surely the fluid matter of his eyes must be bubbling and boiling. Whatever is in him, they're too deep inside now, he can't distinguish anything else, his eyes are just one never-ending shapeless source of hurt. Gone are his other senses, he can't imagine them, he forgets they were ever real, he can't tell if there's gore dripping down his face, he can not see. And it's terrifying.

Panic triggers something new.

The things that feel like super-heated metal rods expand like balloons. Everywhere they touch, the remnants of his eyes disintegrate into nothing. But he feels their leaving, every tiny piece that's seared away, every drop of fluid that evaporates, every minuscule bit of himself that is destroyed hurts him, and the pain echoes the same moments over and over, staggered on top of one another. If he ever had a limit to how much pain he could feel at any one given moment, it's been broken.

This shouldn't be possible, it should have ended by now, he shouldn't have been able to stay conscious through it all, so why is he still awake?

Awareness laughs in the face of his futile rejection of it. No no, it taunts, and wraps around him in a patronizing hug, whispering in his ear. Accept it.

Something hooks onto an alien part of himself near the back of his eye sockets and then pulls with no warning, no lead up, just a straight jump into tugging at full strength. He feels the most unusual pressure he's ever felt, it's uncomfortable, it's indescribable, they're yanking at something that was never meant to be touched!

Mercifully, unlike everything else, it's over in an instant, it's gone, he's lost something he doesn't know the name of. Whatever they wanted, they got, it's been taken from him, and the invisible hooks and rods are absent, as if they were never there. He is free to move again, to blink, but he doesn't. He keeps his eyes closed.

Eyes? Eyelids. He has no eyes.

The spaces where his eyes used to sit are hot but quickly cooling. The pain fades to a ghost of its former self, unsettling but bearable. The warmth he can feel through the back of his eyelids is almost soothing. It doesn't last long however, as the cold seeps in, but it feels right, the beginning of an endless chill feels natural and the thought alone flips his stomach.

His stomach. He has one of those. And it resides in his body, a body that he's only just recalled.

Now he can remember, before his eyes were seared out of his skull, that his body had been floating in something. Trapped in suspension, pushed against from all sides, it felt as if needles were being poked at his skin, never piercing but just there, pressed hard enough to indent. But the needles had never stopped coming. Prickling turned to pain, and pain morphed into numbness, which finally gave way to a loss of all sensation. They could have embedded themselves into his flesh and he wouldn't have noticed.

Honestly, for a while he had forgotten he ever had a body to begin with, but he can feel it now. It's his again. He's been reconnected to it, but it feels like an old friend he hasn't seen in years. Familiar but awkward and distant, like they'll never be as close as they used to be. No matter how much time they spent together, the time spent apart ended up being what mattered the most.

The separate changes they've gone through are too daunting to overcome.

His head though. His new eyeless head feels like his best friend. It's everything to him, and he can't shake the feeling that the thought should be worrying, that he's forgetting something, but for now he feels ecstatic. He could stare into the abyss and swallow it whole with his gaze alone. He could pull it inside of him, have it live in his skull, ready to swallow anyone he wishes. But why stop at people? A brilliant spark of excitement lights up before him at the notion of eating worlds.

Of Eating. Period.

Horrified with himself, a rush of nausea swims in Kara's stomach, churning his insides, forcing him to sit up suddenly only to smack his head against something hard, cool, and metallic. The bright spark in his mind's eye transforms into a shining gold armored hand as his eyesight focuses on the object directly in front of him.

Sight.

He can see.

The revelation is pushed to the side when the hand swiftly moves away as if caught doing something it shouldn't have been doing, drawing his stare to its owner, a blur of white and gold.

High and sweet, the tinkling of many tiny bells manifests as a voice, remarking, "My, that's quite the expression you have on."

Before Kara can take a good look at the speaker, he involuntarily turns to the side and forcefully heaves up black, gooey liquid that retains its shape for several seconds before slowly spreading across the stone tiled floor. The spreading reminds him of something frightening but expelling the rest of the mystery goop from his body takes precedence over the recollection of past terrors.

Encouragement from the bells chimes out softly beside him, right over his shoulder, uncomfortably close, "That's right, get it all out of your system. You're doing so well."

Though the words are gentle and the sound rings pure, unease crawls up his back, warning him of his vulnerability, telling him to stay alert. Has his body always been this perceptive? It speaks to him now, in feelings that might as well be words, an invisible hand spelling things out onto his skin. His head still has to decide whether to believe or not, but in this instance, it does. He does. Kara believes.

Trapped between a puddle of unpleasant memories and a stranger he's become wary of, Kara crawls forward, beyond caring about embarrassment as phantom pain pricks at the corners of his eyes. Does he even have eyes? Leaning heavily on a pew, though still seated on the ground, he closes his eyelids and gingerly places the tips of his fingers over each one.

The sound of metal scraping against stone nears him as the small bells tinkle again in amusement. "Curious? I would be as well, if I were you. Come, look at yourself in the reflection of my armor. I'd offer you a mirror but I suspect it would be a tad too advanced for you at this stage. Best to stick with lesser reflective surfaces for now."

Kara finds that his fingertips do press against something immobile, not swiveling as normal eyes would, behind his eyelids as the stranger speaks and conveys their offer. Thinking it over quickly, he decides he needs all the assistance he can get until he recovers from—

A glass of bottled up liquid memories shatters in his mind, spreading over him, and his eyes snap open. They center on a golden forearm.

Taking in the sight, Kara remembers everything, but most of all he remembers the Eye that swallowed him in its gaze, eerily echoing his earlier thoughts. It can't be a coincidence, he gathers, as he peers deeply into the empty pits where his eyes should have been. They're really gone. Despite this, he can still see, sees better now in fact. Sight is now accompanied with... Innate knowledge, something tells him, and colors are richer now, more varied, more important, somehow. He'll make sense of it later, but for now, he wants to know what's happened to his face.

Drawn forward to stare closer at himself, Kara notes that the black voids are imperceptible, they don't give way to a view of the inside of his eye sockets. When he taps the surface of one, he feels a presence there, but he feels it through his fingers and not through the unmoving, invisible organ that sits there now. Feeling daring, he carefully pushes the tip of his pinky into it, and it gives way with little resistance. His finger is inside his head, but there's no sensation telling him it's there. Only his own view of the spectacle inspires any sort of reaction. Kara struggles not to be violently ill, but behind that, some previously hidden part of him chastises him for being disturbed by his own natural body. But what about this is natural?

Taking his hand away from his face, he sneaks one last glance at the hollow looking stare reflected back at him before finally surveying the appearance of the stranger.

"Done already? You only have to ask for more time, if you need it." They propose as they rest their arm on their lap, tugging and pulling to rearrange the clothing wrapped around it.

Seated before him, legs crossed and posture relaxed, is a being completely covered in a full set of golden armor. There's not a single scratch to be found on the metal, leading Kara to believe it's golden only in color, surmising that it must be far, far harder than actual gold. Over the armor on their arms and beginning at their palms, laced through their fingers, are wide strips of white cloth, which are intricately wrapped around them so as not to get snagged on their joints. The cloth is layered over itself in a braided pattern, with the ends hanging loose from their ties at the being's neck, creating an imitation of a long, looping scarf. But the most noticeable thing they wear is draped over and impaled through their spiked crowned helm, obscuring their entire head and ending just above their shoulders.

A veil made of sheer white cloth, weighed down by a broad and jagged trim of dainty-looking silver-colored chain mail, clinks as the being leans in towards him, allowing him to stare. Patterned at odd intervals, sewn into the cloth or fastened onto the drooping chain mesh, are dozens of roughly coin-sized cameo style pendants which serve as the main focal point of the veil. The cloth must be much more durable than it looks to bear all that weight without tearing in the slightest, but Kara cannot begin to guess at what it's made of by sight alone, not yet. The crowned helm itself seems to be the only thing to pierce the cloth, its spikes stand straight and tall, longer in the front and shorter as they circle back, tapering off into wickedly sharp looking points. Overall, it's an intimidating figure they cut, strange and seemingly divine, but there's an aura about them that gives the impression of being the opposite of holy.

Before Kara can make out any of the faces on the pendants, they lean back and apologize, "Terribly sorry, I never introduced myself, did I? And I've been addressing you all this time without knowing your name or whether you can even speak to answer me."

The way their previously tiny-belled and delicate voice changes to fill the room with embarrassed church bell peals of sound causes him to lean further back into the pew as if to escape it. Digging his shoulder into the hard wood while using his new sight to finally take in his surroundings, Kara struggles to come up with a response as he deduces he must be in some sort of seminar hall, although it's nearly identical to an old cathedral.

Held up by carved stone pillars that look older than any columns Kara ever saw back at the dormitory, is a high vaulted ceiling bearing the style of smooth domes instead of arched ribs. Curved pews made of dark wood and polished stone form concentric circles in the rectangular hall, shaped in such a way that they perfectly fit around the pillars when the two intersect. The entire room is faintly lit by a ghostly blue shimmering fog, it's the first blue illumination Kara has seen since before stepping into the train however long ago. Every metal Kara can see, from the ornamental decor that hangs down from the ceiling, to the artistically styled window grates, is either black or gold in color. The windows themselves remain not shattered, but the view beyond them is completely dark, not a glimpse of red light to be found. The glass they bear seems different somehow, Kara guesses that they may be opaque, but it's hard to tell under the blue light.

It's not a failure of his eyesight, something whispers to him inside his head, but a failure to utilize his gaze.

The patterns on everything, from the stone floor to the pews to the windows to the pillars, all depict many complex shapes coming together to create new scenes. Unlike at the dormitory, the arrangements are not limited to four per completed image, the most complicated one bears at least a hundred geometric shapes to create a single shield. He's seen this before, it's one of the oldest symbols of the Cover. The older architecture, the slight shift in aesthetic designs, and the absence of the normally ever present green light fills Kara's heart with something indescribable, setting it to beat faster, pumping his body full of a confusing concoction of apprehension and joy.

Could it be that he's in the broken Monolithic Spire? Is this an Academy seminar hall?

Slowly, after taking in the sight of the large room, he begins, "...Kara. My name is Kara and I thank you for your assistance. Would you—" Faltering, he chokes on a sharply sucked in breath as he hears the otherworldly echo of his own voice. He puts all his effort into sounding not like a man who is fighting the urge to flee. The stranger can't be allowed to know how much he distrusts them and how afraid he is of himself.

"Would you happen to know how I got here?"

They point down the aisle where, in the very center of the circular set up of pews, there is a broken and collapsed fancy glass chandelier. Strangely, it appears to be partially melted, the worst of the multicolored warped glass having pooled beneath it, filling in the grooves of the stone tiled floor. Even as a wreck it is stunning, but it leaves Kara with more questions.

Before he can voice them, the stranger literally chimes in with their grand, booming church bells, "You were transported before my very eyes through its reflective surface! Unfortunately, that method of travel is one-way only, as it destroys the medium of passage upon arrival. Perhaps that's intentional, so that other beings cannot follow behind you? Quite exciting to meet a new Defiant type, I'm so intrigued."

Normally, a headache would be coming on by now at the thought of even more questions to be considered, but his head only feels light and prepared somehow, active in a way he hadn't been before. The infirmity of his body is forgotten as Kara focuses on extracting information from this being, who has yet to reveal their name.

"You'll have to pardon me for being clueless. What is a Defiant? And how shall I refer to you?" He asks, compelled to be overly polite to appear amiable. Their speech patterns are affecting him and exaggerating his own usual style. The slight change is made even worse by the sound of his own voice. He is undecided on whether he appreciates it or not. It sounds... Hollow and distant, as if echoing through a hall that both magnifies and diminishes it in strange ways.

An abrupt and embarrassed sounding dinner bell jangle resonates from beneath their helm, "Oh dear, my fascination with you has made me forgetful. You may call me Saint's Shroud, or just one or the other. I know, it sounds a bit ostentatious but the name stuck and— Oh no, I'm rambling, you'll have to forgive me. I was resigned to having no one to talk to but now I'm so very excited..." They trail off into discordant sounding laughter.

Kara is really getting tired of the sound of bells, of metal striking metal. His gut feeling is that there is nothing saintly about this being. And in his opinion, Saint's Shroud is such an ominous, death-bearing name.

After patiently waiting for Shroud to regain their bearings while fighting not to fold his arms around himself, Kara is rewarded with a question, "You know about Eaters, do you not?" They ask.

Unsure of the nature of the question, Kara answers blandly, "I know of Eaters. That they must either Devour or be Devoured. That there's a way for Eaters to be created, as I was, by surviving an encounter after being partially eaten. There was a brief mention of Traits..." He shrugs uncomfortably against the pew.

A call bell dings sharply at the end of his bare report, and Shroud eagerly fills him in, "Yes, that's it! The act of Defiance is what created you. When any class of Eater fails to fully Devour its prey, that victim transforms into a hunter in a glorious display of Supremacy." They stand suddenly, to pace the aisle between pews in front of him as they begin a long winded lecture, armored heels clicking and scraping on the stone floor.

It dawns on Kara that they don't need to breathe, most likely, and could potentially talk his ear off forever. Fortunately, he's interested in what they have to say, he needs to know what the hell is going on now. He has to discern whether it's safe for him to find and return to his friends.

Kara reluctantly resigns himself to long lasting tinnitus.

"Ah, but I should explain the different classes. Well, firstly, there is the standard Eater. Born of the Inanimate and mostly mindless and ruled only by instinct, they comprise the majority of Eaters."

Kara recalls the glass Hands and his mouth twists into a frown at having his suspicions confirmed. Without mentioning them, he nods for Shroud to continue.

"Then of course, there are the Defiant Eaters. Those born through the failures of others, or through their own successes, depending on how you view the battle that created them. Defiants are stronger, better, more likely to develop keener intellect, and an actual personality. Inanimate Eaters can become Defiant. But you didn't start out as an Eater, did you? This is where things get tricky, if you need me to stop and explain something again, don't hesitate to ask." They chime brightly with their softer, tiny bells again, clasping their hands together with the sound of metal rubbing against metal. Is the armor part of their body?

Their voice grates his ears even though this particular sound should be pleasant, it's tinged with something he can only define as wrongness. Kara does not let go of his wariness, using it instead as a means to keep his body tightly coiled like a spring, ready to fight or run if he has to. He only stiffly nods again to show his understanding and his urge for them to continue.

"So you are aware that both living things and inanimate things can become Eaters. There is a third class of Eater, one I've dubbed an Empty Eater. They are Empty because their mental growth is permanently stunted, they are doomed to fail. There is no cure for Emptiness, and Empty Eaters only lose mental faculties over time and as they continue to Devour. You were created by an Empty eater, I believe, based on the appearance of your arm."

Startled, Kara looks down at himself and pulls up his dark sleeve. The mark is no longer a mark but a full transformation. His entire arm looks like that of a Clasper at first glance, except better, cleaner. He kept the clear glass fracture puncture marks, but instead of a colorless limb, it looks more like a cross between the corpse gray flesh of the Clasper and the glass arm of the Lantern Bearer. The coloring is all his own though, perfectly blue-gray with a glass like shine, darkened to perfect black at his fingers. Thankfully, he cannot see any sort of liquid center to his arm and it hasn't gone transparent. Stubbornly, he will pretend the cosmetic change is only skin deep. The color of his blood, as well as the appearance of his side, will be something to discover later. Though his curiosity is strong, he won't expose his torso in Shroud's presence.

His uniform has definitely been altered as well. The cloth is so dark that he could mistaken it for the black void of space. When was the last time Kara even saw the night sky? Flinching at the thought, he quickly decides to not think about it at all. As he pulls his sleeve back down, he infers that his clothing has qualities similar to that of super light-absorbing materials. It could come in handy, but this doesn't keep him from mourning the loss of his blue bands. He supposes his almost blue arm will have to make do, even if it's more gray than blue.

Observing the new differences between his hands, Kara inquires, "I was unaware that Claspers were Empty, as you call it. How did they come to be? And am I correct in assuming Defiance can be gained through an encounter with any class of Eater? Does that mean an Empty Eater can become Defiant?"

Shroud is quick to shake their head, the chain mail of their veil creating a whispering cascade of metal due to their haste. "Yes, Defiance can be earned through survival against any class of Eater. But an Empty Eater is a dead end. They cannot change in class. They may still absorb Traits through Devouring, but as I mentioned before, the more they Devour, the faster their condition deteriorates. Even if they are physically strong or possess many Traits, they're worse than brutes. As for how they're made..."

Pausing to lean down, Shroud extends a gauntlet-and-white-cloth covered hand to Kara. He quickly notes the built-in knuckledusters as they cheerfully coax with insistent ringing crystal bells, "Come, up you go, take a seat at a pew. You're the first student I've ever had, we might as well do this properly, right?"

The offered hand pulls Kara into a vivid recollection of how he had tried to shake hands with the Lantern Bearer. No wonder they had refused him so vehemently. He had ignorantly offered his Clasper hand, as if he were trying to trick them so he could Devour them. Cautiously, he offers his normal hand to Shroud, who helps him to his feet. Their gauntlet feels unnaturally cold against his human looking palm despite the partial cloth barrier and he hastily lets go as soon as it is socially acceptable.

Loneliness seeps into him like a chill draft through a broken window as Kara remembers a very different cold hand. He misses Ichi. Did the Medic survive? He has to have... He was so incredibly skilled.

Taking a seat on the pew he had been leaning on, Kara listens as Shroud elaborates, "I'll go over it again, just to be sure. The scarlet light, the starting seed, is what makes the common form of Eater. Inanimate objects become Eaters and through them, most Defiant Eaters are created. Defiant Eaters can be created out of Inanimates or the Living, like you. But what happens when something Dead is made into an Eater? This is the beginning of Emptiness. Something that was once Living but is now Dead is unfit to become an Eater. If it happens anyway, the result will always be Empty. And if any other class of Eater consumes something Dead, they will become Empty as well."

Resting his head in his hands and closing his eyes, keeping his other senses alert as he takes a moment to memorize the information, Kara asks, "What happens when an Eater devours an Empty Eater. Does that also lead to Emptiness?"

Joyful ringing echoes throughout the cathedral styled seminar hall to clarify, "A good guess, an excellent question! But to answer you, no, it does not. An Empty Eater is still an Eater, even if its base form was that of a corpse. Or, in the case of Claspers, corpse parts. Going by this line of logic, lifeless Inanimate Eater bodies, when Devoured, are also safe to consume. A Defiant like you however... I'm not quite sure what would happen if an Eater were to Devour the deceased body of a once Living Defiant. Presumably, because you are an Eater now, it would be safe. Eater status trumps all else."

Kara lifts his head to stare at them with his hollow sockets, attempting to mimic Ichi's dead expression, though he cannot stop his brow from being furrowed. Shroud is swift in raising their hands, laughing their discordant, self deprecating laugh of clanging metal. Luckily, Kara seems to be immune to headaches now.

"Sorry, apologies, I was just hypothesizing for the sake of completion! At least now you've been informed of most of the basic classes of Eaters in all of their permutations. The Inanimate, the Living, the Dead, when coupled with Eaters, Defiance, and Emptiness. I say most only to allow for the possibility of new classes that even I am not aware of, though I style myself as somewhat of an expert of the subject..."

Attempting to find an end to the lecture, Kara interjects, rubbing at his new eyes just to feel them again, "And the chandelier? Can you explain the phenomenon to me now?"

Just as the echo of Shroud's ringing voice is about to die, it starts up again, the return of playful tinkling in the form of small bells, though Kara likens it to patronizing laughter. "I have one more subject to explain before touching upon that, Kara."

The sound of his name being uttered by that voice empties his head of thoughts only to reveal something hidden within. Kara directs his gaze at Shroud once more, unaware of the intense look on his face. Barely noticeable, there is a glint of something peeking behind the dark void of his empty sockets. He can see inside his own head even as he stares at Shroud, he can feel something there. Kara decides this is a problem for future Kara as his present self is too riled up to care. It's the first notable spike of anger he's felt in Shroud's presence, and instead of the usual trepidation, they've triggered something he wasn't aware of before.

Kara is beginning to feel like somewhat of a third wheel inside his own head and body.

"You're a rare type, did you know? But I'm getting ahead of myself!" Pausing, collecting their words, Shroud continues after a brief rest, "The strongest Eaters, in terms of abilities, Traits, and intelligence seem to be those that are Defiant, those that Devour Defiants, and those that Devour the Living. Being both Living and Defiant, you are... Desirable. And I say that only as a warning, not a threat."

Kara personally disagrees, but briefly answers back, "I understand, warning received. My thanks." He bows his head, if only to look away before he makes an unfortunate face.

Clasping their hands behind their back and returning to their pacing in front of Kara, Shroud nods to themselves. "I myself am an Inanimate Defiant. I became the way I am by consuming only the finest."

At this, Kara immediately recognizes the words the Lantern Bearer spoke when advising his group. They had said the same "Consume only the finest..." The returning sentiment douses his body in ice cold water. Could it be...

"But you," Shroud emphasizes with a loud, thrilled church bell clang that disturbs the shimmering fog of the hall, "You are twice Defiant! Once with a Clasper, a normal enough Eater with an admittedly very useful consumption method, quite deadly... But once more with something incredibly rare! An Inanimate Eater that somehow developed a preference, the conscious desire to eat Living eyes, which are not exactly an easy meal to find here. It is an Eater that perfectly pairs up with certain other types of Eaters to form a symbiotic partnership."

Stopping directly in front of him, Shroud stands tall and peers down at him. Leaning back in his seat, Kara stares up at them, feigning to be dauntless. His new, disturbing visage is a bit empowering for ploys, even if he can't fully utilize it yet. Still, he feels like a child in the presence of an adult who is too excitable...

"You survived the death throes of an Eye and in turn you've become one, only superior, more advanced! It's fascinating... It's improbable! How did you live through the process? Normally, they should have burrowed into your head and Devoured you from the inside, making your body their new home and restoring themselves. I can only assume they perished before they could finish their task."

Blinking, Kara figures it out, mostly. He had explained it before to his teammates, hadn't he, back on the train. Unusual even for a Cover "I can withstand an abnormally high amount of bodily harm and still survive." Sadly, his old voice is already a fading memory.

However, his immense endurance is only one part of an explanation. There's a feeling he has, a twitch in his Clasper arm that won't go away. The full memory eludes him but he can take a guess at what must have happened in conjunction with everything else.

Kara and the Eye fought to Devour each other, but he eventually succumbed when he lost all feeling in his body. The disconnect, the separation, is what worries him the most. He has a sneaking suspicion that his body continued to act without him because his Clasper arm is so much more than it used to be. In the end, Kara won the battle of attrition, the Eye having perished, presumably because too much of it was consumed before it could make its finishing touches in his head. But it came close, down to the wire.

The memory of it eating his eyes will never leave him, the phantom pain can be easily recalled at any time, like shining a light on himself to reveal a long, long shadow. He can never be divested of it.

All that he chooses to relay to Shroud is a lackluster response, "I'm extremely durable. Luck was the deciding factor, I'm sorry I don't have a more fantastic tale to tell." Normally he would pose for his audience, but still he feels like Shroud is just a rock waiting to be turned over, to reveal the creeping, crawling vermin hidden beneath...

Hidden beneath.

Something Shroud said catches up to him in his new head. Exclaiming suddenly with a terribly harsh echo, Kara demands to know, "Wait! Symbiotic? As in, the Eye as the head and its partner as the body?" Holding his breath, Kara tightly grips the edge of his seat in the pew, splintering the wood beneath his Clasper hand.

Taken aback by Kara's sudden brazen line of questioning, Shroud titters with jingling bells, "...Aha, yes actually. That's exactly it! You fought both symbionts at once and still emerged victorious?"

Ignoring Shroud's droning about how marvelous he is, Kara is swamped by fear. The possibility that he left Jyushi and Choro alone to deal with the Body as he was eaten by the Eye is too dreadful. He understands now, Choro's reaction back at the station, as Kara feels the urge to repeat No no no himself.

Interrupting whatever Shroud has been yapping about, Kara implores, "Please, explain the chandelier to me. I've just realized I have urgent business to attend to, I need all the information I can get but then I must go. And yes, I fought both symbionts but I wasn't alone. I have to find out what happened to my allies. Have you seen any other Living?" Kara dares to hope that Shroud hasn't, he can find Choro and Jyushi himself.

Chastising him with high, ear piercing, rapidly ringing bells, Shroud wags an armored finger at Kara and reprimands, "Now now, calm down. You're still new, I won't risk having you run off only to get Eaten by something foul. Trust me, we have time to talk. I will answer all your questions, just as any good Professor would."

Taking a seat beside Kara on the same pew as him, conveniently blocking the closest exit to the aisle, Shroud speaks softly as if trying to soothe him, but it only raises his hackles as he hears their drifting, low chimes instruct, "As I briefly mentioned earlier, the reflective surface of the chandelier is what bore you to this place. It's something I've never witnessed in person, until now, due to the rarity of the Eye."

Steepling their fingertips together, Shroud lectures, "Eye Eaters are vulnerable, ideally they will have a host body and a symbiont partner. Because of this, they've developed strange and fantastic Traits to help them in their quest for both prey and ally. It is my belief that they can occupy a space inside reflective surfaces, to lay in waiting until something unsuspecting glances at them. Direct eye contact ensnares their Living prey and then they are free to exit their mirror world to Devour, thus gaining a weak host body. Once they have their host, they travel again through mirrors and the like, until finding a suitable bodyguard. Because they only occupy the head of their host, they can offer the rest of the body as a tribute to seal the deal, so to speak. In this way, they become the brains of an operation, taking over thought processes for their partner, freely using their combined body to both their benefit."

As much as he dislikes them, Kara has to admit Shroud is a well of knowledge. However, distress and realization go hand in hand as he figures this must be how the Eye and Thing seemingly popped out from nowhere back at the dorm, to Chibita's frustration and everyone's horror. Did it lie in wait, watching through their bathroom mirror, ready to strike the first to enter? Ichi must have been the first person to cross its gaze, he had been brutally attacked from the front, it would make sense if he was trapped facing a mirror or something similar. Assuming the Medic survived, he'd be a Defiant by now, and Kara will happily take Defiant and alive over fully human and dead.

Ignorant to Kara's brooding, Shroud takes no pause, eagerly chiming to teach, "The Eye always positions themselves over the weak spot of their partner. It seems altruistic, doesn't it? But it's not, and I'm betting you already know exactly why." Shroud speaks as if Kara's survival makes everything free to discuss, as if it hadn't nearly cost him his life and possibly others as well.

Lowering his head and frowning deeply, Kara responds, thanks to his altered voice, with literal echoing disdain, "Yes, of course I know. You want me to give my observations? Then I shall. The Eye will cover its partner's weakness to become a red herring. Its enemies will strike at it, assuming the head's destruction will kill the full beast. But instead, this will only release the Eye, which can then either consume its attacker or flee. Meanwhile, its symbiont is freed to act independently once more..."

Kara grits his teeth and turns his face away from Shroud. His patience is almost depleted, having to admit his own possibly deadly mistake is tearing him into two halves, one of furious self-loathing and the other of distress bordering on terror. If he discovers that he bears responsibility for any deaths on his team... No. Deaths of people, good people, good friends. He may very well go mad and allow his head to guide him on its impossible quest to Devour worlds. If it reaches that point, why the fuck not?

As if sensing Kara's emotional turmoil for once, Shroud's concerned, many-belled jingles press on, "It bothers you that much? Please, relax, I only seek to instruct you for a little while longer, until I know you're capable of protecting yourself. This place is filled with sub-par Eaters. Their ilk is undeserving, I myself try to exterminate the unworthy wherever I go. You're the first worthy Eater I've been able to come into contact with up close, most others flee from me due to my reputation."

Fighting back a shudder of disgust and apprehension, Kara wonders just what separates the worthy from the unworthy in Shroud's mind. The memory of the golden hand he had woken up to turns sinister. What was Shroud about to do to him before he woke up? What are they really, if even other notable Eaters fear them enough to avoid them at all costs?

Sighing with a faint tinkle of defeat at Kara's lack of a response, Shroud attempts to pacify him by finally explaining, "I can only take a guess here, but the Eye you fought tried to consume you while pulling you into its other space beyond reflection. To its detriment and to your benefit, the two of you battled and you emerged victorious. You were safe inside that place until your escape after fully forming as a new Defiant type. As I watched your image appear in the chandelier, the glass it was made of began to glow red hot. By the time you physically dropped out, the whole fixture was unstable, super heated and melting, exactly like the other very few Eye escape paths that I've come across before. Keep in mind if you attempt to travel this way in the future, the medium will always be destroyed upon re-entry into this world. You may even use that to your advantage, the heat was not insignificant..."

Idly, Kara muses that he could run away from all his problems if he figures out how to jump into a "space beyond reflection." But a better thought comes to mind right after. Could he take people with him, would it be safe? Could he escape the Mountain this way? All risks considered, he'll only attempt it as a final resort. After he finds everyone.

Straightening up in his seat, Kara finally faces Shroud again, feigning at being contrite in order to inquire, "I'm sorry to ask again, but it's a matter of deep importance to me. Have you seen any other Living? Or know of their whereabouts? Everything you've told me has been invaluable and I'm sure I'll use that knowledge to find them. I can always find you again if you have more to teach me but for now, I have to know." The hollow quality of his voice sounds overly somber to his own ears, but it works in his favor this time.

Heavily leaning back in their seat on the pew and crossing their golden armored legs, Shroud hums one long note as if thinking something over. Eventually, a rush of loud jingles escapes them as they exclaim, "Oh yes! I did spot a few Living here and there, but that was a few days ago."

Jerking in his seat, Kara gasps, "Days?!"

Casually tilting their head towards him, Shroud nods and the shifting metal murmur of their morbid namesake accompanies a clear ringing clarification, "Three days ago, on a roof, I saw a few Living. I didn't pursue them as I was quite busy at the time. This form of mine is still new and recently acquired. I think I may know where those Living have ended up though."

Standing up, Shroud walks down the aisle with a scrape of their armored boots, towards the fallen chandelier. Motioning for Kara to follow, they toss the ends of their cloth ties behind their back as if in preparation for something.

Bewildered, heart racing, Kara acquiesces, anything to get Shroud to tell him so he can run out of this place. If they saw humans on a roof, they might have seen Chibita, Ichi, Todo, and Oso. Has it really been three days, how much could have happened to them all in this time?

Kneeling down, Shroud lays a hand over the chandelier as the church bell ringing of their voice peals throughout the entire seminar hall once more. They admit, "Forgive me if I wish to show off a bit before you go, darling student of mine."

Reigning himself in so he doesn't explode from the agitation, Kara stiffly stands beside them, and after a moment passes as Shroud verifies that he is indeed watching, the place where their golden-gauntlet hand touches the melted chandelier is suddenly infused with a substance that appears liquid and blue. Kara grudgingly marvels as the liquid flows through the warped glass as if it were hollow, dissolving like blue dye dropped into a clear glass of water. As the blue substance spreads, it reshapes the glass itself, restoring it to its former glory while permanently altering its color.

The distribution of the blue color is not even, there are veins and threads of darker blue fading away to lighter blue, but Kara determines that its an intentional art choice. Glancing again at the windows in the hall, he can now deduce that they are a solid block of blue color, opaque and perfectly even. It must be Shroud's doing as well.

"Perhaps someday you will travel through one of my restored works, Kara." Shroud comments, standing up and facing him. By the playful tone of their tinkling, he assumes that if they have a face under their helm, they'd be wearing a smug grin. They go on to explain, "This is how you can find me again, the blue glass is a sign of where I've passed through, the areas I haunt, and the territory I've marked. I've restored many lovely glass artworks and preserved many broken, beautiful things that could not be revived... But back to the point! The Living I saw, I think you'll find them right here, somewhere inside the Spire. Hopefully they're the allies you seek."

As Kara opens his mouth to thank them so he can run off, Shroud grips his shoulder tightly. The speed at which they move startles him, but he barely has time to react with fear as they warn him, speaking with a bell they've never spoken with before. A grave, low and deep, bone resonating clang imparts, "Only a few more things of note that I should warn you of, my pupil. The Spire is still home to dangerous Eaters, I haven't exterminated them all yet, as you know. More importantly, there is at least one very powerful Empty Eater roaming the halls, maybe even two. This is the first thing I wish to tell you of. The second is that I think you should visit two specific places in the Spire, for me. Think of it as extra credit, hmm? You'll learn something invaluable if you do. Now, listen closely..."

Effortlessly, they draw Kara in so their voice can ring directly into his ear. From this close, he can finally see the images of the cameo pendants on their shroud in full detail. Fear, pervasive and insistent, returns again, his old friend, unpleasant but completely necessary for survival. A warning, his body is screaming at him, clawing words into his skin, commanding him to run as his eyes lock onto a brilliant emerald green colored pendant. But Shroud's grip on him is unbreakable and he is frozen in place, struggling to understand what his new sight is revealing to him because his eyes are working faster than his brain.

"There is an area with many platforms in it, designated as Shifter Arbor. And there is a room where students learn of the body, designated as Medic Coil 4."

The bones of his face are stroked by Shroud's death knell as Kara is harshly dropped into a clear blue, cold sea of truth. Every pendant has a different Eater portrayed, face or body in profile. Each one is beautiful, unearthly, just as he once described Them, his Emerald Star. The poor Lantern Bearer is perfectly captured, the liquid light of their lantern even sways and he knows it isn't a trick of the shimmering fog in the room. His new eyes see everything. Slight, barely visible motion is present in every single pendant, as if to prove each being still lives, if it can be called living.

Existing, maybe. Sanctified in consumption, added to the shroud, forever separated from an earthly world. Only one color is not represented among the rainbow of the damned.

Blue.

"You will go to these places, Kara, promise me you will."

Without waiting for an answer, Shroud lets go.

Sprinting down the aisle between pews, legitimately fearing that Shroud's echo alone could physically snare him and drag him back to a fate worse than simple death, Kara hurtles out of the seminar hall, its doors flying open as he slams into them. Even the bang of the heavy doors hitting the stone walls doesn't stop a final drifting ringing bell from piercing his ears, having traveled down the hall just to bear a promise to him.

"I would never betray you, my protégé, not like your false friend has."

Animal instinct, or is it Eater instinct now, propels him through narrow stone corridors, past waist-high windows that reach halfway to the tall ceiling, restored and bearing different images drawn out in every shade of blue, only blue. Running away as fast he can, his eyes still catch a blur of faces, Eaters, and gory scenes of eating, all of which obscure the original designs each window was meant to cradle in their curved steel framework. He flies by symbols of the Medic, hands in various poses, always reaching out to help, created by many branching intersections of thinly shaped but incredibly strong metal. Like the roots of a tree, or the veins of a body.

Kara throws himself into an alcove, a niche in the wall, at the first sign of red, a color that isn't the dreaded blue. Pressing himself as far as he can against the cool stone, he reaches out to wrap his fingers tightly against the metal grating of the still shattered window, untouched by Shroud. Broken pieces of glass litter the floor and cover the small, smoothly polished stone bench jutting out from the wall, made for viewing the outside. Fear fades and morphs into dull shock as his head regulates his emotional responses, dialing everything down for him without his permission now that he's away from immediate danger. He can't find it in himself to be disturbed, it's working, and there are more pressing matters to deal with.

Three days has transformed the inside of the cavern in ways he could have never imagined as he stares out the broken window, bathing himself in red light, exchanging one awful color for another. The scarlet lights have grown, exactly as he thought they would, and like vines they've spread across nearly every surface of every remaining uneaten building, lighting them up with a low but ever present red glow. But the lake, the imitation lake, is ever-bright now. If it had looked like blood was frozen mid-dissolution in its false waters before, now not a trace of the black water remains, having been fully corrupted by the bright red faux-blood. And from the lake has arisen a gargantuan red growth, one vile mass of artificial blood vessels that reaches all the way up to the roof of the cavern, taller than even the Monolith before it was diminished.

The Mountain is only a shell for some terrible growth, his head informs him. It's almost Outside, almost ready to release more of its dire light into the world. His Clasper fist clenches and the steady beating he can feel in his palm tells him even more, that the spawn of the scarlet lights are also nearly ready to break free from the Mountain, like hatchlings from an egg. Together, head and body twitch in abhorrence, in agreement that the source of the red light must be ground to nothing beneath his heel. There's still time, still time to sever the growth and poison the Eater Lake, still time to destroy every last inferior Red Eater before they escape.

Filth, ugly and undeserving of life. Unburden them.

Kara slowly unwraps his human looking fingers from their clenched hold on the metal grate. It's styled to depict the image of a severed arm resting in the hands of a calm Medic. Whether they are about to reattach the arm or not is unknown to Kara, the next image of the scene may exist in another alcove, but it clues him in to where he must have run off to. Checking his pockets, he finds his Device and his glass note, both miraculously intact.

His acceptance letter has changed once more, just like him. Inverted are its colors, the red words have turned blue and the clear glass is now black, as if to match him. In his hand, it still feels weighty and sturdy, but now he can finally discern that it is alive. Peering into his eyeless reflection on its surface, he rubs his fingers over the blue words and simply knows that it's been with him this whole time, gone through each change with him, drank in the blood of a Clasper, the blood of an Eye, and most of all, his own.

Now would be a good time to feed it a little more and satisfy his curiosity at the same time.

Using his human looking hand, he cuts his Clasper palm and reveals dark, nearly black blood. Smearing it across the skin of his palm, it lightens out into blue. Watching the glass note steadily absorb his blood and brighten its words while darkening its glass, Kara is imparted wisdom from his Eye.

Colors are important to him in a way he can't yet fully understand, but his eyes see and his body feels for him, and together they say that he has a preference. Thinking of his teammates... Yellow and green are acceptable, as are violet and pink. Chibita had no colored bands on his uniform and mauve is close enough to violet that it too is perfectly fine. A slight twitch in his eye tells him that having this many acceptable colors is strange for an Eater, but their associations are strong enough for him to continue favoring them.

All other colors inspire no great reaction in him, except for red, which he finds to be malignant, a disease to be cured. Or better yet, eliminated, he thinks as his fist clenches, dripping the last of his blood onto the glass note.

Blue is his own color, as it always has been, and is neutral for him. Other beings of blue, of which there aren't many, will see him as a friend. Luck is with him, for having dropped straight into the territory of a friendly Eater, who also just so happened to be one of the most deadly ones to exist.

No, he blinks, not luck, his eyes had taken him to a protector as if searching for a bodyguard like a normal Eye would. Their veil, their shroud, is what set him off, its aura overpowering his too new senses. Now, with a little distance between them, Kara feels more ambivalent towards Shroud. They may truly only be teacher and pupil, even if the Lantern Bearer's loss weighs heavy in his heart...

The Eater part of his body begins quickly disillusioning him of the notion that he should mourn them. The Lantern Bearer themselves had said, after all, that "anything eaten becomes a part of the Eater." He should be glad, really, that they've become a part of something so very—

No.

That isn't right, what is he thinking?

The Lantern Bearer may not have favored many of the colors among his group, if the effect of their voice was indicative of anything, but they had still answered his questions, humored them all in fact, not just Kara. They were the first friendly non-human face he met, and unlike Shroud, they carried no great weight of death about them. Their brief interaction with him endeared them to Kara and it helps that they had favored Choro so well.

Choro... If he still lives, the Closer will assuredly be a Defiant, but how advanced will he be? What kind of hidden Traits did the Body possess, how has his friend changed? Hopefully, if he's more Eater than human by now, his stalwart ally will favor blue. So much could have happened in three days.

Kara will have to remember never to introduce any of his friends to Shroud, they would not be safe simply by association, no matter how much the golden armored Eater favors him. Shroud's rainbow collection of Saints is not allowed to possess what's his. What happened to the Lantern Bearer cannot be repeated.

Finished eating, the glass note feels warm and heavier in his palm. With his blood, Kara will guarantee his odd little memento-turned-weapon remains strong and unbroken. The fact that it lives doesn't bother him as long as it stays mostly made up of Him and his blood. He might worry if it changes shape on its own, but that's a problem for the future. Besides, it's more of an extension of himself than an individual. Perhaps Kara can make more living weapons by dousing things in Eater blood to arm himself. It's a far more gentle and subtle metamorphosis than the rapid growth inspired by the scarlet lights.

But what of his new uniform? Is it a part of him now, like the lantern of the Lantern Bearer or the armor Shroud wears? The alteration happened when he was unaware of his body, but it has turned black like his glass note, indicating that it is most likely his. The appearance of greater Eaters, the Defiants, have thus far been more aesthetically pleasing than regular and Empty Eaters in general. How did they come to have such extraordinary features? It's something he'll have to experiment with later, but for now its unimportant. Kara already bears the form of a walking shadow and has a living dagger extension that can Devour, that's impressive enough for him.

Placing his sleeping glass friend back into his pocket, Kara focuses on his Device, trying to find a map of the Spire. If his assumptions hold true, he may already be in the Medic Ward, and from here he can get into the Medic Coils to find one of the places Shroud spoke of. Hopefully he will run into any one of his old group-mates while he searches the Spire.

Chastising himself for not thinking to check sooner, he throws forth a map of light before him and quickly determines which gestures to use to have it display other Devices in the area.

Oh.

The Spire is crawling with red signals, maybe a little over a dozen, and any one of them could be of his party. But who or what are the others? Could they be Eaters that clutch Devices like the Lantern Bearer had? Shouldn't their signals be green if that were the case? Or are they Empty Eaters, the reanimated bodies of dead Device holders? But again, the signals should be green... And Shroud had claimed that there would only be one or two Empty Eaters, so why are there so many red signals? Who are these Device holders...

Could the map be displaying Eaters themselves? Kara's Device was always a bearer of ill news and strange portents, even from the beginning, he wouldn't actually be surprised if it could track Eaters in general.

Thinking back, Kara recalls Todo's Device lighting up with red on his map before they were separated. But why, assuming the Device shows Eaters, had there been that many coming to swarm them before Iyami activated his Lure?

"I would never betray you, my protégé, not like your false friend has."

Shroud had spoken of betrayal and had seen Living on the roof, something significant must have happened, they must have witnessed a terrible crime. Eyebrows arched, Kara frowns heavily at the map as he begins turning the idea around in his head. Was there a traitor among their group? The thought... makes him salivate as a yawning abyss opens up in both his stomach and somewhere inside his head, behind his eyes. He has two mouths to feed.

Tightly squeezing his eyes shut and sucking in a deep breath, he wills himself to cease all thoughts on eating.

"You lost something that you can't get back. The change is permanent. How it develops from here on out is up to you."

Thanks, Ichi.

The Medic's words remain true. And the Lantern Bearer had warned them, "The more you consume, the more you are, the less you were." He's changed. But Kara can still reign himself in from changing even further. The level of innate Eater knowledge he now possesses is disturbing but incredibly useful, and if he can't turn back time, he'll just have to deal with it and make damn sure not to feed into his new desires.

And yet—

Awful, it's absolutely awful! How had he ever managed to read so many cheap vampire novels romanticizing endless thirst... He may not be compelled at all times, but the hunger strikes viciously in moments of high emotion.

Vengeance in particular, he wants to taste it, tear it open and slurp it down. But he won't.

But he might.

But Kara won't, he still has to find proof of whether or not someone betrayed them all. But first...

Passively gazing at his holographic map, uncapping his bottled up emotions and allowing them to drain away, Kara memorizes a path to the Medic Coils, a series of circular classrooms, spiraling out from the center of the Ward. He's close by to Coil 4, it's just a five minute walk away and there are no red signals in his path. Though one seems to be drifting closer, steadily climbing floors as if with a purpose. He'll deal with that when it comes, if it comes for him.

In fact...

Going through Device settings with his brow furrowed in concentration, Kara eventually comes across the option to change the color of his signal. Easily enough, he is able to change his mark from red to blue. Any Device holder with the updated map of the ruins will be able to find him now, the curiosity alone should draw them to him, just as it had drawn his group to the Lantern Bearer. Hopefully it'll clue his friends in to his survival, maybe they'll change their signal lights as well, assuming their Devices allow them the option. Unfortunately, Kara expects things won't be that simple.

Affixing his Device to his uniform, minimized holographic map displayed before him, Kara begins his short walk into the Medic Coils, keeping an eye on the red dots ambling around the Spire. Walking through darkened, gloomy red halls, he feels the beginnings of apathy returning to him now that his thoughts have ceased to spin wildly and his situation sinks in.

Kara almost wishes one of the red dots would come to intercept him, to give him a chance to fight something while he feels invincible as a newly created Defiant type. He is his own bodyguard, part Clasper and part Eye. Morbidly, he wonders if he could survive in two parts, if his head was ever severed from his body.

A twitch in his hand and eye respond.

Yes.

Ah. Good to know.

Dragging his hand against the cold stone walls of the curving Coil hallways, Kara walks past the entrance to Coil 2, a triangular archway, reminding him of steepled fingers, covered by an ornate door etched with an open palm reaching out to pick up the fallen. It's a common enough Medic image, probably a classroom detailing intermediate studies for those already on field missions. The door bears no glow, not even a drop of light emanates from it. Despite being an inanimate object, Kara can't help but think of it as deceased.

He moves on.

While pondering what sort of invaluable information could possibly be awaiting him at the end of Shroud's quest, Kara shuffles past the door to Coil 3. This time, the etching is of a hand placed at the center of someone's back, as if urgently pushing them forward while offering them support. Even in the dim hall, Kara can pick out the color of blood, only paint thankfully, on the person being pushed onwards. He's heard of this. Battle trained Medics, able to restore others so quickly that their human shields can run through enemy fire. Ichi might have had the aptitude to become one such Medic. He might have even been paired up with a Cover.

Sighing, Kara walks past the unlit door. There's no point in thinking of what if's. The Academy cannot be recovered. He's walking through only ruins now, as lovely as they may be.

As he makes his way around another curve, Shroud's blue glass returns, ever present in the smaller windows that wind around this section of the Coils. There are no specific images drawn in the glass, the theme here seems to be the same as the work Shroud displayed on the chandelier. Delicate veins of color, no rhyme or reason to them, flow through the glass, giving it the vague impression of being alive, like transparent limbs.

Kara sincerely wishes his arm never goes fully transparent.

Stopping at the door to Coil 4, Kara takes a solemn moment to contemplate its etched scene. Torn open, chest exposed, a Medic has their hands placed inside of themselves. Kara doesn't look too closely at the details, but he's seen enough to know that its anatomically correct, maybe even painstakingly so. Deliberately explicit, Kara suspects this image is made to shock Medics into remembering their own mortality. Something along the lines of assuring their own survival above all others, even if it seems selfish. A dead Medic can't help anyone anymore.

Ghostly blue shimmering fog is seeping out through this door. Kara wonders how Shroud can produce light like this as he stalls, suddenly finding it difficult to step forward. What is here to learn, what is Shroud trying to teach him? Kara isn't a Medic.

Taking a slow, deep breath, holding it in, Kara takes the leap forward and pushes the doors open with authority, entering the classroom with one long stride and letting the heavy wood fall shut behind him. The scrape and click of the doors follows closely behind his harsh exhalation, an aborted wail. Trembling, he commands his legs to move, and they do as his head takes control of him and begins shutting down the overwhelming response to flee, or run forward, or simply collapse.

Jutting forth from the center of the circular classroom is an almost natural looking formation of large crystals of deepest blue.

Glass, his mind supplements to him, it is still only glass.

Sitting nestled in the center and surrounded by the crystalline glass is a perfect orb, which starts out as lightest blue and abruptly transitions to vivid violet at its center, like a cat's-eye marble.

And within the center of this...

"I've ... preserved many broken, beautiful things that could not be revived."

Ichi.

Unwilling to allow him to deny his sight, his eye twitches until Kara admits to himself—

Half of Ichi, maybe even less.

Eyes closed, face relaxed, arms gently laying beside him, palms facing outwards, Ichi rests in the center of the cat's eye, frozen in mid fall. But everything beyond the bottom of his partially exposed rib cage is missing, except for a bit of spine, and his position in the glass allows for a peak at a hollowed out chest. Everything is gone, no stomach, no lungs, no heart.

Echoing steps and a rigid body disturb the faint fog in the room as the Eater stalks closer to the large glass orb. Placing his hand on its cold, clear surface, the Eye notes each individual strand of color that begins at Ichi and stretches outwards. Blood, barely discernible, but most assuredly there, was used to create the rich violet iris of the cat's eye. The corpse must have been fresh when it was preserved, perhaps even stolen from its Eater, the Eye postulates as he takes note of the threads of Ichi's uniform, distressed, as if dragged away.

Gnawing hunger, the widening gateway to an endless void, undeniably insists upon hunting down the despicable thief that Devoured the Medic. Everything Ichi was, everything he had ever been, now rests within a villain, snatched away by the undeserving swine, a pig to be slaughtered. He will divest them of Ichi's living memory, he absolutely must, he cannot let this heinous crime go unpunished, he cannot allow Ichi to stay submerged in filth. He'll rip them open, flay them bit by bit, wrench from them what he desires, Devour only the precious pieces that will allow him to keep Ichi with him, forever, alive inside. Justice, vengeance, divine retribution, all are one and the same, and he is both their harbinger and executor.

The Eye will seek and the Clasper will sunder, in full agreement that together, he cannot be stopped.

The classroom doors open and close once more with a click and scrape of wood against stone.

Red.

Reviled and despised, having seen it through the back of his head, his body twists in an instant and leaps forward, for there is only one thing to do with Red.

"Kara?!"

Annihilate.

"Kara please no, fuck, stop stop stop!"

Do not Devour, only destroy.

Mercilessly, his hands tighten around the unworthy.

Chapter Text

Pinned beneath him, arms with red bands belonging to a body that won't stop shaking, begging with a weak voice that won't stop crying out, is—

Is...

This is...

Sliding the glass note out of his pocket, Kara keeps Oso pinned to the cold, stone tiles of the classroom floor. Blue fog settles around them, having been stirred by violent motion just moments before. Commanding with his ghostly echo, Kara whispers into the struggling man's ear, "Stop yelling, it's hard enough for me to focus, friend."

Casting all his effort into ignoring Oso and the separate parts of his body and head, Kara reopens the cut on his palm and smears his blue blood over the Jack's red bands, dying them Violet. The effect is immediate as everything within him stills and goes quiet. The unending hunger diminishes into background noise and, shrinking down from a raging sun to a burning ember, his need for vengeance also settles, but only for now.

"Shit shit shit, what are you doing? What are you doing Kara?" Oso exclaims with alarm, his bewildered, lesser voice hovering around Kara like a particularly annoying swarm of gnats.

No.

Unacceptable.

Focusing his sight on the now violet bands of Oso's uniform, Kara closely listens in again to his trembling voice. Was it always this... Small?

"Please, man... Answer me. Are you... Are you still Kara? Come on, you're in there right, decoy-boy?"

Now he can hear the welcomed and familiar cadence of the normally cheeky troublemaker. Diminished somehow, Oso appears weighed down by something. Fear, Kara decides, noting the whites of Oso's eyes on display.

Oh.

Yes of course. The man has just been assaulted by a being that is vaguely shaped like an old acquaintance but most certainly no longer resembles them. What with the no-eyes, inhuman colored arm, and ghostly sigh of a voice.

Contrite, Kara stumbles through his words while attempting to keep Oso calm, affirming, "I am Kara, yes, and I remember you, Oso. Regrettably, I had forgotten myself for a moment there. Now, I'm going to let you up, alright? Please don't make any sudden movements. I'm still.... adjusting to this new form."

Gently, using the most neutral body language he can adopt, Kara removes his hands from Oso's arms and stands up from his crouched position over the shaken man, slipping his glass note back into his pocket where it belongs. Slowly, he lowers his hands to his sides and steps backwards and away from Oso. The Jack himself only seems worse off, having stopped midway from picking himself up off the floor. Pale and sickly looking in the blue fog, he stares slack-jawed past Kara, drawing in a shuddering breath.

Ah.

Oso's release has now freed him to witness Shroud's... Art piece. Kara feels as if he's recognizing things from a human perspective with a second's worth of time delay, which is troubling, to say the least.

"I can explain," Kara begins, but then blinks, amending, "Or perhaps you should. What happened on the roof?" He inquires, hollow and carefully emptied of emotion. Kara will put a hold on passing judgement, he'd rather not transform again into a red-seeking destroyer any time soon. Losing what was left of his human reasoning for even a short period of time felt... Liberating, in a monstrous way, in a way that warns him that he is now very capable of becoming an absolute fiend who cannot distinguish friend from foe due to new biological quirks. Permanent changes, he reminds himself, this is his life now as an inhuman. And this time there is no Jyushi to comfort him, no Chibita to stand by as an ever vigilant watcher, no Choro to fearlessly hold his hand.

But he has Oso.

Kara isn't sure how he feels about Oso, and anything less than absolute conviction will allow his other parts to sway him, to give their less-than-friendly opinion on the Living before him, who made a terrible first impression due to an unfortunate color-coded circumstance. Sinking into his own personal sea of blue, he breathes its water in and submerges himself, inside and out. Ignoring the Eye and Clasper would lead to certain disaster, and so he must learn to communicate with them, himself, sooner rather than later.

A symbiotic partnership... one among participants that are all him. No wonder Shroud was intrigued, simply put, he's a freak among monsters.

Unaware of the changes undergoing in the mind of his almost-murderer, the Living rises. Stumbling and unbalanced, Oso passes by Kara as if he doesn't even exist and wordlessly makes his way to the glass orb only to collapse to his knees just before reaching it.

The image of a man, hunched over in the very picture of defeat, surrounded by blue fog, and silhouetted by a crystal ball which perfectly captures a moment of death, is something Kara will never forget. It is absolutely marvelous, the colors are exquisite, each detail is visually appealing to him, especially now that Oso's bands are violet to match the cat's eye. Kara must remember to praise Shroud later, should their paths cross, for having such artistic vision. The extra credit assignment was completely worth it.

Sensing that Oso is unable to speak at the moment, Kara silently makes his way forward, seating himself on the ground next to the man who appears trapped in a fugue state.

"...that position isn't good for your knees, my friend." Kara comments as he side-eyes Oso. Something about the man seems off, yet again, for even in this state he seems unreadable. Which shouldn't be possible, his eye complains, nothing should be unseen from him now. No matter, Kara figures he's still simply too new to understand. Daring and wanting to provide comfort, the Cover slings an arm over Oso, much like Oso had once done for Ichi. Oso shudders, but doesn't push him off.

Success.

Valiantly attempting to reign in the echoing quality of his voice, Kara fills the silence with information, wishing to share what he knows with the the first, or rather second, recovered member of his party. Softly, he reckons, "It's better this way. Encased like this, no sane Eater will attempt to consume his body. Only the Empty would try, unable to understand the death sentence that would fall upon them after Devouring something touched by Shroud."

Finally stirring, Oso raises his head to blankly stare at Kara. Weary and sounding so very emotionally drained, he retorts, "What the fuck are you talking about? What the hell is even going on anymore? You disappear, everyone disappears, my Device only started working again about an hour ago, the god damn piece of shit. And speaking of shit, Iyami... that fucker..." Seemingly brought back to life by scorn directed at the Lure, Oso shifts to sit cross-legged, head angled up to stare at Ichi. His eyes have a wet sheen to them, but the tears refuse to fall, and his gaze eventually grows distant and unseeing.

Ire rising, Kara prudently removes his arm from around Oso, not trusting himself to stay in contact with the man now that the hint of a hunt has been supplied to him. Hunger, faint but adamant, lifts its head the slightest bit, like a wolf catching the first scent of prey. Clasping his hands tightly together, Kara does his best not to snarl out the name, "Iyami?" Unfortunately, the name gets away from him and bounces around the room, distorted.

Shuddering, Oso looks down and curls in on himself, hunching his back and adopting a slouch that's awfully reminiscent of Ichi. Tinged with fear and disquiet, he proposes, "...How about this. I explain everything and you don't interrupt me, because I don't think I can start again if you stop me. And then... you can tell me what in the fuck happened to you. Assuming you're not about to eat me. Maybe this is just some elaborate trap? You seem like the type, all dramatic and theatrical."

Blithely, Kara shoots back, "I am the type, but if I were going to Devour you, you'd assuredly see it coming for I'd make your death absolutely beautiful."

Jerking away immediately, Oso slams his back into the crystalline glass and Kara nearly lunges to grab at him, in fear that he's about to run. He stops himself before he makes any moves to touch the tense man, reasoning that he should keep things strictly verbal until Oso is more comfortable with him. Quickly, he amends with an unmanageable ghostly waver, "A joke! Just... a bad joke. I could never eat you, I promise, my friend. Please, tell me what happened on the roof so I may begin the hunt for Ichi's murderer. Trust me when I say we are on the same side." Resisting his urge to hug the jittery Jack, Kara waits for Oso to collect himself and tell his story.

Wary, Oso turns to sit facing Kara and remarks, "...You'd hunt down the Thing that killed Ichi? You've turned into something real fucking creepy, I hope you know. It's so much worse than before, when you were just an over-the-top guy. And you look half dead, but you still seem... Alive? I don't know. Fucking words, there's no way to describe it..."

Rubbing at his face, Oso's expression gradually evens out into something neutral and unnaturally blank.

Is he... compartmentalizing?

Leaning back against the structure that preserves his dead teammate, Oso relaxes his body and lets loose one long sigh before beginning, "But enough about you... It's story time. So we escaped to the roof. You know how all the buildings here are steepled and full of shitty spires? Even though they're built close together, it's not as easy to run up there as Todo made it sound. Especially not when you're carrying a bloody body around."

Tilting his head back, Oso gazes up at the ceiling, much like he had back in the cavern, back on the bridge, ages ago. Deadpan, he states, "Iyami showed up outta nowhere, but he looked different. Like he was dead, but not like you and that's the only way I can describe it, so deal with it. And with him, there were a buncha these... Glass hands? I didn't get a good look at them, but one of them grabbed Todo 'round the ankle right away. Kid got so scared that he... He just. Slipped. And fell, right off the roof. Your buddy Chibita started yellin' for me to run with Ichi 'cause I think he Sensed more coming. So I ran. I just, I left him there. To fight alone."

The longer Oso speaks, the more slurred his speech becomes, as if he's losing the energy, or the will, to recount his tale of grief. Kara fights an internal war, which ends with him eventually siding with his more gentle instincts instead of his bloodthirsty urges to find Iyami. Shifting his seated position, he sits shoulder to shoulder with Oso and leans against the blue glass as well.

Ichi has their back.

It's... not comforting at all, he feels terribly empty. The dissonance between Kara and his Eater parts is beginning to grow again as the shock fades away and the death of his ally sinks in.

Correction, possible deaths, plural.

How could he have ever thought Oso's moment of despair was beautiful, breathtaking even? Kara will never forget the image, for different reasons now. How can he win a fight against himself, if his human and Eater sensibilities will keep colliding like this? In the moment, everything he thinks feels right, but afterwards, it all becomes wrong. Is this it, will he have to simply resign himself to having skewed perceptions now? Perhaps he'll feel differently yet again after hearing the rest of what Oso has to say.

Somber, like a man confessing his darkest secret, Oso whispers, "I got away. I made it onto another roof, and then another, and then— I don't remember how many. When I stopped and figured no one was comin' after me, I tried. I tried to Jack Ichi's Medic because he wasn't waking up and he can't heal himself if he's unconscious. I... I wasted so much time panicking when I should've been Jacking his Trait the entire time I had him with me, using it the whole time I'd been holding him. It's like I forgot how my own fucking body works and I just ran!" He ends with a wailing shout, prolonged by the echo of the circular room.

Tears freely falling now, he harshly admits, condemning himself, "It wasn't enough! I wasn't good enough, I tried until he died, in my fucking arms on some fucking roof in the middle of god damn nowhere. That isn't how a Medic is supposed to die, they never die first in a team, always last, when everything has gone to shit and there's no one left to protect them. Ichi already had the look of a guy ready to watch everyone around him fall. But he didn't even get to know what was coming, he didn't even get to open his eyes again."

Hunched over with his hands clenched around his knees, Oso bares his teeth in a grimace and yells out at the floor, "It's a fucking joke is what it is! I can't get anyone's full trait with contact alone. What I could use from Ichi while he was alive wasn't enough to save him. But what I have now, because I was trying to copy his trait when he died, it would have been enough. I've got it. I've got... a real Trait in full. Just call me Medic now, fuckin' hah hah! Fuckin'... shit." Whispering his last curse, Oso's entire body tenses.

Before Kara can stop him, Oso ruthlessly punches his fist into the crystalline glass and only one of them gives way with a startling and resounding crack.

"Check it out."

Detached and emotionless despite the fresh tear stains on his face, Oso holds out his trembling hand and displays bloody knuckles along with two broken fingers, awkwardly bent. Barely breathing, he clenches his fist without making a single sound of complaint and then holds the position for a moment.

Face pale and beginning to sweat, he slowly straightens his fingers out one by one. The damage has been undone, his hand is perfectly restored after a few short and painful moments. Only the slightest bit of blood remains, and Oso wipes the evidence away on his dark pant leg before Kara can even begin to think of being agitated at the sight of it. Instead, Kara feels only sorrow and the emergence of empathic pain. His human looking hand clenches.

Dejected, Oso drones, "You know, even if we get out of here, everyone will hate me. I mean, yeah, I was already a Jack and people already think it's fucked up that we can steal Traits if someone dies on us. That's bad enough... But there's more. We're only assigned on a team to be some kind of morbid back up, it's bad fucking luck to get a Jack because it's like saying 'we expect one of you to die on this suicide mission,' so here, have this replacement. But out of everyone, to have Jacked a Medic? Yeah. That's the worst of the worst. If the Academy was still running, there's a whole program I would have gotten shunted into, I would've had to change my name and my identity and all that fun stuff just to avoid getting..." Trailing off, he shakes his head and grins, but the expression is as empty as the dark pits of Kara's eyes.

Chuckling with absolutely no humor whatsoever, Oso suddenly levels a derisive glare at Kara, jostling the Cover's side with his elbow, aiming to hurt. He sneers, "Bet you didn't know any of that, huh? Nobody likes Jacks to begin with, so you only get to know how our Trait really works after you've been part of the Agency for a few years. Like it's some filthy secret that they train replacements, people who can take on any role just in case someone really talented kicks the bucket. Can't let that Trait go to waste! That's why I got paired up with those three guys. Invaluable Traits, either rare or strong. I was supposed to shadow them..."

Barking out another fake laugh, Oso slaps his knee and howls out, "Yeah, I know you never guessed it! Fuckin' Covers, everybody loves you, what would you know about those kinda 'team dynamics'? People call you noble and they call me a thief, or like Iyami, demon spawn, 'cuz Jacking someone's Trait in death is like sucking out their soul, isn't it? You know what I think? You're all idiots who die for nothing, and you especially, look what's happened to you. All because you had that idiotic Cover mentality, 'oh no I gotta put my face in front of every enemy's asshole so they can shit on me.' And then you get praised for being selfless when you're just a meat shield that people use like an object. You don't even know how stupid you are, like a dog, you're too damn loyal to the cause."

As the last of Oso's shouting fades, a wave of pity overtakes Kara, a reaction he's sure the Jack would despise. Every barb Oso tried to sting him with is woefully ineffective and only compels Kara to embrace him from the side, quietly ordering, "...Oso, stop."

Evidently, it was the wrong thing to say as Oso immediately tries to punch him in the face, but Kara keeps the other man's arms pinned, squeezing him tightly. Adjusting his voice, getting it to waver just right to travel directly into Oso's head, an underhanded trick to force him to listen but worth using, he tries again, "I don't hate you, so stop trying to get me to. You did everything you could. I knew him for less than a day but it felt like I'd known him for over two decades, and I can safely assure you that Ichi would slam your face into the nearest hard surface if he knew you were blaming yourself like this. Stop."

Shuddering at the touch of Kara's eerie, skull-invading whispers, Oso savagely snarls in contempt, "Fuck you! You don't tell me what to do. Don't pull this generic Cover bullshit on me, are all of you so, so— " Shaking, he gasps and chokes out, "—so disgustingly noble and pure and nice? I hate it, I hate you, be real for once, I'm a coward, call me out!" Breathless, Oso looks on the verge of collapse.

Darkly, Kara hums, "I see, my usual methods simply won't work for you. You're so unruly." Having never let go of the other man, Kara rests his chin on Oso's shoulder and goes for a different approach. With candid bitterness, he reminds Oso, "People will hate you? If we escape this place, I will be destroyed, my very existence is no longer acceptable. You can't exactly call me a Cover anymore, I am unrecognizable, just look at me. Not to mention, I have yet to do my job correctly in even a single encounter."

Digging his fingers into Oso as a gentle reminder, Kara hisses into his ear, "There's nothing 'pure' about me, friend. Stop trying to typecast me, you have zero understanding of how I feel or think, not a single clue. As things stand, our group has gone from eight to three, and one of those three is dead. So tell me... What happened after Ichi died? You have yet to finish your story, and I refuse to let you go until I hear the rest."

Oso lies stiffly in Kara's arms, having finally realized he is in the clutches of a genuine Eater, a different Kara from the one who defended him from his own teammate mere days ago. Going limp, taking a few moments just to steady his breathing, he slowly admits, "...I must be going insane 'cuz I think I like you better this way."

Shrugging Kara eases up his hold on Oso just a bit, demanding, "Get on with it."

"...bitch. Alright. So. Ichi was dead and Todo fell and I left Chibita behind." Oso jams his elbow into Kara's side to make him as uncomfortable with the prolonged close contact as he is before continuing, "I didn't know what to do with the body. So I hid him on the roof. It. I hid... it up there. Not like I could bury him... I never thought I'd see him again, and definitely not like this. He was whole when I left him. How did things end up this way? What the fuck even does something like—" Oso holds back whatever else he was going to say, swallowing his words, visibly shutting down.

The moment passes, Oso silently mourning his friend for a second time, before he begins again, "...After all that, I tried to find Todo, but by then my Device was on the fritz. It wasn't powered, no light, wouldn't turn on. I waited... a long time. A real long time, before heading back to the dormitory roof we started on. I found Todo's Device on the edge, but I couldn't find the kid, or anyone, or anything else. His shit wasn't working either. With... nothing better to do, I decided to take Ichi's advice. Camp out. Wait to die. Maybe not die peacefully but... No map, no way to communicate with anyone, no power in the Terminals. No combat Trait except for a weak version of Closer that I Jacked from your uptight friend. Yeah..."

"Now, how do you expect to be a team leader if you give up?" Kara questions, unwinding his arms from around Oso. He adds, with greater vigor in his voice, using the echo to magnify it, "You have a bodyguard now, so allow me to be your second in command. We have people to find! Todo and Chibita aren't dead for sure until we confirm it. And your Device is working now, correct? Mine is online as well." Unclipping his Device from his uniform, Kara holds it out as proof.

Oso mutters, "You sure are optimistic huh. Where's that freak intimidation act, I want him back." Sighing and straightening out from his slouch, Oso grins a bit more convincingly and groans, "Well... Alright. I guess I am the best choice for team leader out of the two of us. You'd just try to make friends with everyone, even if you're a scary motherfucker five percent of the time. Which, by the way, are you gonna explain that to me any time this year?"

As Oso speaks, Kara frowns down at his Device, minimized map still displayed. Three signals are fast approaching, as if they will converge on Kara's location. One in particular is far ahead of the others.

Hastily, Kara informs him, "Problem. We have a problem, Oso. Get ready." Getting up and pulling a bewildered Oso to his feet, Kara begins syncing up with his Eater parts, breathing in that deep ocean water again, something a human shouldn't be able to do without asphyxiating themselves. But he isn't human anymore, and the unnatural act is his mind's vision of them and him as one entity. Sinking into blue depths without drowning himself in its waters, he is prepared.

"Get ready? What sort of—" Eyes drawn to Kara's map, Oso curses and points, "What the hell is that? What's your Device tracking? Don't you tell me that your cursed tech is—"

Cutting him off, Kara explains, "No time, it might be tracking Eaters, yes. I have an idea, please stay hidden in this room, in fact, stay behind Ichi until I call for help." Pushing a rattled yet obstinate looking Oso behind the glass structure, Kara quickly places himself in full view of the classroom doors.

Grumbling, Oso hisses from behind the violet cat's eye, "You're pushy for a 'second in command.' I'll let it slide, just this once. But after we're done here, you're telling me everything. Got it?"

The signal has reached the curving hallway of the Coils. Kara responds with a brief, "Understood," and with no time left to doubt himself, he stares into the deep blue, crystalline glass base of Ichi's grave.

Scanning the view of the hallway outside by peering through blue-veined windows, the Eye locks his gaze onto a stumbling figure as it rounds a corner.

Instant recognition jolts Kara out of his far-sight before the Eye can even finish his assessment, as he is blindly driven to eagerly burst out through the classroom doors with a bang.

Heart soaring, he joyfully exclaims, "Chibita?!"

Instantly, he is tackled to the ground by the smaller form and the Clasper ruthlessly snaps the neck of whatever hope Kara had growing inside, informing him with brutal honesty that this is not Chibita.

This isn't anyone anymore.

Unbelieving, Kara's smile remains frozen on his face as his body decisively takes action without his permission, grasping at the wrists of the Thing that is trying its damnedest to tear into him, on a single-minded quest to satiate everlasting emptiness.

Pleading, he whispers, "Oh Chibita, please..."

Thrashing in his hold is something that looks like Chibita, if Chibita was left to starve to death. But that's impossible, Kara thinks from far away, beginning to drown in his deep waters, it's only been three days. He can't have starved.

Sharp, stabbing pain from behind his eyes insistently tries to wrest control from Kara, but he stubbornly holds onto full authority even as Chibita's corpse snaps its jaws inches from his nose. The Thing made of corpse gray, leathery skin wrapped around protruding bones, which he can now see up-close through a tear in its clothing, ceaselessly struggles in the Clasper's weakening grip. Getting closer every second, Kara spies a peek of a red glow from beneath the Thing's uniform. Desperately cramming information into his brain, doing his best to shove it in Kara's face, the Eye incessantly stares at the red light.

Look, know, understand.The red light, the starting seed. Emptiness.

Unable to continue holding on for much longer, for the Empty Eater is incredibly strong, Clasper and Eye frantically work together to drive the point home. The familiar gray skin tone, the red light, the emaciated body, and through the Clasper's hand, the knowledge of what Emptiness physically feels like when it is brushed upon with one's fingers.

This body has been reanimated, this body had its contents Devoured long ago, this body isn't Chibita, Chibita isn't here anymore, Chibita is somewhere else, don't you want to find him?

No.

Not really.

Just as Kara plainly gives up and the Thing breaks free from his grip, a gloved hand wrenches the animated corpse away from him with a bone crushing seize to the shoulder. Flinching at the sudden crunch and snaps, Kara watches in a daze as the Empty Eater is thrown straight backwards, towards a figure that effortlessly severs its head from its body with one fluid gesture. They then impale the body through the chest with their arm, as if it wasn't dead enough to their liking, and toss the remains to the floor like refuse. Not a hint of hesitation was present in either of his rescuers, his eye informs Kara.

The other two signals have reached their destination. Jyushi and Choro are here.

Far too deep in his new sea of desolation to feel anything remotely resembling relief at being saved, Kara lets his head thunk back onto the floor, having seen quite enough. Laid out on the ground, he thinks the way his friends mercilessly struck down a former teammate might also play a part in his continued lethargy. Are they about to eliminate him too? After all, he isn't human anymore either. Can they even differentiate between classes of Eaters? Idly, he supposes he's about to find out. Even his Eater parts remain oddly quiet, allowing him to simply lie there. Do they know something he doesn't?

Does he care?

From underwater, Kara hears a muted yet firm voice, commanding, "I got him, clear the room, barricade the doors." Slung over the Closer's back without preamble, Kara notes that Choro has ripped the sleeves off his uniform for some unknown reason.

Performing a mock salute, Jyushi answers, "Yessir!" before barreling his way into Coil 4. Kara glimpses yet another uniform modification before the Gambit escapes his sight, as Jyushi's pants have become torn shorts.

Striding in through the heavy wooden doors before they fall shut, Choro briskly sets Kara down at a desk just as Jyushi excitedly exclaims, "Look what I found! Two for one, homerun!" Appearing behind Jyushi is Oso, being dragged out of his hiding spot, panicked and looking to Kara for any sort of help at all.

Kara responds by shrugging and lying his head on the desk. To quote Oso, What the hell is even going on anymore? His friends have almost no noticeable reaction to Ichi, despite being displayed in plain sight. Who are they now? And Chibita, what was left of him, just got obliterated in an instant. He's too tired for this.

Deeply dissatisfied, Choro corrects, "Four. That answers those questions then. Pity, we could have really used a Sense and a Medic. Instead we have... You again." Some things remain the same, as Choro's mouth stays down turned in a V.

Jyushi shoves Oso forward into Choro, who immediately grabs him by the neck, before piling furniture against the door, trapping them all inside the classroom.

Through the noise and racket of Jyushi's energetic work, Oso pleads, "Kara, a little help, please? What happened to scary-guy or even pep-talk-guy? Kara?" Choking out the name, Oso is interrupted by Choro applying pressure around his windpipe.

Drawing him closer, Choro at least has the mercy to relax his grip after only a second and states with a no-nonsense tone, "You don't talk to Kara. You and I? We're going to have a chat." His eyes broker no attempt at refusal.

Digging his fingers into the Closer's wrist, Oso growls out, "I already had a long talk with your pal. What is going on with you freaks, are you some kind of sadist now? Don't you give a shit about Ichi?" The Jack looks less scared and more ready to fight, prompting Kara to recall that he has a copied version of Closer. Two Closer's with their hands on each other can never end well.

As Choro smirks, about to retort, Kara finds the smallest bit of pity and concern in him and uses that as fuel to interrupt, attesting, "Oso speaks the truth... I've already questioned him. He is a victim in this, as are we all." The echo of his voice manages to magnify his volume with little effort, though it emphasizes how weary he sounds as well.

Without turning his head to face him, Choro's eyes glance at Kara before he pushes Oso away. Eyes narrowed, he warns, "You're lucky he's vouching for you. Actually, no, you're lucky we didn't find you alone. Especially in this room. I don't think you would have appreciated my interrogation methods as much as Kara's."

Crouching down in front of Kara, Jyushi waves a hand in his face, trying to gain his attention. The motion of the light-cut sleeve draws Kara's eye past it, and onto his leg, spotting a mark of discoloration wrapping around from somewhere behind his knee all the way down the front of his shin. Heart skipping a beat, Kara scans for greater detail, using his sight to identify a web of clear, glass-like fractures. Not punctures, but many slashes, as if someone took a razor, or several, to Jyushi's leg. It looks like it must have hurt, and Kara's hand twinges at the thought of the pain.

Intense dismay causes Kara to shoot up in his seat, blurting out, "What happened?"

"We should be asking you that." Choro replies, unusually stony. Tilting his head, he orders, "Hold him," and Jyushi complies without question, pulling Kara out of his seat at the desk and into a restraining bear hug from behind, seating them both on the floor in front of Choro's shoes. They are no longer immaculate, Kara observes.

Relaxed or apathetic, concerned or indifferent, he isn't sure what he feels about the goings-on around him, but Jyushi's embrace is a constant, remaining familiar in a comforting way.

Oso has backed away, leaning himself against the glass again, opting to watch from a distance. Apparently he's resigned himself to being trapped and has fallen back on old coping habits as he drawls, "Wow. Are you gonna choke him out too? Guy's your own teammate you know, or did you forget?"

Much to the Jack's annoyance, he remains ignored, as Jyushi rests his head on Kara's shoulder, reminding him of the time he carried the Gambit through their short lived and disastrous stay in the dormitory. Kara's body trembles, his turmoil overriding the Clasper's usual moderation. Thoughts of Chibita walking in front him in the dorm halls, images of him being alive, shouting out his orders to Oso and Todo to flee with him, suddenly being empty and then dead, his corpse disposed of just moments ago, are pushing insistently behind Kara eyes. The confusing return of Choro and Jyushi, the rising tides of grief and mourning, he doesn't want to face it but their presence alone drags vivid memories to the forefront of his mind.

His eye and hand twitch, reminding him he could always join them, let go of most of his troubles, even if only temporarily. His friends seem off, don't they? They've been so deliciously decisive, not weighed down by predicaments caused by silly human foibles. He might be in good company.

He declines the offer.

A snap of fingers in front of his face jerks him out of his ruminations before they can get worse. Leveling an icy stare at him is Choro, who places his fingertips at Kara's cheek. They're cold too. The Closer is seated in front of him and they are both shrouded in blue, drifting fog as he leans forward, expression never changing, looking like a completely different man from the one who hid behind him on the train. What happened to the nervousness, the anxiety, the man who held his hand?

Gravely, Choro asks, "Did you Devour Chibita?"

Kara freezes, both in body and mind.

What?

How could he possibly ask such a thing? Devour a teammate? Chibita most of all?

Frost creeps over the back of his head, chilling his skull, traveling down his spine, rendering him immobile. His sea has become a frozen wasteland, he's been dragged out of the water and is freezing to death on land, completely disconnected from eye and hand, woefully only human, free to suffer like any other. There's no way out now, no inhuman option of escape.

Sliding down his face, Choro's fingers settle on his neck, resting there. Kara doesn't have it in him to flinch at the threat of a Closer beheading him, still reeling over the question which might as well have been a clear accusation. As he's about to vehemently deny the possibility in his own mind, he hits a frozen wall made up of his own guilt and shame.

He can't in good conscience fault anyone for thinking he might have eaten a teammate. If things had gone even slightly differently, Choro and Jyushi might have found him in this very same room, with not just one corpse but two. Oso could have easily been a third casualty, not Devoured but irreversibly dead, and it dawns on him how close he had come to delivering his own bone crushing, life ending wrench, back when he had his hands wrapped around Oso's red bands. Kara almost twisted the man's arms off, so focused on the red color, unable to stand the sight of it on something that wasn't dead. He never even asked if Oso was alright, too preoccupied with questioning him, intimidating him into forcing his story out. Has the Jack, now combination Medic, already healed himself from what must have been at the very least a bruising grip?

Kara's reaction to Ichi's death, the reveal of his half eaten and masticated, yet peacefully resting and preserved body, had been perfectly balanced somewhere between sorrow and fury, inspiring him and his eater halves to come together to seek revenge. But seeing Chibita, his corpse in motion, essentially undead...

Kara has been heavily biased towards his own team. This entire time he had thought, unreasonably, that they would always be fine in the end, like him. But Chibita is gone, well and truly gone, and Jyushi and Choro are their own duo now, and he is...

Being crushed to death in a tundra, a desolate unending plain of nothing but cold and emptiness and wind that can and will cut clean through anything that lives and has the audacity to stand in its path. Everything that's happened to Kara is another stone being placed over him, burying him in the middle of nowhere, bearing down on him, squashing the life out him while extracting his torment.

The entire Peninsula is gone, its ruins are almost fully eaten, transformed into Inanimate Eaters that Devour each other over and over, each surviving wave less numerous but far stronger than the last. The Academy is in ruins, it will never have students and Agents walk through its halls again, everything it stood for, an unbreakable pillar of strength in cooperation, is gone too, cut to pieces.

The hand against his neck presses closer. Closer.

And Kara hyperventilates.

His eyes are gone, and unfairly the memory of the pain is eternal. His voice is gone, and again unfairly the memory of his old one is gone too. Why does he only get to keep the shitty things he doesn't want? His humanity slipped out of his fingers, or maybe his Clasper hand released it for him, unbidden, his body already acts on its own on occasion. His control is gone, but it doesn't matter, because it seems his 'trivial' human emotions have driven away his eater parts for the moment. Maybe they've left him? Are they gone too? Hilarious. He won't even have the monstrous parts of him left, everything is leaving him. And the absence is traded in for only more weight, all he has are more stones to bury himself under. On top of it all, why does it have to be so fucking cold?

"Kara?"

No. This can't be happening to him. No. He doesn't want Chibita to be dead. No. He refuses to accept that Ichi could have died without ever knowing what even happened to him. No. He can't deal with his former teammates thinking he's done something so unforgivable. No, never, he could never have—

Wheezing, Kara wails with his terrible echoing voice into the cold, blue room, "No! I didn't Devour Chibita!" He misses how each person in the room visibly flinches from his voice, having sent it straight into their heads, truth unable to be ignored.

What follows his admission is an uncontrollable string of breathless No's which is when he realizes he doesn't actually need to breathe, he could do this forever. And he might. He has an entire sea's worth of denial to release.

Oso's voice cuts past him as if carried by a chill wind from far away, "Shit, why would you even ask him that, what did you do that for? I've never seen him like this."

Jyushi's hold is like iron around him but Kara still cranes his neck out against the cold hand of one of the last people he trusted.

Fingers twitch and the hand pulls away.

No, no wait, please don't leave.

Softly, betraying an edge of uncertainty, Choro bids him, "Kara, stop."

What happened to the steel, the glacial gaze, the man who dissevered what remained of Chibita without hesitation? The refusal, the receeding hand just as he's given his permission, the command to stop, all drive Kara off an edge and into hysteria. Again, he remembers Oso's words, shouting them out this time, "Fuck you! No, no, no, you don't tell me what to do. In fact, I'll tell you, don't stop now. You were about to do something to me, weren't you? Please. Go right on ahead! Get it?" Kara ends by pulling on his best, albeit watery, toothy smile.

Maybe he should have lied. Choro would have made it swift and efficient. Kara gets the feeling he's already had a similar thought in his head once before. Yes, he has, on the bridge. He should have gotten the Closer to do it then, to drop his head into the lake, eyes out of reach of an Eye. At least then he wouldn't have seen what was to come.

His thoughts slam against another frozen wall when he recalls the Eye. Oh god. He had forgotten that beheading would no longer be fatal for him. Oh.

Oh.

Priceless.

Is this the part where he laughs like a madman in front of a horrified audience for reasons they aren't privy to? All signs point to yes. And he did it to himself, drove himself into his own mental deep end. Dying isn't even simple anymore. It must be why Choro stabbed Chibita's corpse through the chest. He would know most of all, how some Things can still move, even headless.

Kara's disconcerting ghostly guffaws bounce around room.

Oso expresses his concern, actually standing up from his slouch and making his way over to comment with a pinched expression, "This is honestly the scariest shit I've ever seen. He was fine before you two showed up. Gave me a hug, might as well have given me a kiss too from how close he was."

Choro makes an aborted motion to glare at Oso before letting it go, choosing instead to place his hands on Kara's shaking shoulders. Their return eases... something in Kara. Maybe his new suicidal ideation.

Laughter fades to weak chuckles, though there's nothing joyful about the creepy sound, and Kara hiccups then hangs his head. What should he even say to them now? Something startling maybe, he should reveal his greatest weaknesses, tell them exactly how to destroy both halves of his eater self. Strangely, said eater parts are still silent within. Before he can confess, Jyushi squeezes him a little, not enough to hurt, just enough to gain his attention.

Ever forthright, Jyushi doesn't mince his words, explaining, "Sorry, Cover-man, we had to ask. You're part Clasper and we've seen how Claspers eat. The bodies they leave behind are sorta like... Like when a spider uses venom to turn their food into liquid inside, and then they suck everything out and leave behind a husk. Except, with people. What's left is just skin and bones."

Seating himself on a nearby desk, Oso dryly laughs, "That was pretty morbidly specific. Didn't think you hyper-focused on anything other than baseball and sports."

Jyushi shoots back before Choro can, saying brightly, "Thanks! It's more than I've heard from you, so I must be doing something right!" Kara can feel the smile at his back.

Ah, wait, he should be able to see behind him as well.

But his Eye remains closed.

Gripping his shoulders, Choro ignores the stare down between Jyushi and Oso, instead elaborating, "What we meant to say is that we've seen... What we're calling 'Hysterics' running around here, dead People mostly, and they eat without discrimination, usually Devouring everything they're physically capable of eating, which is probably what happened to Ichi, given how his body looks." Choro pointedly doesn't look at Ichi's corpse before continuing, "But there are some other Things that have no mouths, so they leave behind different looking corpses that tell us about their consumption method. Claspers have no mouths, just arms and hands, and they somehow... Pull everything out from their victims. And you... well, we didn't know what to think. We thought you were dead and gone."

Head angled at the floor, Kara figures it wasn't an entirely baseless assumption to make. He did get eaten in a rather dramatic manner. However, the opportunity to share what he knows drives him to speak up despite his fatalism. Wishing to impart his knowledge before anything untoward can interrupt them, Kara supplies, "What you're describing is Emptiness, a term I've been taught from a rather powerful, extremely dangerous Eater. Empty Eaters are born in one of two ways, which both involve anything that was once Living, but has since become Deceased. And by Living, I mean specifically non-eater life. I myself... am no longer purely Living, for example. Eater status... trumps all..."

Jyushi comments, stating simply, "That's okay, we're on the same team then."

Shrinking in on himself, Kara finds himself having nothing else to say except, "...I'm sorry."

Tapping Kara's cheek with a cold hand, Choro sighs out tiredly, "Save it. We all knew how becoming Eaters worked, we knew the risks we were taking. What I don't know is where you've been, what's happened to you? Do you know how long you've been gone? Why didn't you come find us sooner? Our Devices stopped working the moment you disappeared, did you know that? And I'm assuming you have something to do with our Devices being online again. We saw your blue signal and we rushed to get here... Only to find you and Chibita looking the way you did. The only assumptions we could make were pretty bad, Clasper eater, Clasper eaten animated corpse. I'm... Sorry too. We—"

Interrupting, Oso claps his hands together and demands, "Hey, save whatever emotional drama you're about to have for later. Kara owes me an explanation for everything, and I got here first, same deal with seeing the blue signal and all. So here's my first question: Emptiness? Are you saying Ichi was getting... eaten by one of those 'Empty Eaters'? Why? How did he end up... Like this. I deserve to know."

Incensed, Choro is quick to retort, "You deserve to know what happened to your own teammate? We deserve to know how everyone who went with you is either dead or missing! You were supposed to protect them you shitty loser, what did you even do?!" Despite the fighting words, Choro stays seated on the ground in front of Kara, hands twitching at their places on his shoulders.

Falling back into his own old habits, Kara intervenes, "Don't fight. I believe something might have happened to Iyami, based on Oso's description of him. I told you, Choro, I already questioned Oso and I think everything that's happened has just been a series of unfortunate events. My information is vital for explaining what I... believe occurred." Finally looking up, Kara stares ahead, sight focused on Choro's torn uniform and the gashes made from when he was slapped away by the Body of the Eye. Guilt for not anticipating or intercepting the hit draws its own claws across his chest. He's been feeling a lot of empathic pain lately.

Leveling a wordless look behind him, Choro and Jyushi silently communicate with one another, leaving Kara feeling out of the loop.

Ah. It hurts.

Going off on a bit of a wild tangent, Choro inquires, "Can you... Still see?"

Oh.

All of the hand contact Choro's been giving him could be partially attributed to the Closer thinking Kara is blind, and not entirely a threat of a Closer attack, as he himself has been assuming. Jyushi had waved a hand in his face before as well. His answer back then was too vague to infer much, and it's not as if he has eyes they could track to see where he'd been staring. He feels... stupid. And yet not any less death-inclined. Hysteria has only been put on indefinite hold.

Unfortunately, an abrupt laugh bubbles up before Kara can stop it, and he feels Choro's hands tighten at his shoulders. One releases him and... Finally holds his hand. Notably, his Clasper hand, which reawakens at that moment to deliver a message.

Defiant, friendly, Twister.

Setting that odd bit of trivia aside, Kara nods, though he keeps his hand unmoving, and affirms, "I can still see, I can see better than I ever have in my entire life."

He sees better than everyone else in this room.

Ah, and there is the return of his Eye, and with him, his view of the circular classroom widens. He can now reliably see through his own body, and luckily it appears as only an odd void instead of an actual view of his internal parts. Or... is that unluckily? Does he actually hold an abyss inside his head?

No response comes from his eye other than a vague notion of what do you think?

Shifting behind him, Jyushi lets him go in order to sit beside him, shoulder to shoulder, one floppy sleeve over his other hand. For the second time, he slots their fingers together and Kara almost pulls away. It's not exactly safe for anyone to physically touch him anymore, especially not his hands, even if it's the human looking one. His Clasper can move his entire body if he deems it prudent. But his hand only twitches and the same message is imparted.

Defiant, friendly, Twister.

So Choro and Jyushi are the same. Good to know.

Ending the short interlude, Kara breathes in deeply and makes 'eye contact' with each person in the room, asking of them what Oso had asked of him. To not interrupt until he's done.

Cheekily, Oso shoots back with a knowing grin, "Get on with it."

Suppressing the urge to respond in turn with a friendly, "Bitch," Kara regales them all with Shroud's 'study session', choosing to skim over how he attained his new form but fully explaining how his eater parts operate. The only secret he'll really keep from them is the experience of being eaten. It's not something he ever wants to talk or think about. If he can't force himself to forget it, he'll ignore it for as long as possible.

After glancing at Oso and getting a desperate look back, Kara tells his tale for the man as well. Even Oso has a limit to how much he can take, or perhaps he just doesn't want to reveal his vulnerabilities. Regardless, Kara keeps Oso's violent breakdown a secret, it's not something he has the right to disclose.

A heavy silence fills the room after Kara shares most of everything he knows. Somewhere during his long speech, Choro moved to sit beside him at his other shoulder and Oso slipped off his desk to lie on the floor in front of them.

The shimmering fog that gently embraces them hasn't lessened at all, it seems to be emanating from the deepest blue colored crystalline glass itself. It's the same shade of blue as the windows back in the seminar hall. A neat trick, and Kara wishes he had something so benign, until his eyes travel upwards and come upon Ichi's corpse.

He looks away.

Breaking the silence first, Oso puts his arms behind his head and asks bluntly, "So, are we gonna hunt down that motherfucker? 'Cuz whether he was 'Empty' or not, Iyami wrecked half our group. What else is there to do in this hell hole anyway besides kill everything? Man, we're so fucked though. Scarlet light? Actual monsters? And your freaky Eater parts just tell you things are about to get worse?"

Kara hunches over, greatly fatigued, and repeats, "Yes. The growth from the Eater Lake must be destroyed before it reaches maturity. But our problem is two-fold. Eaters themselves can create more Defiants, whether intelligently or not, but the Light itself would spread this... Disease, far and wide. We are at the point in the story where our heroes would valiantly fight to the end to eliminate the threat to the world at large. But..." He shrugs in defeat.

Giving a humorless chuckle, Oso ends the sentiment for him, "But we're screwed. There's no one left alive besides us four and maybe Todo. And I'm probably the only human one left, the rest of you are special snowflakes now."

"You're special alright." Both Jyushi and Choro counter.

Both turn their heads to face each other. Jyushi grins and Choro groans which pulls a laugh out of Kara, who exclaims, "Twins. You're like twins, you even have the same Defiant type."

Frowning, Choro narrows his eyes at Kara's hand and examines it, asking, "You really could tell just by touching us? Can other Eaters identify each other like that?"

Nodding, Kara recalls a golden armored hand and postulates, "I'm more of an Eater than either you or Jyushi. I believe that more advanced Eaters are capable of discerning types among themselves. Shroud could, they could possibly have been able to do even more than what I know of. But beyond that, I also have the... fortune? Or misfortune of being a rarity. The Eye itself simply knows more. I think... I think he sees and processes things constantly for me and only relays currently relevant information."

Making a noise of discomfort, Oso cringes, "Don't call it 'he.' That's so weird."

Kara would scowl if he had the energy to. Instead, he elaborates, "I thought I explained this clearly, they are me. My parts are not merely the remnants of Eaters, they are transformations of myself. I'm just... adjusting, they still feel like separate entities but eventually. There will be only one. Which will still be me."

Grumbling inaudibly, Oso folds his arms over himself and chooses not to respond.

Flopping over onto his side, Jyushi gives an exaggerated sigh, waving his gloved hand in the air. Without waiting to be called on, he offers, "Maybe I can punch it to death? The Thing in the lake. What do you think, Choro, is there enough power now?"

Both Kara and Oso look to Choro for an explanation. He shoots an unamused scowl at Jyushi, who just smiles widely and shrugs, accusing, "You're paranoid. Just tell them what we know."

Lip curling, Choro lets out a deep, exasperated sigh, revealing, "We found out where all the Source has been siphoned to." Glancing at Kara, the Closer recalls, "You remember what I said back at the dorm room? That if someone was Spawning something, we'd definitely know about it due to the size? Well, it's that hideous thing in the lake. Source is being used to feed its growth... As for the materials it's using. It's everything. The buildings, dead Eaters themselves, dead bodies, the lake and whatever was inside it. Jyushi and I have been... Draining whatever Source we can find and storing it in his gloves. Mostly by severing the Scarlet Light growths on buildings and sometimes by destroying Eaters with a large amount of red light inside them."

Shaking his head, Choro quietly confesses, "But it's not nearly enough. We simply can't amass enough power to destroy something of that size. Instead..." Choro grits his teeth and shoots Jyushi a pleading look.

Continuing for him, Jyushi's ever-present smile turns bittersweet as he discloses, "We were gonna power a Terminal to touch base with Orbit. To pitch them an idea, tell them to blow this place sky high. Boom. I don't think they'd let us live, even though we could use a Shifter to get out of here by now. The reason we were already inside the Spire was to... at least get a look at the Shifters before deciding on anything."

"Todo already tried that."

Heads turn to Oso and each of them stares at the Jack, demanding to know more.

Shrugging, Oso gives them a crooked grin and holds out a second Device. Todo's Device. Tossing it to Choro, he reveals, "The first thing Todo tried to do once we got in our room was communicate with Orbit before our Terminal shut down. Remember he wanted to send a distress signal? Something freaked him out though. His Device went haywire and started downloading shit without prompting him. I never got the chance to find out what it was since all our Devices crapped out when Cover-guy here traveled into another dimension or some shit. I'm guessing his Device is some kind of server for a network made up of every Device he synced up with."

Already swiping at Todo's Device, Choro complains without looking up, "You could have told us about this sooner."

Crossing an arm over his eyes, Oso drawls, "Maybe I just wanted to bask in the warm glow of certain death with a bunch of other people who also don't see a way out. Or maybe I was tired of bad news, ever think of that?"

In a disturbingly accurate imitation of Oso from back on the bridge, Jyushi shoots back, "You can't ignore unpleasant shit forever."

Going deathly still, Oso turns only his head to look at Jyushi, a single eye visible from beneath his arm. Something on his face sits wrong before he blinks and goes expressionless. Inscrutable, he says, "Hey, Jyushi. Do me a favor? Never do that again, okay? I'm serious, there's enough freaky shit going on here."

Sensing that he's crossed some sort of invisible line, Jyushi only places a hand over his mouth before nodding, mystified.

The tense air gets heavier as Choro delivers bad news, the very thing Oso wanted to avoid.

"...This. This is beyond a huge problem. Didn't someone... Once say something about crazy conspiracy theories?" Face pale and stuck in a grimace, illuminated by a red glow being cast by Todo's device, Choro looks about ready to faint.

Glancing at Oso and deciding against pulling another mimicry act, Jyushi nods, quoting, "Parser-boy, um, Todo did once. He said, ah... Feels like crazy conspiracy theory events, doesn't it? Why, what's wrong, Choro?"

Placing the Device screen-up on the floor in front of them all, Choro expresses with disbelief, "He was right. The Parser was right. Not a 'bullshit magic trick' my flaming ass hair, no offense," Choro shoots a quick look to Ichi's corpse before cringing at his own actions, going on to exclaim, "but he fucking called it and I can't believe this! Just look."

With a commanding gesture, the file displayed on the screen leaps up into the air, magnified. Red light disturbs the blue ambience of the fog, and the two colors refuse to mix.

A symbol appears at the top, heading the file. It's made up of the same shapes that come together to depict the Agency, which line up to form a literal depiction of the Monolithic Spire. But it is cut into two halves by an array of spears. It's three dimensional and, thanks to the large holographic nature of the image being projected, something clicks.

It dawns on Kara that the spears of light that cut the actual Spire are meant to be viewed from the inside of the ruined building. As if... The victim were to look up at their destroyer. He's heard of something like this before.

His eye is quick to draw the memory forth for him.

"When any class of Eater fails to fully Devour its prey, that victim transforms into a hunter in a glorious display of Supremacy."

From the bottom, looking up, the Spears form a circle. A ring of thorns, a halo of piercing light, representing Orbit, which has neatly cut the Spire in half. And around that ring, a single word, repeated. Supremacy. Shroud must have seen this image in person, somewhere inside the Spire.

Monotonous, Kara babbles, "Orbit conspired against the Agency, destroying the Spire. We were always meant... to look above, bear witness to our own demise. But why haven't they simply destroyed everything? Why leave a job half finished? Why attack their own Agency? I can't understand."

Jyushi wordlessly points to the first text line of the file.

Ah.

He understands even less.

Operation: Devil Seed

Even though he appears on the verge of throwing up, Choro summarizes, "It's only a partial file. But Orbit planned to use the Mountain as a starting ground for this... Thing they call the 'Devil Seed.' And the Peninsula was just fodder, material for the first and only growth needed to release more 'seeds' into the world. Orbit is safe in space, they can observe from above. This fucking... Experiment, with a petri dish culture the size of a planet."

Hollowed out and dead inside, Kara's voice echoes from inside their heads as he proclaims, "We should go there. To the Shifters. Shroud even advised me to visit the Arbor. They foretold the transformation of Victim into Hunter. From Orbit, we can destroy the entire Mountain, end it all before it begins. An act of Supremacy against their own ideation."

Wordlessly yelling and springing up from his lying position on the ground, Oso demands, "Don't do that! I hate it when you do that..." With one last grunt of disapproval he reads the file over himself with a growing, pained sneer on his face.

Cursing under his breath, Oso stares down at the Device and accuses, "So you think we can just get to Orbit and walk right in? Like they'll let us blow up their fucking science fair project? Nah. Orbit has the best of the best of everyone the Academy ever trained. Looks like they've got some superiority complex thinking they can just... Use an entire planet." He scrolls down to the final section of the incomplete file and snorts, "Great. Wouldya look at that. Orbit's been planning this shit show and 'seeding' the mountain with 'base materials' for a few years."

Reading over his shoulder, Jyushi candidly abridges, "They dumped dead bodies into the water. Dead Agents that 'went missing' on missions, anyone who got too close to exposing them, anyone who wanted to bail from the project... Foul play."

Betraying all his previously hidden anxiety, Choro holds his stomach and struggles to push only words out and reminds, "Todo said... The Shifters were only for 'medical emergencies.' He mentioned quarantine levels. Orbit and the Agency are two sides of the same coin, Agency graduates go up to Orbit to take higher class studies and the most dangerous off planet missions. They'd have no trouble infiltrating their own sub section, their own old school. What they're trying to do... It's not in this file, but we've seen all stages of Eaters. Traits, human Traits still get passed on into Eaters. We— Me, Jyushi, and Kara, we still have our Traits and even more gained from Defiance."

Cautiously speaking, hoping his voice projects into the room instead of directly to his new team, Kara speculates, "Are you implying that Shifters to facilitate travel between here and Orbit were used to whisk people away and to replace them with double agents, and further, to prime the lake with 'material,' disposing of those in their way? Under the guise of 'quarantine?' Medical mad-science happening in the solar system's most renown organization that stood for... For heroism. Teamwork. Coming together to overcome..."

Jyushi shakes his head, hand over mouth, sleeve muffling his words as he counters, "Dog eat dog. Teamwork's dead if everyone turns into an Eater. And anyone left alive will be super strong. What will Orbit even do with who's left?"

Closing his eyes, Oso is covered in the red light of the holographic file. He looks like a red-encased version of Ichi, Kara realizes, and the thought makes him both ill and irate. Forcing the color-based irritaiton down, he pays attention to only Oso's voice as the man says with a disgusted scoff, "Supremacy. That's their schtick. Orbit swiped all the like-minded top Agents in every field and decided that the rejects, the losers, would be good enough for experimentation. Whoever is left will probably just be part of phase two of this 'operation,' whatever that's supposed to be. You know, even if everything goes according to their plan, I don't think they'll be ready for what's been brewing here."

A chuckle, a giggle, then full blown laughter escapes Oso as he predicts, "The last of the Eaters will probably wreck shop on Orbit! They can't stay up there forever if they want to harvest their results, and we already know these Things can Devour anything. The Lantern person ate glass, and they were here on day one. And Shroud had dozens of Eaters under their belt. What happens a year from now? What if the final Eater can eat the world, hahah, what then, Orbit fuckers? Damn... It's just too funny."

At the mention of eating worlds, Kara's blue blood jumps in his veins. His eye lights up with wretched excitement, which Kara does his best to push back with firm self reprimand.

No, that's not possible, stop getting riled up.

In the following silence among all four of them, occasionally broken by frankly worrying snickers coming from their Jack, Kara contemplates all his options. On the one hand, he's incredibly fatigued and he can feel himself sinking further and further into the new parts of himself. He already knows that his Eater halves want to destroy the red growth and snuff out the scarlet light, but not for altruistic purposes. Supremacy would be an accurate term for it, in a similar manner to Shroud, he can feel how they view other Eaters as worthy or unworthy to live, to exist at all. Their drive to annihilate the 'unworthy' might work to his advantage however, if he goes for option two... An honest attempt at saving the world, something he's only ever imagined as part of a wild fantasy.

The improbability of having been put into a situation where the stakes are in fact this high... Is simply draining. Motivation is missing, as Kara agrees with Oso. The Things being cultivated here will overrun even Orbit. Wave after wave, the survivors of the feeding frenzy can only become stronger. The only cancerous growths among them are the Empty, and Kara simply knows that every 'sane' Eater despises the Empty above all other threats. They'd be eliminated on sight. Just like Chibita. Choro and Jyushi... Must be old hands at dealing with Empty Eaters now. Three days of active survival instead of Oso's 'camping out' has hardened them.

One other thought comes to mind. The missing Todo. Kara fears the worst, that the Parser is already dead, and he's already numbing himself for what he's sure is an eventuality. That aside, how far ahead was Todo in terms of piecing everything together? Had he suspected something like this? Or was his phrasing just horribly ironic commentary?

Regardless, no matter which path Kara chooses, there's only death in store for everyone. Even a suicide mission to Orbit to destroy the Mountain would... Surely only postpone the inevitable? Orbit itself has been taken over by its own disease, one of ideology, and that isn't something they can cure. Unless, they also eliminate Orbit, killing thousands of people, along with themselves, in outer space.

The planet versus Orbit...

Surprisingly, Oso is the first to rise up, casually stretching and announcing his decision for them all.

"Let's go. Can't believe I'm saying this, but we have a lot of work to do. You guys wanna save the world?"

Chapter Text

Before the sound of Oso's question can fade, Jyushi jumps up into the air and shouts his affirmation with great conviction. Casting similar looks of exhaustion to one another, Choro and Kara nod with resignation and pick themselves up off the floor.

Their first, and last 'mission' as a team has been accepted. Mass murder in outer space, genocide of an entire race before it escapes into the world, suicide and homicide? Not exactly the illustrious Cover career Kara envisioned when he was accepted into the Agency. It's certainly not how he thought he'd die, and if all goes well, they'll even go out with a bang. The absurdity isn't lost on him and his fingers twitch, as if they'll shape themselves into a finger gun he can point at his own head.

He almost allows it.

As Jyushi begins a rigorous set of stretches and exercises, attempting to pull an unwilling Oso into preparing himself too, Kara calmly mentions with barely an echo, "Since we won't be coming back from this, whether we succeed or fail, would you all like to trade Traits?"

Jyushi comes to a dead stop, sending Oso stumbling out of his floppy-sleeved grip, barely managing to right his footing to avoid a tumble. Bare shoulders hunch up in a twitch as Choro shoots Kara a concerned yet calculating look.

Choosing the path of blunt proposal, Kara reasons, "Oso should copy what he can of my Cover. He already has Choro's Closer at half strength and Ichi's Medic in full. Even half of my... Durability, would be an enviable Trait to have. Beyond that," he motions to only Choro and Jyushi, face grave, "Among us, we can cheat the system. Cooperative Defiance. If I trade-off with the two of you, you can both develop full copies of my Eater Traits and possibly my Cover too. The Clasper and the Eye would be powerful additions to your Twister. I'd of course only take the smallest bit of you two. What you do with me, I leave that in your hands..."

"Pass."

Picking up Todo's Device and dismissing the hologram, Oso tosses it back to Choro and gives Kara a hard stare, supplying, "I don't need to be Covered. And, don't take this the wrong way, but I don't want to touch you long enough to copy anything. It'd just feel wrong at this point. Not because of you but because I..." Without looking back, Oso points behind him to Ichi and his body deflates into a slouch. Carefully staring into space and not directly at anyone, he admits, "Knowin' what it feels like to get a Trait in full has sorta put me off on touchin' people to Jack anything."

"Understood." Kara quickly dismisses, turning his full attention to the other two Eaters, allowing Oso to shuffle to the far end of the room by himself, undisturbed and in the fog surrounding Ichi's grave.

Mentioning the act of voluntary eating seems to have reawakened something cold in Choro, who narrows his eyes at the Jack before grabbing both Jyushi and Kara's wrists and pulling them to the opposite end of the room. Although his face is pinched, Choro jumps into a hushed explanation, "We need glass or anything sharp if we're actually going to do this."

Looking between both his fellow eaters, Jyushi's smile twitches at the corners as he checks, "No take-backs if we do it, are you really, really sure, Cover—" biting his lip, he corrects, "Kara? This won't be like... Like swapping uniforms. And none of us have ever started Devouring a person before. When the Body got up and chased me and Choro, when it grabbed my leg! I felt like I suddenly forgot something and even now I can't remember what's missing. I only know what it feels like to lose pieces, not gain any, or exchange."

Contemplating Jyushi's words, Kara's mouth stretches out into a thin line. He isn't sure if this is the right thing to do either, but they would be better off with more to work with. His eater parts are in agreement, Clasper and Eye have yet to oppose each other, and the message he gets from them is that these two people are worth the loss and the gain. Though true allies are rare and desirable, his eater parts notably identify them as friends.

Evidently his base human form might have cross contaminated his eater self, Kara surmises, pleasantly surprised for once.

Maybe even if they fail, the world at large could still be salvaged. But it's a thought that Kara won't further explore. Failure is not an option.

"I suppose it's unavoidable," Kara begins, quietly sending his ghostly voice directly to them so as not to be overheard. Neither of them flinches this time. "I've done an exchange. With the original Eye. We fought to Devour each other and it was... My point being, I gained half of its abilities from eating it and the rest from surviving being eaten. My face is proof enough. In combination with the Clasper, things have, for lack of better terms? Changed. Doing an exchange between us will net you the beginnings of both Eye and Clasper. Only the start. I'm not sure how much time we have left for our mission, but having something now is better than nothing at all. I want to do this as soon as possible, so you both have time to adjust. The Eye has an unusual method of escape, by looking through reflective surfaces, it can jump from one place to another. But we need time for that ability to manifest, unless you would both like to lose your current eyes right now."

Predictably, neither Choro nor Jyushi react well, Choro's eyelid twitches as his body goes stiff and Jyushi jumps back, knocking a desk askew with a screech of its legs.

Kara chuckles morbidly and continues his speech, "That's what I thought. What I'll do instead is use... the Clasper method. It'll be like drawing blood, that's all, and I'd only need to hold your hands. We can do just that much. But how does your Twister work?"

He phrases it as plainly as possible, instead of asking How will you Devour me?

These are things Kara never thought he'd ever ask. Life is ludicrous.

Pinching the bridge of his nose, recalling the frightful event, Choro discloses, "Glass." Shooting a furtive look at Oso, who appears for all intents and purposes to be zoning out, Choro elaborates, "The Body we fought, do you remember how it had shards of glass sticking out of it like a pin-cushion? I'd make a pun here about 'twists of fate' but we got extremely lucky when it only 'nicked' the both of us."

Ruffling Choro's hair into a mess, much to the Closer's displeasure, Jyushi argues, "No, we got me! Lady Luck, I'm the best."

Angling a dirty look at Kara as if to say Look what you've created, he'll never stop with this, Choro slaps Jyushi's hands away from his hair and emphasizes, "As I was saying, the glass parts of its body rip away whatever it is that Eaters actually Devour from their victims. Something other than the plainly physical... something that can't be measured. But as for bodies, Claspers leave behind husks. Twisters... leave behind deformed corpses. They look like wrung dish towels. You don't want me to further elaborate. As for how we got lucky... I got hit pretty hard and I'd probably be dead if not for the Twister part of me kickstarting so quickly. We can't be harmed by 'slashing or piercing damage.' Getting impaled would be nothing for us— "

Interrupting, Jyushi reveals with an unnaturally wide smile, "I fell off a roof and onto a spire. Didn't even hurt!"

"—as the Twister is meant to hold glass inside of itself... Jyushi, he didn't need to know that part. I don't even want to remember it myself. We agreed not to bring it up." Choro sighs.

Ignoring his Eater twin and barreling ahead, Jyushi winks at Kara and stomps his foot onto the ground, apparently about to demonstrate something.

Deadpan, the Closer commands to no effect, "Jyushi, no." and by the end of it Choro has already covered his eyes.

Keeping one foot firmly in place on the ground, Jyushi begins twisting his body around, as if to look behind himself. But then... He just keeps going and his leg makes a horrible snapping, crunching noise, and then a series of loud pops. Goosebumps rise on Kara's skin and his eye informs him that Oso has turned his head towards the gross sounding disturbance in the air. Quickly shielding Jyushi's twisted leg from view with his own body, Kara awkwardly laughs, loud and discordant, to drown out the sound of a limb assuming a shape it was never meant to hold.

Covering for him before Oso can complain again about the freakishness around him, Choro delivers a cutting rebuke, "Don't say a word, I don't want to hear it. Stay in your corner or else you'll see something you can't unsee. Unless, you want us to make you an Eater too? We could do that for you, right here and now." There's an unnerving edge to the smirk Choro sends Oso's way, an edge which Kara's eye approves of but still leaves the greater part of him slightly unsettled.

Vexed, Oso responds by mocking Choro's V shaped mouth and flipping him off, following up with a slow and exaggerated show of covering his ears and facing the curved wall.

In the short time it takes for Choro and Kara to ward the poor Living away, Jyushi has pivoted around his own leg about three times. It's not boneless like the Clasper arms had appeared to be when frantically seeking to grasp and Devour back on the train. Maybe their bones had... Become elastic? Could Kara bend his own arm backwards, or curve it in an unnatural way?

Regardless, apparently the Twister's body works differently. There's stiffness to what he can see of Jyushi's twisted leg, tension, Kara presumes, to grant the ability of a snap-back, a release of pressure. It's... coiled, wound up tightly like a spring. Again, the thought that this can't possibly be anatomically feasible comes to Kara's mind, and he never thought he'd be applying the notion to a teammate. The sight of it sends a jolt to his neck, which makes him twitch, it's the same reaction he gets when he unknowingly steps on something unpleasant. But he doesn't feel ill, only startled, and even that quickly fades away.

After a moment of showcasing his new ability to twist his body, Jyushi lifts the deformed leg and it indeed snaps back to its original form with a click, click, click and a disconcerting squelching noise. Kicking at the air a few times to show he's perfectly fine, Jyushi stomps his foot back down on the ground with an exuberant, "Tadah! Neat right? It feels weird but you get used to it fast, and it kinda feels good after a while, like popping your back or cracking your knuckles."

Finished fixing his hair from Jyushi's assault on it, Choro argues, "That's not how I'd describe it but there are really no words for this... Ability, other than the obvious Twister. There's more to it than that but, for now. Let's do the trade."

Choro gives Kara a meaningful look before his eyes flicker to Oso and back to the Cover, urgency written on his features.

Kara honestly can't decipher the message Choro is attempting to give him, so he simply moves on ahead, drawing his glass note out from his pocket, his little devouring friend. Holding it out to Choro and Jyushi, he asks, "Will this suffice? Can you use this as a medium for your consumption? If possible, I'd like for the glass itself to remain whole, but if it's you two, I wouldn't mind giving it up for this purpose."

Nodding at once, Jyushi grabs Kara's Clasper hand and places it palm up over Choro's, who already has his own hand on a desk, also palm up. Removing his glove and rolling up his sleeve, Jyushi places his hand over Kara's, palm down and clasping both of theirs. The one who takes the glass note from Kara is Choro, the Closer has the steadiest hands and the best precision after all, and he wouldn't have it any other way.

Drawing in a long breath, Choro asks one more time, "...are we all in agreement? Everyone ready?"

Together, Jyushi and Kara reply, "Yes," and grin at one another.

"Alright... This won't hurt Jyushi and me, and you should pick up the slashing and piercing immunity aspect of Twister quickly, Kara. You're good at ignoring pain, right...? Here we go." Sighing under his breath, Kara thinks he hears Choro murmur, "—can't believe I'm doing something insane like this before losing my virginity..." before the Closer raises the note above them.

Hands aligned, Kara experiences a strange thrill, apprehensive and expectant all at once, similar in fashion to the long rising lead-up to the first peak of a roller-coaster. He's already strapped-in to this wild ride, there's no getting off now. His Clasper hand is ready and waiting.

Without hesitation, Choro perfectly stabs the note through all three of their hands, impaling them and even going so far as to bury the point of Kara's letter into the desk. Before pain, Kara feels a pull, then a dragging sensation, as if his entire being is being concentrated into one spot in his palm. The tugging goes in two directions, from below at Choro's hand and from above at Jyushi's. Transforming into one of those hats magicians pull silk scarves from, Kara loses wisps of something he can't identify, he only knows that he has a lot to lose, or in this case give away, a nearly never-ending supply of continuous cloth to pull out. Could it be that his abnormally strong Cover Trait is also responsible for his deep well of Eater consumables, whatever those may be? Or has he just consumed so much now thanks to the Eye that he's full of... edible content?

Whatever the reasons are, Kara's pulled from his musings as Jyushi bonks him softly over the head with his free hand, reminding, "Come on, you gotta take something too. Time to play ball. Don't be afraid."

Right, he needs to finish the loop of Devour-er and Devoured.

The wording triggers his eye to recall the patter of rain hitting glass for him.

"Hurt you? In this place, everything is only out to do two things. Devour or be devoured."

The Lantern Bearer. The green light. The Device in their lantern. The white ring on their mask, an un-corrupted Orbit Halo. The peculiar wording, as if someone would seek to be Devoured.

Although he has no proof, the eye has a suspicion that a recalcitrant Orbit Agent may have allowed themselves to be consumed. Then again, Kara had never verified the Lantern Bearer as being, at their base form, an Inanimate Eater. They had clutched their lantern so tightly... To whom else would a Device be so precious to except a human? And they had favored green above all else, the most common color on the Peninsula at large, their lantern was an emerald beacon before it dimmed. They claimed to have a desire to consume only glass, they answered all of his questions, and according to Chibita they were never going to attack anyone, they had felt so human that he had needed to verify with his Sense more than once that they weren't. They were never a threat.

Kara had asked them, What do you know that we do not? And they had replied, emphatically.

Everything.

Realizing that this is one mystery he will never truly solve, a deep sense of loss washes over Kara, bringing in a tide of only more questions. Questions which will remain unanswered, thanks to Shroud's devouring of the Lantern Bearer.

Shroud.

The thought of the self-styled professor makes his eye roll. Mixed feelings turn into a distinct division of pros and cons regarding the deadly Eater, and this time his eater parts clearly distinguish ally from friend. Shroud is an ally, someone to use when prudent but to avoid at all costs otherwise. Their golden armor exposes a taste for metal in the same way the Lantern Bearer had been partial to glass. Jyushi and Choro would have a hard time if it came down to a fight between them and Shroud.

The thought determines what Kara will Devour from his friends.

Ever so carefully, because it is the most delicate procedure Kara will ever perform in his life, he tugs and rips away at their humanity, just the bits that would cause them to falter in battle, like yanking a stray thread from a shirt. Mercy is extraneous, especially for everything that is to come. He won't take away their ability to give it, he's only adjusting how often they'd feel compelled to show any, and if it were a slider, he'd be pushing it down to its lowest setting. He's only honing the edge they've already displayed, no harm in doing so, right?

Guilt isn't something he feels anymore.

Did they take that away?

Perfect friends, lovely darlings.

Ah.

His eater halves might have predicted his friends helping him in such a backwards way. He's been had, and yet...

He feels better about everything.

Drops of blood from Choro and Jyushi mysteriously vanish into his Clasper hand as Kara takes the last of what he'll Devour. The darkness at his fingers seems to have deepened, and his widened cone of vision alerts him to a change in his other hand. It looks as if he's dipped his hand in deep blue ink that he tried to wash off, darker at the ends of his fingers and lighter closer to his palm.

The tips of Jyushi and Choro's fingers have also darkened, sporting the standard black, as they both have their own new Clasper hand.

That's it then. He's really done it, gone through with eating his friends and having them take a bite out of him as well.

They tasted like... pleasant memories and sensations, like taking a serene and solitary walk along an empty beach on a foggy day, or standing out in the wind and rain and sun, on that ephemeral edge of dark clouds and a bright white sky.

(You were nice too, your ocean is so clear and blue. It's so cold though!)

What was that.

Sight drawn to Jyushi, who has a mischievous smile on his face, he mouths out silent words which Kara hears clearly in his head, accompanied with the smell of an ocean breeze. The beach scene must have been Jyushi.

(Your echo-voice, we wanted it so we could do this.) Jyushi explains, breathing out a laugh through his nose.

Sliding the glass note out of their hands, Choro hands it back to Kara with not a speck of blood on it. However... It's changed yet again. The glass remains black but the words now fade in a gradient from a glittering yellow to a vibrant green and back to his familiar blue.

A basic spectrum, Kara recalls that yellow and blue makes green. Elementary. Something so simple and coincidental forces a laugh out out of him as well. He could never have predicted this small quirk of happenstance under such dire circumstances, a fleeting moment of benign joy amidst pre-suicide mission preparations.

The phantom sensation of being pushed back by a brisk gust of wind accompanies another mental voice. The bright and dramatic storm scene must have been Choro, who is watching Kara's hand sluggishly knit itself back together, sealing the wound. He comments out loud, "That should get faster over time. Don't try twisting your body yet though. It's a more advanced ability, like your Eye's reflective jump. In a day or so, we should all be caught up to each other."

But the wind speaks in Kara's head even as words leave Choro's mouth. The Closer has picked up on this ability the fastest, he seems to be a natural at projecting his voice, warning, (The Twister's weakness, like Claspers, is limb loss. We had to amputate its other arm and leg before it would die. Getting cut or even impaled is alright, but you absolutely cannot lose an entire limb. Is that clear, Kara?) Choro says it as an order, worry radiating out from his windy mental 'echo-voice.'

Giving his anxious friend a droll smirk, Kara mock salutes and answers, "Loud and clear. You don't think of me as being that reckless, do you?"

Playfully punching his shoulder, Jyushi admits, "We kinda do. It still feels impossible, seeing you here. But we're together again!"

Kara's smirk turns into a mournful smile. They're together again, but not everyone is here. Silently, Kara thinks to himself that the black glass of his note will represent the fallen, and he slips it back into his pocket, where it's always been. Gently shoving Jyushi back, he agrees, "Yes. We've found each other again. Let's... endeavor to not be separated."

Choro's dual sentiments come again, in both spoken word and howling wind, urgently advising, "We're never leaving you behind again, so you had better not pull any acts of self-sacrifice. Now that we've exchanged, you don't need to take hits for us, don't worry about it at all. Just focus on utilizing your eye, seeing as you're the only one who has matured enough to actually use those advanced Traits. The jump and the far-seeing should be incredible..."

(Never leave my sight and don't go off alone with Oso.)

The stinging, ghostly gust startles Kara, and he frowns deeply, worried and seeking an explanation.

Choro is quick to accuse, (He's lying about something. Assuming Iyami was ever even on that roof, hunting them down for who knows what reason, the bodies should match. But Chibita and Ichi were eaten by two different kinds of Eaters. Chibita was either Devoured by a Clasper or a non-Empty Iyami using his Clasper ability. Ichi was physically eaten by an Empty Eater. The physical description Oso gave of Iyami was of an Empty Eater but that doesn't pan out. And we know Chibita, he wouldn't run from a fight, not if it was to buy time for Oso to flee with Ichi. Oso's story doesn't add up, he's hiding something, I know he is.)

Lying? Kara doesn't want to believe it, but his eater parts are quick to bring their concerns to his attention. Together they complain, the Clasper couldn't touch and know what Oso was and the Eye has trouble seeing through the Jack. Unreadable, they both report. Oso is like an open book with blank pages. Thinking back, Kara remembers that even on the bridge, Oso had been difficult to pin down, almost blasé about the severity of their situation. But that could just be how the man deals with stress, Kara defends in his own mind. He's seen the Jack shut down, he's seen him cry. That was real. He remembers the bitterness in Oso's voice, the plea.

Taking the auditory memory, Kara casts it out to both Jyushi and Choro. He can no longer feel guilt at sharing something so personal, and they both need to hear it.

("I'm a coward, call me out!")

Watching as Jyushi covers his mouth, going pensive, while Choro scowls with disbelief, Kara insists with his mental echo, (I'll agree with you that Oso's story is missing something vital. But... Must we force it out of him? It won't bring anyone back and I feel that he's not guilty of anything more than being human in a world of Eaters.)

Suddenly shoved against the wall, Kara comes face to face with an almost livid Choro, who is struggling to keep from outright glaring at him, but his voice pierces in a way his gaze refuses to. Spectral wind and rain pelts Kara as he gets reprimanded, (I don't need you to tell me the obvious. Don't ever remind me that the dead aren't coming back, I know it better than you do, as does Jyushi, and you haven't seen the bodies we've seen, the Eaters we've fought!)

Quickly putting his glove back on and shaking his sleeve out, Jyushi lays a hand on Choro's shoulder and attempts to placate him with his own rhythmic waves of sound. Drawing them both into his calm beach, he mediates, (You know he didn't mean it like that, Choro. Whatever Oso did, we'll find out sooner or later, he's stuck on our team. It's not as if he can actually hurt us now anyway, and it must be pretty scary for him trapped in this place! What if he's just afraid one of us will go berserk on him? Kara already lost it once and he's... He's Kara! Plus... Oso's whole team is gone, one way or another. Think of it that way. We know how that feels...)

Disgruntled, Choro refuses to be swayed, simply stating, (Fine. You two can think that if you like. It's on you when things go wrong, and I'll be there to tell you I told you so.)

Out loud, Choro finishes off by sighing and reassuring them with a grumble, "Whatever happens, I'll be there regardless, even if it's to clean up your messes."

Pressing his back against the cold wall, the slightest bit unsure of himself and shaken from Choro's direct display of anger at him, Kara can only give a shaky nod.

A low whistle catches them all off guard, followed by Oso's usual verbal prodding, "Oi, you guys fighting? Save it will ya, we have shit to do. Are you all done with your satanic ritual yet or what? We're kind of on a time limit, tick tock yeah?"

Directing a exasperated glare at Oso, who refuses to be intimidated, Choro barks out, "Yes, we're done. Are you in that much of a hurry to die?"

Responding with a wry smirk and a shrug, Oso pushes his hands into his pockets and says simply, "Yeah. Guess so."

It's unusually somber for the man, almost depressing even. Kara feels off kilter when the Jack doesn't run his mouth. The weight of what they're about to do bears down on him, but before he can feel down, Jyushi pulls him away from the wall and drags him to the doors, makeshift blockade still in place. It's a silent request to help him take it down, and Kara gladly begins moving furniture out of the way as Choro and Oso have some sort of stare down competition behind them. Glancing at Jyushi, who gives him a lopsided smile and a shrug of his own, he mouths out, (Let Choro lead, he's bossy but it'll help him stay calm.)

Nodding, Kara is more than relieved to give up the position to someone better suited. Oso and Choro can fight each other over it, maybe it's even advantageous that way, to have two different opinions, two different outlooks. As long as they don't literally fight one another...

While lost in thought, he and Jyushi swiftly dismantle the blockade and free up the doors. Kara almost wishes it took a little bit longer.

This is it.

Turning around, Kara spots Oso taking one last look at his fallen teammate while Choro has his Device and map out, planning a route to the Shifters. Sensing eyes on him, Choro looks up and makes eye contact with Kara, nodding his affirmation. He's ready to go.

Brushing past Kara's shoulder, Jyushi stands next to Oso, wanting to hold one last silent vigil for the Medic too. Kara joins them and Choro silently follows.

In the end, no one breaks the silence to give a eulogy.

It'd feel wrong somehow, as none of them had known the Medic for even a day. But staying silent feels just as wrong, and Kara can't step out of this room without doing something, even if the gesture won't reach Ichi.

Placing a hand on the cool glass, Kara eats away at the perfect orb just enough to etch a Medic's palm with Ichi's name on it. Below it, he writes out the only thing he can think of.

Dear friend, you will be missed.

It's not enough, and the word friend sits wrong with Kara, as if it's the wrong description entirely and a more fitting word is just out his reach. But nothing can ever be enough. Ichi's grave will be destroyed if they succeed in eliminating the Mountain.

As Kara pulls his hand from the glass, Oso abruptly turns away and strides towards the door, croaking out, "We gotta go, wasted enough time already."

Even Choro holds back a retort, choosing instead to silently follow the Jack, who is already pushing the heavy wooden doors open. Belatedly, Kara calls out a warning to Oso, "Wait! Don't..."

Jyushi's eyes widen in understanding and he sprints to Oso just in time to cover the man's eyes, offering in explanation, "Dead body, wait till we walk past it okay?"

Oso only shrugs, saying nothing but allowing the Gambit to keep him blind.

Catching up to the group at the door, Kara shoots a look at Choro as they both have the same idea. Kara goes for the body as Choro picks up the head. Quickly, they deposit the corpse at the base of Ichi's grave. There's nothing to cover him with, and Kara swallows down his rising shame and sense of inadequacy. Offering a silent apology to the Sense, Kara bids farewell to the man who had been a staunch friend, a pillar in a turbulent sea. He had been like the Monolith itself, down to their similar demise, cut down without mercy.

Last to leave the classroom, Kara looks back one more time into Coil 4 with its shimmering blue fog obscuring the remains of his friends inside. After a moment, he closes the doors, completing their grisly Medic image, hoping that the clear signs of Shroud's territory will keep other Eaters away from this final resting place.

Quietly, the new team of four makes their way backwards through the Coils, leaving the Medic Ward altogether.

Glass note in hand, Kara practices using his far-sight to check the halls ahead of them for enemies, entrusting his Device to Choro after using their shared echo communication to explain that it may be tracking Eaters. Information from both sources report the same thing, that the halls are suspiciously clear of Eater life, despite having been occupied earlier by over a dozen signals. Now there are only about half that, and five of those signals belong to their own Devices including Todo's. Kara notes that neither Chibita nor Ichi's corpses have their Devices with them, suspecting that they've probably been lost or eaten and destroyed.

The only thing he has to remember them by are crystal clear images of their bodies in the blue fog, as provided by his eye. It becomes another painful memory he can recall at any time.

Kara wonders if Todo ever felt this way, if his Parser Trait had ever felt like a curse, as Ichi had viewed it. He should have asked when he had the chance. He has the urge to know now, he wants to see that cat-like smile again, wants to hear his opinion, his voice. Had Todo really fallen off a roof, as Jyushi had? Jyushi only survived his own gruesome fall due to being part Twister. Todo would have had no such advantage. Will Kara ever find out what happened to the Parser? Does he want to know? And if he's dead, does Kara want to see yet another corpse just to confirm it?

It shouldn't hurt this much, he thinks. He only knew them for less than a day, but their loss cuts him deeply and he can't for the life of him figure out why. Though, thinking of it another way, should Kara be relieved to still be able to feel such emotions despite being an advanced Eater? How long will it take for these feelings to die? How many meals would it take to stretch the limits of his humanity to the point of snapping like a taut guitar string?

At least he is able to multitask brooding and traversing the increasingly ruined floors of the Spire. They're headed towards what would now be considered the upper levels, the top of the cut half of the Monolith. Debris and crushed halls force them to take the long way around instead of just using a lift from the Medic Ward up to the Arbor. Of course, the Arbor would be right above them.

Would the highly talented Ichi have been scouted by Orbit if he had been accepted by the Agency even a year earlier? No, Kara thinks, probably not. Ichi would never approve of something like Supremacy, he thinks he knows that much. The man had done everything he could to determine the limits of Kara's change, asking questions Kara wouldn't have thought to ask. Defending and reassuring Kara in his own brusque way. Guiltless, Kara wonders if Ichi could have healed himself if he hadn't been exhausted from spending so much time closely examining his and Iyami's then unknown Eater marks. It's a thought that would have greatly pained him before Jyushi and Choro Devoured that piece of him, but Kara can now recognize that it wasn't his fault, and that he'll never know the answer to this and many other questions.

Abruptly, the recollections of his missing or dead group-mates stir his eater halves to voice their disappointment at the loss of potential meals.

Nearly tripping over his own feet, Kara mentally scolds himself as Jyushi gives him an inquisitive glance. The Cover shakes his head at the Gambit before he can ask anything, and Jyushi instead settles on helping him over a fallen pillar blocking yet another winding staircase. White light illuminates the tight space once they're inside, light which is shed by Oso's Device. He's the only one who still needs a direct source of light to see. The Eaters require none.

Meals or friends, it's the same.

Cursing to himself, Kara figures he might as well deal with the insistence of his eater self, hear what they have to say to him, get this horrible thought out of the way before the group reaches the Arbor. Immediately, they respond to his unvoiced desire.

All that they ever were lies somewhere in another. For at least the Sense, who was Devoured without a doubt, we can seek him out. And if the Parser was Devoured, we could reclaim him too, nothing can hide from us for long. From You. From Me. But the Medic, he may be lost forever. The eye, he can't see his mark on the Jack, and the hand, he couldn't feel his icy touch either. Jacking Traits in death certainly isn't like soul stealing if we can't feel what remains of Ichi inside of him. But the Jack himself feels like nothing. Not Emptiness. But a blank space that doesn't seek to fill itself, just a quiet lack of everything and anything. Unnatural in a Living. Unheard of in an Eater.

It's the most they've ever 'said' to him in one sitting and the voice he hears is his own ghostly echo being directed right back at him.

Unease bleeds from them into Kara, who receives a vision of his inner ocean turning the slightest bit cloudy. Calling it an ocean might be misleading however, as he now knows what a proper one should look like thanks to glimpses of Jyushi's mental landscape. The Gambit's head-space had felt alive whereas Kara's feels sterile. His own landless body of water is deeply blue and crystal clear, or it used to be until a minute ago, but there's nothing inside of it except himself. It has no scent of the sea, nothing stirs its waters except for himself, there is no wind, no breeze, and it's so, so cold. But it is vast, larger in scope than Jyushi and Choro's mindscapes combined.

Whatever any of this means, he pushes it aside for now, as red ambient light starts creeping in through the staircase. They're almost 'outside', about to see the new top floor of the Spire, exposed to the ceiling of the Cavern.

As expected, when they clear the staircase they are greeted by the sight of chaotic destruction in the form of chunks of obsidian rubble standing tall and obstinate, taller and wider than the three of them combined and embedded into whatever they had landed on during the sundering of the Monolith.

The entire ruined floor they're on had once been the Arbor, a large enclosure full of 'regular' alien growths, gardens full of myriad types of plant life collected from every corner of their known universe, meant to be studied and grown and further developed as part of student research projects. But now, its been cleanly cut somewhere just above where its actual roof would have sat, and all the light-cut stone debris has crushed nearly everything except the few lucky spots that avoided damage. It's a bizarre sight, to see so many perfectly even surfaces in the wreckage, signs of where the light sliced through stone, glass, metal, and wood.

Above them is the cruel Red Light itself, a massive depiction of what they'd seen from the file on Todo's Device. Kara has to admit, even though he despises the color, the view is undeniably incredible. The red ring of Spears is still slowly turning and shifting, and he's sure that there's a name for this type of geometric motion, but he can't recall it.

Remembering that he is no longer alone, Kara casts the question out to Jyushi and Choro, perhaps one of them will humor him as they take a moment to gather their bearings.

Scanning the 'sky,' with malcontent directed towards the destructive light written on his features, Choro's wind and rain answers him first, observing, (There's a fixed point on each line, each 'spear,' that follows a circular path while rotating the spear itself. But I didn't know there was a specific name for this. Knowing Orbit, there's probably some sort of mathematcial message to the spears' pattern of movement, but I honestly don't care to sit here and figure it out. Fuck them.)

(I had a toy of this once!) Jyushi's waves rush in as he recalls, (I used it to draw a lot when I was a kid, I think it was called a Spirograph. But this one isn't flat, so maybe it's called something else when it's 3D. Annoying! I really had a lot of fun drawing with those toys...)

Ah, a freshly tainted childhood memory.

Annoying is right, Kara is at the very least irked that something like this could be allowed to bother his friend. Oftentimes it's the little things that can sting the most, and at the most inopportune moments too. This is the perfect wretched red cherry atop their disastrous dessert.

Hunger rudely asserts itself and Kara makes a life-long mental note to avoid thinking of food related metaphors, bumping shoulders with Jyushi instead to pull the Gambit out of his skyward pouting.

Turning off Kara's Device, Choro is the first to speak out loud, relaying, "You see that giant chunk of stone over there? It's faint but there's definitely a blue glow beyond it, which must be Shroud's work. Behind that should be where the Shifters are. Hopefully, even one is still... Intact."

The fact that they'd all be unequivocally fucked if every last platform is destroyed goes unsaid. Naturally.

Already moving from the moment Choro pointed out a direction, Oso casually hops over a fallen length of timber, calling back without a backwards glance, "Nothing we can do but find out. Get a move on, we're not here to admire the scenery."

Displaying his intuition yet again by placing a hand on Choro's shoulder, Jyushi stops the Closer from taking the bait. Choro merely huffs out through his nose and walks forward at his own pace, easily keeping his footing among the rubble. It must be nice to be a Closer, his balance allows for graceful movement as Kara mostly stumbles his way through everything alongside Jyushi.

As they walk towards the slab of fallen Spire, the remains of thick and strangely colored trees begin to surround them. Ghostly white with black veined cracks in their pale bark, they look even more ethereal under the red light. At least their leaves are golden, or they would be under normal circumstances, mostly appearing now as a sinister rusty orange. There's a sweet plant smell in the air, just on the edge of decay like rotted petals despite the lack of flowers, still pleasant but strong enough to clue Kara in to the death of nearly all of these trees.

What must have been a full forest has now become a hazard zone, fallen and cut branches litter the ground, uprooted and splintered trees block their path at nearly every turn. Oso is forced to let Choro lead as he's faster at picking out traversable routes through the wreckage. Having a honed skill at avoiding armed and moving obstacles, this must be nothing to him.

Approaching the stone slab, they collectively spot a ring of refuse on the very edge of the blue glow, which Kara can now assuredly identify as the wisps of Shroud's fog. The Eater clearly spent time clearing the area, but why? Dread, similar to when he had come upon the doors to Coil 4, caresses his cheek, and he can feel his skin prickle in reaction. Some horrible surprise is waiting around the corner. He knows it. His eye is already attempting to focus on any bit of reflective surface to show him what could be past the stone.

Together, the four of them reach the obstruction and climb over the rather high ring of rubble. Dropping down, Kara's knees nearly give out when he lands hard on his feet.

Dull, throbbing pain begins to ache in his heart, but after a second glance, it becomes something sharp, like the point of a knife that's twisting inside of him.

He expected one thing but not the other. He was not prepared for this.

As Choro nearly screams in frustration and Jyushi hangs his head low, covering his eyes, while Oso does nothing at all, Kara takes in the sight of deep blue spiraling towers of glass, rising up and out of the etched platforms they've impaled.

Surrounded by a ring of massive, dying white trees, nine golden platforms form a semicircle, and each one lies intentionally destroyed by a miniature but substantially sized Spire at their centers, glass impossibly piercing through metal. With the etchings destroyed, the pathways of light that would have powered the Shifters have been warped beyond use. They can't repair this, even if they break the glass none of them can reshape metal. They might have tried etching another suitable Source Augmented surface via eating, but none of them have memorized the complex geometric pattern for travel to Orbit.

Only Todo might have possibly seen the image somewhere beforehand, and he would have been able to perfectly recall it, if not for the fact that he's trapped in the middle platform.

Within the center of the most sizeable glass Spire lies Todo. Like Ichi, he's been preserved mid fall. Unlike Ichi, Todo's body is whole but angled downwards, he's frozen headfirst in his fall and his face is obscured. Even from this distance and through the fog, Kara knows why.

Cloudy glass, darker and colored with a less vibrant violet, keeps the state of Todo's head after his fall from the roof a terrible secret. His body must have been retrieved much later than Ichi's, for the color to be this dark.

To Kara, Todo looks trapped in a headfirst dive into a deep blue sea, and he shudders at the thought of finding a corpse in his own mental landscape. Blood creates a blooming violet cloud that shields his face from view, but the six bands on Todo's uniform give him away. They no longer appear pink. There are other spots of color, other areas that are cloudy, the impact must have broken more than a few bones, their splintering piercing his flesh. Kara makes sure his eye doesn't look too hard at the details, he lets them stay obscured. The otherworldly blue fog seeping out from each Spire helps, though it makes the entire area appear to be underwater in some strange, shimmering alien sea.

There's only one upside to this.

Shroud hasn't been shy about displaying gore in its full glory. If Todo's head is completely concealed, then there must not be much of anything worth showing, in their opinion. The Parser would have died instantaneously.

Another one lost. He was not Devoured before or after death. The Parser cannot be retrieved.

Stoic and numb, Kara quietly accepts this fact for what it is.

However, the source of his more urgent pains lie with the glass itself. Why. Why did Shroud destroy the Shifters...

Unpredictably, the almost physical presence of Ichi and Chibita strikes Kara so severely that the feeling surges forth through his echo with Jyushi and Choro, who both look to him in alarm.

Jarring fear and astonishment are grabbed and throttled by his eater parts, who instead hone his attention in on the source, Oso's receding back. The Jack has moved and placed himself in front of Todo's Spire. The fog curls around his motionless figure.

Silently, as one, the three Eaters spread out and block any chance of escape, closing in like sharks on the man who suddenly laughs bitterly into the tense, sweet, death-scented air. He doesn't turn to face them, he knows they're behind him, he can Sense it with Chibita's stolen Trait.

"Hey. There's no need for that. There's nowhere left to run to, if you haven't noticed. And it looks like the Professor chose Cover-boy over me. Figures, they'd change their mind at the very last second."

His voice sounds different. Off. Tired. But beneath that, there's an edge that wasn't there before, something wickedly sharp yet painfully rusted.

Deliberately slowly, Oso pulls his empty hands out of his pockets and turns around. He puts on the worst approximation of one of his usual smiles to date, as if struggling to keep the expression up. In the blue glow and surrounded by the smell of decaying flowers, he appears as a ghost or possibly a demon. With his rusted voice, sounding hollow himself but in a fully human way, he asks, "Do you guys wanna hear one last story?"

Kara has tunnel visioned hard onto Oso's figure, silhouetted by Shroud's art piece. It's a scene that keeps repeating.

Speaking for them, Choro's cold accusation cuts through the thick air as if the Closer is attempting to slice through the Jack with his voice alone.

"What have you done."

Quoting himself from back on the bridge, Oso taunts with his forced expression, "What could it be... Out of all the things around us... Maybe, literally everything?"

The Jack looks like he doesn't know whether to sneer or laugh or cry.

Desperate confusion and pity are promptly muted for Kara as his eater self keeps him wired and ready to attack at a moment's notice. There's no room for that shit right now.

Opening his mouth and faltering for only a second before overcoming himself, Jyushi gets straight to the point, shouting out, "Why do you feel like them? Why?!"

Betrayal lies heavy in his voice, Jyushi had so wanted to take the Jack's side after witnessing the loss of the man's team. Dangerously, he had empathized with that loss. Kara can already feel it, Jyushi's shrinking inherent trust in others. It pains him too.

Finally deciding on how to arrange his face, Oso falls back into his relaxed posture with a tight grin on, stating, "I know that the last thing of value I have left, the only thing that's keeping me alive, are the answers I have to give you all. You've literally almost died to know what I know, right? So don't worry. I'll tell you everything, and then I suspect you're all gonna murder me, huh? Hah hah."

Sending the poisoned sentiment directly to Oso's brain, Kara commands, (Get on with it.)

Rearing back against the glass Spire, Oso looks wild for a second, almost directing a snarl at the Cover for startling him before composing himself. He ends up giving them all an empty laugh, acquiescing to answer Jyushi first, "I feel like them because I Jacked their Traits in death. But why haven't you felt this before? Well, I'll start somewhere near the beginning."

Folding his arms over himself, adjusting his stance to lean on Todo's Spire behind him, Oso speaks the way he did on the bridge, like he's only telling a funny story and just happens to be blocking the view of the corpse of a teammate.

He's an incredible actor, far better than Kara had ever suspected.

"So... me and two of my buddies, we were a three-man team. Unusual for the modern era of the Agency, you don't need to tell me. Anyways, we're a bunch of special snowflakes, like you guys are now! And the general populace doesn't approve of our Traits, so we get sent on real shady missions. Missions like... 'Infiltrate Orbit. Find out what sort of terrible crimes they're committing.' People have gone missing, you know! And we're all mostly expendable. Mostly. Very useful though, for sneaking around and pretending to be bad guys. Real admirable! Be proud! You're doing everyone a great service. Even if they..." He trails off with a dead chuckle.

Together, the three Eaters take a step closer to the Jack in the pause, disturbing the fog.

Glancing at them, Oso shoots them another false grin, complaining, "You're all in such a hurry for people who got nothin' better to do but listen to my story. Trust me, we have time. This is the end of line, after all. Game over, the bad end, I got tons more but I'll save it since you're all so impatient."

Closing his eyes and tilting his head back, Oso takes a deep breath and continues, "...We're doing an invaluable service to everyone, even if they don't know it, even if traditionally, our traits are unappealing. Or some horseshit like that. Whatever, we're good at what we do and we take the job, because there's nothing else we're suited for. In other words, we have no real choice in the matter. So, I'm sure you've heard this before, a movie tag line that goes something like... 'In space, no one can hear you scream?' It's pretty fitting, considering Orbit Agents found something freaky out there, something of alien origin that would become the center of their Project: Supremacy."

Another step closer, and Oso snorts, "Alright alright. Aren't you curious? Why it's called Supremacy and not Devil Seed? Ah well... I'll get to that. Where was I..."

Snapping his fingers, he recounts, "Right! We uncovered the Supremacy project and then tried to bail with all the information we could. But things went wrong."

Expression darkening, Oso sneers with dripping discontent, "...All you need to know is that Iyami is a fantastic conman, but at his core, he's a god damned coward. He left me and our pal behind. I'd later use his guilt to drag him into this mess, but seriously, he's deserves everything that's happened to him. Trust me on this."

Closing his eyes and taking a moment to breathe, he speaks unusually softly with a tight voice, pushing out the words, "You know... All of you except Iyami and your small shouty friend, Chibita... You all look like him. It's crazy right? But being with all of you made me feel like I was seeing him everywhere, outta the corner of my eye. Which is stupid, because he's with me. Because he died in my fucking arms. You've heard that line before, haven't you, Kara."

Opening his eyes to look at only the blue Eater, through the blue fog, Oso's voice cracks and he almost grimaces as he reveals, "Man... When I held Ichi, he looked so damn much like him that I almost broke down and saved the poor kid, but I figured he'd be better off dead than in the world I wanted to see get birthed here. I actually admired him... So I ended it for him real fast. I wasn't lying when I said he never got the chance to open his eyes again. The Eater got him too good, but I'll confess, I'm the one who finished him off, with my Contact Copy of Closer. It's not as good as Choro's, but it's still sharp as hell if I have my hands directly on someone."

Emptied of emotion, a dangerous precursor to being fully Eater, Kara comments, "You've lost the thread of your own story, Oso."

Another step forward, and the three of them could reach out and almost touch the Jack.

Looking somewhere past them and into the misty distance, Oso almost seems like he wants to push off against the glass to end it all, to throw himself into their arms, but he only wearily sighs and slides down the Spire, seating himself on the ruined Shifter. Fog swirls up and gently curls around him, oblivious to the weight of the tragedy that has brought him down.

Gazing up at them, he gives them his first genuine smile, one that looks nothing like anything they've ever seen on his face before. He finally confesses, "I'm not Oso."

Before anyone can fully process the statement, he explains, "Osomatsu was my twin brother. He died up there, in Orbit, on our secret mission to save the world. That was the first time I ever Jacked anyone's Trait in full."

For some irrational, nonsensical, virtually insane reason, the name and the death of someone he's never met hits him the hardest out of all the casualties so far. A whispered question escapes him without his prompting, as Kara asks, "Who are you?"

Smile twisting into something sharp, the man before them ignores the question and reveals, "Hey, did you know there's a bastardized version of the Cover? It's some kinda genetic quirk that not a lot of people know about, but my brother had it. Osomatsu had it. It made him the perfect candidate to be a double Agent. An Undercover. That's what I took from him. Can you feel its absence now? It blocks abilities like Sense and Lure, and can be extended to 'Cover' other people nearby. Only Parsers can pick up on someone being shifty as an Undercover, and only because they compile evidence in the form of normal visual information instead of using anything remotely psychic."

Holding himself back from harming the Jack before his story is finished, Choro deduces, "Chibita never sniffed you out as a threat because of that Trait. And Kara couldn't detect you either until now, because you suddenly dropped it. Did you kill Todo because he was the only one who'd figure you out!" Red in the face, the Closer clenches his hands into trembling fists. The fact that even his hands are unsteady is a clear warning to Kara, alerting him to how absolutely unstable the Closer's becoming.

Ignoring the Closer, the imitation 'Osomatsu' casually carries on, "I had to quickly dispose of my own brother's body, my twin, my exact replica, or else I'd risk everything we worked for, the shit he died for. I killed his murderer, the one person who almost blew my cover, too. And afterwards... Remember that program I mentioned? Change of name and identity? Yeah, that was fun. They made me take my dead brother's place. And they sent me back to Orbit to finish the job. But you know, by then, I was feeling kinda..."

Looking down at his own lap, the unnamed man drawls with a growing smirk, "Kinda wrathful. Yeah, that's the word. So I got real close to the lead project manager, this lady who was always trying to lecture anyone who'd listen to her. She really believed in that shit you know, Supremacy? It wasn't hard to pretend to be interested. Or to steal all the triggers for the project. Or to write up a little operation of my own, something funny for everyone to read once they realized they got played. You guys have seen it. Operation: Devil Seed? That's mine."

Laughing at himself, he admits, "The name is kind of stupid, isn't it? But what kind of asshole parents hate their kids enough to name them Osomatsu and Akumatsu? That's me, by the way. Call me... A-ku-ma-tsu."

His expression sours as he recalls, "Ah, to them we were just the poor man's version of a Cover and a literal demon. Fun fact, Jack-of-All-Trades is a new Designation. Our original Trait name was Devil, can you believe it? The opportunity presented itself and I just had to use that!"

No one says anything as the words ring through the heavily scented air and fade. They're all waiting for the end of this charade, waiting to pass their final judgement.

Slowly, he poses a question to them despite already knowing the answer, asking, "Hey... don't you think it's weird? How Eaters and Devils are alike? That's intentional, ya know. Orbit swiped so many disillusioned Jacks from the Agency, hell, I might have even joined them if they hadn't made the biggest mistake anyone could ever make."

His voice darkens, and even for a human, its impressive enough to make Kara's skin crawl.

"By killing my fucking brother..."

Another long stretch of silence follows.

Eventually, he finishes the sentiment, "...Well, you guys are sitting in the product of my revenge! That should tell you something about me. But anyway, yeah, Jacks were used in the refinement of that 'seed' I stole. And judging by the fact that you Eaters can sense your dead friends in me, I guess everyone was right in the end. Maybe I am a Devil after all, maybe we all were..."

The Agent's voice falls flat as he's no longer putting on a show, no longer imitating his dead twin. What would normally have sounded like a taunt is voiced as a somber and sincere question as he ponders, "I wonder... does it feel the same for all of you now? Holding someone other than yourself so closely?"

The gravity of the question is what finally snaps the tension in the air. Though the Eaters still surround him, no one will make a move to attack yet. Each one still has unanswered questions and a desire to have their false friend continue to fill the silence with his real voice, here, at the end of the world.

Abruptly, Kara decides, "I'm not going to call you by the name your parents burdened you with. You... You're still Oso to me. And your brother will remain Osomatsu."

Head snapping up to stare at Kara incredulously, Oso is caught halfway between a snarl and a disbelieving laugh as he shouts, "Even now?! Even now you're still going to what, pity me? You do understand that I've been using your sense of morality against you this entire time, from as far back as on the train, right?"

Covering his face, shaking with either suppressed laughter or tears, Oso reveals, "Your Device is what triggered the initial release of the seed into the Lake. It was a joke for my own amusement! I wanted to have a filthy 'authentic' Cover be the one to start the beginning of the end, it was fucking baited! And you should have at least gotten disfigured by the red light, but no, somehow you broke it instead. Who the fuck are you? What are you?"

Sniffling gives away the tears the Jack must be shedding as he cries out, "Why are you like this? Every Cover that learned about my brother was shit to us both, but you, you're unreal! Fuck, if they had been like you, if even one of them had been like you— And I don't understand, all of you assholes should have died on the train! But you didn't. And you all look like Osomatsu, it's like the universe was telling me to stop! But I couldn't, not when everything was ready to go. But even then... There were times where I kept changing my mind."

Despite being greatly hurt, Jyushi is the first to touch the man, throwing himself at him, wrapping his sleeved arms around him. Oso jerks in his hold but stops himself from doing anything more. Choro's own fury has died down, but he side-eyes Kara and casts out an icy, searing wind of a thought to both his Eater companions.

(We're eating him after he's done talking, and neither of you are going to argue this with me. The man is clearly... Beyond helping. He has Chibita and Ichi. I can't let this go, not ever. Besides, if we Devour him, we'll be getting him and Osomatsu too.)

Is this what it has come down to. Devouring one of their own?

Kara's eater halves settle down, under the assumption that Oso is done for, and they allow themselves to recede into the background of his mind. He chooses to collapse on the Shifter, boxing Oso in with the Gambit. Choro remains silently standing where he is, unforgiving.

Burying his face into Oso's shirt, Jyushi attempts to stall for time, asking only, "Why did you do it...?"

Face still hidden behind his hands, a muffled reply explains, "Because my brother was everything to me. He would have done the same if I had died in his place. We're both pieces of shit like that."

A moment passes and more words slip out, "I felt like I was going insane, that what I was seein' couldn't possibly be real. Five people who look exactly like my brother? That can't be. But Iyami confirmed it for me at the station. And that's when I fucked up. Didn't you ever wonder why nothing has attacked us almost the entire time we've been inside the Mountain despite never seeing another living human? I extended my range of influence... To Cover all of you with Osomatsu's Trait. It made us undetectable."

Full of contempt, Choro rebukes, "And yet you still killed two of your brother's doppelgängers! What's your sob story for that then, you bastard!"

Oso doesn't flinch back from the Closer's voice, choosing to look straight at Choro with red rimmed eyes. Holding his own voice steady, he replies, "...When everyone survived the train incident, that's when I realized that all of you together actually stood a chance at killing the growth I wanted to release into the world before it was ready. Iyami and I tried to keep you all from getting along, and that worked for a little while. But some people, like your Cover, just magnetize others to them. Your team in particular... Was already working perfectly together. You scared me. I needed—"

He stops himself and looks away, unable to keep eye contact with Choro while explaining, "Todo didn't actually try to send a distress signal. He was smarter than that, figured that there was no way Orbit wouldn't have noticed the entire Peninsula disappearing in under an hour. Instead, he started looking for information, and thanks to your damn Cover again, everyone's Devices could access my files on Orbit. He was getting too close to exposing me, so I dropped my brother's Cover and every Eater with a Sense-like ability was alerted to our presence in the dorms."

Watching the broken man speak, Kara has no words for how he feels. The closest thing to empathy he can imagine with Oso is the memory of how he had morphed into a full monster when he laid eyes on Ichi's body. If he had never stopped himself in his rage, would he have been capable of such acts of revenge? The Jack... has done the improbable. Whatever had been previously driving him seems to have been smashed to bits by the coincidental likeness of so many people to his own dead twin. How... awful. Still, there's something he must know.

"What happened on the roof, Oso. My... friend. Please tell me the truth this time."

Jyushi lifts his head from Oso's uniform to stare intently at the Jack and Choro folds his arms over his chest, waiting with the look of a man peering down at a bug, debating whether to step on it or not.

Turning his head over to Kara, but keeping his eyes down, Oso confesses the truth this time, "The seconds I dropped Undercover were enough for Chibita to be suspicious of me. He finally clued in on how I was unusually 'invisible' instead of just appearing as neutral or friendly to his Sense. Can you imagine? Being a Sense, using your Trait every day of your life and suddenly being unable to figure someone out, not knowing if they're friend or foe? I forced him to decide by making a show of slipping on the roof, and of course, both Todo and Chibita tried to help me. In a panic, I made my own decision then and there that I had to kill you all. Chibita was close enough for me to reach out and use Closer. I fatally wounded him and snatched Todo's Device out of the kid's hands before he really slipped and fell off the roof. But I managed to hang on to Ichi and right myself... I Jacked Chibita's Sense as he died, then Ichi's Medic when I finished him off. By then Iyami caught up to me."

Shifting to lie on his side, Oso stares dead ahead at nothing at all and forces the rest out, detailing, "As a double Agent, I had to be good at fooling people, obviously. But what I was the best at, besides riling people up and distracting them, was using their own good will against them. They could have let me fall, Ichi was already clearly dying on his own, and that would have changed everything. But they both reached for me and I stabbed them in the back. Well, no, I literally front stabbed Chibita and Todo saw death coming... But you wanna know what happened next, right? Iyami told me about everything he saw with your group. And then, that's when I convinced him to use his Eater ability, 'cuz who would pass up on Traits like Sense and Medic? Honestly, I didn't know about Emptiness back then. But I knew about the 'scarlet light' and how it operated. Eater development though, that was a huge gray area for me, seeing as how it's meant to evolve rapidly in any environment. So... After Iyami Devoured Chibita, I had just enough time to toss the body onto a balcony with scarlet light on it before I heard... it. The sound of someone eating... a..."

Screwing his eyes tightly shut as if the action could save him from revisiting the memory, Oso shudders, divulging, "My new Sense warned me that Iyami was different even before I turned around and saw him starting to... eat Ichi... And you know the rest. I ran and found out the Devices weren't working and then decided to watch the End in person. I never got to retrieve your Device, which was meant to be mine, and I would have been able to retrieve it if you died like you were supposed to early on. But I didn't need it anymore anyway, the seed had already been planted, the growth had already begun, both here and in Orbit."

(What do you mean, in Orbit?)

Wide-eyed, Oso's gaze snaps to Choro, exclaiming, "Fuck, you have that shit too?!"

Crouching down in front of Oso, Choro extends a hand, which for the Closer might as well be a deadly weapon, and places it on Oso's shoulder, insisting again, "What do you mean, that a seed has been planted in Orbit?"

Beyond fearing death, Oso doesn't even react to the hand, instead huffing out a breath and grinning with more than a bit of an edge to it. "Did you really think I'd let Orbit get away from my wrath? Them and the Agency are the ones I wanted to grind the hardest into the dirt. Project Supremacy was never meant to affect the whole world, it was only meant to swallow up the Peninsula in a controlled experiment. Orbit's not that crazy, but I am. But to answer your question, my uptight Closer pal, yeah. Orbit is totally wrecked by now, I fucked them up real good. The only reason I actually wanted to go up there was to watch the mayhem myself. I would have sabotaged your plan to destroy the Mountain only at the very last moment, because I like you guys. But like I said before, the Professor chose Kara over me."

Leaning over Oso's prone form, Jyushi deliberately delays the inevitable and demands to know, "And who is that?"

Laughing dryly, Oso reveals, "The lead project manager for Supremacy. Or, the one you guys have been calling 'Shroud.' Even she wasn't going to turn the whole world into hell like I'm about to. Get it, 'cuz I'm the Devil? Heh..."

Frowning, Kara disputes, "But Shroud introduced themselves to me as an Inanimate Eater."

Oso shrugs and curls in on himself, offering, "The Professor was crazy, don't misunderstand. She probably wanted to be a part of everything and let the first Eater she approved of Devour her. She was really into the mechanics of how they would work, in theory. Looks like she's still lecturing people even as part of a monster. But yeah, she must have cut ties with Orbit, their brand of corruption didn't suit her. Her ideal of Supremacy is... extreme but fair in a twisted way. 'What good is a battle for Supremacy if not all participants are contenders?' By destroying the Shifters, she's giving you the go ahead to let Orbit burn, no one from Orbit will be able to escape to the Mountain. This place is your stage, she wants to know who will 'emerge victorious.' I wonder what the fuck Shroud thinks their protégé can do to kill every 'unworthy' Eater in here. Not that I'm gonna find out, hmm? Can you end this all for me now? I'm... I'm all talked out."

Surrounded on all sides by Eaters, Oso appears to only be napping, eyes closed and face relaxed. He doesn't stay that way however as Choro's hand on his shoulder grips him, forcefully pulling him up into a sitting position.

Shaking the Jack by the collar of his uniform, Choro snarls, "You really want to die that badly, don't you? With the amount of Traits you have, you might as well be an Eater too. And with your damn Devil Seed, you're worse than all of us combined. How can you turn something that should be satisfying like murdering a deranged maniac into a chore?"

Slowly smirking, Oso replies, "It's a talent. What else are you going to do to me? Either way, I've won. I've destroyed everything I might have cared about, your friends are dead and you're all infected. It's too late to go back and change anything. Do you want me to apologize? Because I can't. My brother would never have and I've been pretending to be him for so long that I barely remember what I used to be like before he died. And isn't that what eating is? The more you are, the less you were? Now everyone who survives gets to feel that way."

It occurs to Kara that this must be why Jyushi's impression of Oso affected him so greatly. Jyushi had been mimicking him mimicking his twin, and combined with their similar faces, Oso must have gotten the worst case of déjà vu one can possibly have. But this small realization gets swept to the side in the face of Choro's fury.

Pinned to Todo's Spire by Choro's white knuckled hands, Oso displays no emotion besides what is clearly an empty grin, as he's putting forth no effort to make it believable. Through their shared echo-voice, Kara and Jyushi can hear the storm emanating from Choro, and Kara can almost imagine its bright light and dark shadows in the corner of his eye. But nothing physically manifests, there is only the Closer who looks about ready to sink his actual teeth into the Jack.

(Don't you dare pity him!)

All three flinch back from the force of Choro's spectral wind cutting its way into their heads, there's actual pain being inflicted and Oso struggles for the first time, screaming his displeasure and kicking at the Closer who barely moves.

Oso's uniform begins to split at invisible cuts as the Closer screams in response into everyone's mind, (He murdered our three friends, sentenced Iyami to a fate worse than death, and he's doomed the entire world! Unless we can find another way to destroy that growth, everyone will either die or be like us, like him. He has no excuse, he's beyond redemption, he could have ended it with just Orbit but he took deliberate steps to screw the world, our entire planet! I won't let you two pushovers sympathize with this deviant, he's worse than a murderer. People won't only die from this, they'll change, permanently, and this feels like nothing I've ever felt before. The hunger, the sick desire to kill things that don't meet my standards, the taste of you! Of eating another person! How can you two even think for one moment that we aren't going to kill him?! He wants it, he wants to die, and he's made us into Things that want to eat him. And I hate it, I hate this, look at me, at us, this is what we are now, and I'm tired of feeling sick and scared and ashamed about it. I'm done.)

Throat worn from his shouting, which went unheard during Choro's mental assault, Oso rasps out a warning, "Speak of the Devil and he shall appear, ahahahah— Iyami's here!" His frenzied laughter fills the arena but is quickly drowned out by the sound of something smashing its way through the ring of rubble.

That's right, Kara understands in a flash, Oso had dropped Undercover to tell them everything. And Iyami has an Empty version of Chibita's Sense.

An almost animal sounding howl escapes Choro as he screeches out his frustration at being stopped on the cusp of Devouring their double Agent, their false friend. Immediately, he sets his rage sharpened sight on the Thing that used to be Iyami, dropping Oso and sprinting towards the monster swiftly emerging from the fog.

(No! Choro no, we don't know what it can do, Choro stop!) Kara desperately throws out a plea even as Jyushi is already running after him in an attempt to grab the Closer, but both of them are far too slow to stop their furious comrade. He has become unstoppable, and for Kara it's a jarring realization to see what that looks like as a viewer and not the afflicted.

Dragging his focus back to what actually matters, Kara's eye catches everything for him, transfixed as the Closer fails to cut through Iyami, making barely a chip in the stone.

No.

Iyami, who is reaching out to Devour one of the last teammates Kara has left.

No!

Horror is transformed into pure determination and Kara grasps several key factors at once.

Stone, rough and solid dark-gray stone, makes up Iyami's body, but his arms are smooth and polished to a shine. All six are completely black, he has more arms now than even a normal Clasper, equally distributed in pairs below his previously human set. Their color inspires short-lived terror in Kara before his own Clasper strangles the fear and tells him that yes, any contact with those arms will be enough to Devour. Beyond the fog, beyond the ring of trees, beyond the ring of rubble, he can see an Eaten path out of the slab of obsidian colored Monolith that had blocked the Shifters from view.

Lighting up in devious pleasure, his eye shouts out his glee—

Look look look, it shines. This will be easy.

In the split second it takes for Kara to analyze his opponent, Choro has successfully dodged each of Iyami's arms. And thanks to the echo, Kara has more time than ever to shout out his plan, legs already driving him onwards to the fight, Clasper controlled and perfectly steady.

(Choro, Jyushi! I can weaken it if I jump through and exit each pair of arms! Be ready to sever the limbs, but be warned they will be extremely hot! Wait until I heat them all, we'll finish this in one strike!)

Waves crash against a rocky shore as Jyushi flanks a retreating Choro, exclaiming with confidence, (Got it! My gloves can handle the heat!)

Changing course and kiting the empty Iyami towards Kara, Choro's stinging rain commands, (Do it! But I swear, if you die, I—)

A sudden rush of unspoken curses stops as quickly as it starts and the wind howls, (—I suddenly understand how I could destroy the entire world. Let's end this abomination, we have a shitty suicidal loser waiting for us.)

Sensing a change in the tides among his Eater friends, Kara finally perfectly aligns with all his parts and his ocean surges to life. With mad echoing laughter cast at the Empty Eater, he flies through the ghostly sea of fog like a wraith, headed straight for Iyami. Polished stone arms spread wide, Clasper hands readying to grab at him with inhuman speed, but this time Kara is faster as he spots his own reflection under blue light.

And Kara jumps.

Now he understands, why the memory of his pain had to be eternal, for he uses it to fuel his reality bending leap into the arm, willing it to burn from the inside, in this place beyond reflection. From inside one arm, he throws himself back-first out another, searing heat following in his wake, making the topmost pair of limbs glow molten red-hot, completing the first jump, for Ichi.

The moment his foot touches the ground he springs up and his eyes dart to the next arm, invading it, once again meeting eyes with his own reflection on its glossy surface. It's even easier this time as he takes all of his endless cold and inverts it in this place, his impossible space. Flinging himself out of the fourth stone arm and setting the pair ablaze with white light, he completes the second jump, for Chibita.

Barely taking in the sight of anything other than his reflection in the final pair of arms, he's already back inside, and Kara immediately knows that the heat of his entry is enough to melt the fifth arm entirely off its body. With a triumphant scream, he hurls himself out, completing his final jump and dissolving the sixth arm, for Todo.

Making his escape, Kara dives out of the way, just barely missing Choro who blasts past him to cut the weakned limbs off of one side of Iyami as Jyushi launches himself in from behind to punch the other two arms clean off, sending them sailing over the ring of rubble. Choro lands from his leap far beyond them as Jyushi hits the ground hard and pivots to face the Thing.

It stays motionless long enough for them to think it's dying, heat emanating from its torso at the still hot and bright glowing spots of each severed limb.

But it takes them all by surprise even as they approach it to assure its death.

Coming to life with Clasper-brand inhuman speed and flexibility, its legs bend unnaturally and propel it forward, like a missile, chest scraping a divot in the ground.

Mouth wide open, the empty Iyami is headed straight for Oso.

Oso, who is still lying collapsed where he fell on the Shifter before Todo's Spire. Expressionless, he sees what's coming and doesn't move.

Through the shimmering fog, the gleaming metal of the adjacent ruined Shifter catches Kara's eye and he jumps to it using one of the many bits of shining glass in the arena, unwilling to let things end this way. He's sick and tired of never being in the right spot at the right time to do his One. Damn. Job.

Leaving the melted platform behind, Kara reaches Oso in an instant. And even as a mental screech from both his friends booms in his skull, Kara crosses his arms in front of his head and braces for impact, willing to take the hit, for Oso.

He had Devoured two people's worth of mercy and made it his own after all.

Launching itself at him, Iyami strikes only air a finger's width away from Kara's arms.

Spittle lands on an invisible surface and Kara's keen eyesight picks up on the swirling fog hitting something solid between himself and the Empty Eater that tries to strike again and again.

Oso's story about extending Undercover to shield others from mental examination and the life-and-death exercise of expelling preternatural heat from his body to melt stone has finally pushed Kara into using his abnormal Cover properly, ignoring years of foolish imitation of standard Cover practices. Condensed inside him, it was always meant to be spread outwards, like a true shield.

And shield him, and everything behind him, it does, as Jyushi blasts the Thing to smithereens with one almighty Gambit powered punch. Kara recalls Chibita once hoping for Jyushi to blow something the fuck up, and he has. Seeing the show from up close, Kara can safely judge that the man doesn't disappoint.

After the last shards of Iyami fall to the ground, Kara drops his Cover and looks in awe at Jyushi with a wide smile appearing on his face, growing beyond his control.

"Forgive me for ever attributing your strength to mere luck, Jyushi." Kara breathes out with undisguised reverence.

Shaking out his hand with a pained but bright smile, Jyushi adamantly shakes his head, arguing, "But I like the title! It's mine, you said so. It makes sense anyway, for Lady Luck to have it all."

A quiet, raspy voice interrupts whatever Kara was going to say, offering, "...I can fix that. If you broke something."

Nearly lifeless eyes look up at them, as Oso is still lying on his side on the Shifter.

The high of a fight decisively won drops as quickly a stone tossed into a lake.

The Lake, the growth.

Kara has an awful, terrible, beautiful idea.

But he sets that aside as Jyushi tries to pull off his glove while biting his lip. Choro is there in an instant, taking the Gambit's hand and removing the glove for him, leveling an unreadable stare down at their Jack.

Exhaling a tired sigh, Choro snaps at the man, "...Are you really going to help, after everything you've done?"

The only answer they receive comes in the form of Oso's arm sluggishly raising itself into the air, palm up, waiting to touch its patient. Palm facing outwards like a real Medic, Kara recalls with a jolt.

Taking the plunge, Jyushi places his bloody and bruised hand over Oso's. The damage isn't as bad as it could have been thanks to the shock absorbing quality of his gear, Kara notes, but when put to the test against a stone Eater, it seems to have failed to fully protect him. Still, it did its job just as Oso does his, using Ichi's Medic to banish the bruising, leaving behind a newly healed hand.

Letting his hand drop once the job is done, Oso closes his eyes. Whatever manic energy he had before when Iyami first appeared is gone now. But he still has one more thing to say, as his mouth opens to comment, "You've all really changed, haven't you. You took him down like nothing, in a way no human ever could. And it looks like... Hah. Like your Co—"

He stares up at Kara with a pained, amused look in his eyes, uncovering, "Kara. You absolute freak, you have the opposite of what my brother was born with. A physical, Extended Cover skill like that...? You would have been really popular at the Agency if you ever made it to them. It's weird how everything falls in your favor. And I mean... literally everything."

With a perturbed frown, Choro takes charge, asking for them, "What do you mean?"

Oso takes his time to sit up and lean back on Todo's Spire before answering, "Orbit's Supremacy was originally going to be blue. It's another reason why I suspect your Shroud ate my Professor. She favored that color, used to talk about the sea and the source of life and a lot of other shit I tuned out. I changed it to red, in memoriam for Osomatsu. I kinda wonder how different things would be if I hadn't done that. But then again, it's worthless to think about, isnt it? Everything would be different if I hadn't done any number of things."

Sneering but without much bite to the expression, Choro questions, "Are you actually saying you feel guilty?"

Staring at Choro's torn pant leg, the closest he can get to looking directly at the man, Oso admits, "...Guilty? Yeah, maybe. I wish I could've met you guys sooner. That my brother could have met you too and gotten excited over how similar we all look. Being an Undercover Agent, that would have made his head spin with the possiblities. We could have caused absolute mayhem together. But that's just... a dream. In the end, how I feel doesn't matter. Please just..."

Eyes dry, he looks up at them and breathes in the scent of dead flowers.

"I can't do this anymore. Will you end everything for me? If you can find a way to rectify my mistakes, go ahead. But. I need you to do me a favor. Please, end me."

Tears leak out from his own eyes as Jyushi nods and bends down to pick up a shard of glass. Alarmed, Kara sucks in a breath as Choro leans over to do the same. They both look expectantly to him, one openly crying and one resigned, but Kara can only shake his head, refusing.

"I can't. Surely there's another option. Oso..." Kneeling down next to someone who he still considers to be a friend despite everything, Kara struggles to find the right words to say. But what can he say in a situation like this?

Kara misses his opportunity as the Jack gives his final orders.

"Don't force yourself. But don't try to change my mind either." Glancing at him before coming to some unknown decision, Oso pushes Kara away in a clear dismissal. It's his gift of absolution.

Eyes wide, Kara stands and backs away as his two friends step forward to hold Oso's hands for the first and last time. Able to see around them, Kara watches as they each drive their own shards of glass through their palms and Oso's, in rendition to their earlier sharing of Traits with him. But unlike with Kara, Jyushi and Choro don't stop and they Devour Oso in full, using the Twister method of divesting from him what Choro had described as something other than the plainly physical, something that can't be measured.

The body they leave behind is still alive, but clearly dead inside.

Laying it down before Todo's Spire, Choro places his palm over Oso's sternum and keeps it there for a beat. Afterwards, the Closer is quick to step away, pulling Jyushi with him, and in moments, blood begins to pool underneath the body, filling in the etchings of the Shifter platform.

An inane thought comes to Kara. That the etchings should have been lit up with green, flowing light instead of filled with red, red blood. The image of yet another fog obscured body placed at the foot of yet another glass preserved corpse is forever captured by Kara's eyes.

He looks away.

But he can still see it. His cone of vision has no limits to it now. There is no Eye or Clasper. There is only himself.

The thought reminds Kara that he has one last thing to do, that he didn't abstain from Devouring Oso purely out of forgiveness or compassion or some other human trait.

He mostly did it because it would have been wasted on him.

Physically turning his head, a gesture only for himself at this point and not due to necessity, Kara takes one last look at Oso's body, eyes closed and face blank. Even if it doesn't show, Kara still ends up thinking that he looks... Unbearably sad.

As Jyushi weeps into Choro's shoulder, the both of them standing at the edge of the platform, Kara gravely delivers his news.

"I can do it now. I can destroy every last trace of Red inside this Mountain."

Choro's piercing gaze targets him at once, and Jyushi's crying falters as he takes in a shuddering breath and stares at Kara in shock.

Baring his teeth in dissatisfaction, Choro accuses, "You're about to do something stupid again, aren't you? Don't. Don't you fucking do it."

Kara is quick to shoot back, "But you want to 'save the world' don't you? I can do that. Well no, I can do most of the work, but the two of you will have to finish what I start."

Panicked, Jyushi lunges and tackles Kara to the ground, exhaling in a rush, "What are you saying Kara? What are you going to do! Why wouldn't you be there to finish things with us? No, no no no!" He pins Kara to the ground, as if that could stop him.

Appearing overhead, Choro places a hand over Kara's eyes, to no effect. Jyushi spots the move for what it is and covers Choro's hand with his own trembling one.

"Neither of you can really stop me, you know. But I'd like to do this with your blessing. As well as a promise..."

Jyushi sobs quietly though his own sleeve, having released Kara in full. Designating himself as their voice, Choro quietly asks, "...What's the promise you want us to make."

Reaching up to remove their hands from over his eyes, Kara makes his final requests, "If there's anything of me left after I'm done, I want you both to take it. Beyond that, destroy what remains. You know exactly what to do, how to kill my parts." Reaching into his pocket, Kara pulls out his glass memento, which has been with him throughout his entire short-lived journey. With a bittersweet smile, he holds it out to Jyushi, hoping his friend will accept it.

Wiping the tears off his face, Jyushi reaches out and accepts both the letter and Kara's decision, wrapping him up in one last embrace, making sure to hug him tightly to make up for all the hugs they won't have after this. After he pulls away, Choro helps Kara up and does the same, speaking directly into his ear as he holds him close, "You're unbelievable. I tell you one thing, don't pull any acts of self-sacrifice, and what do you do? You do it twice even! You really can't help yourself, can you?"

Kara wordlessly leans into Choro and it prompts the Closer to speak again, voice wavering, "You don't have to do this. If it's a choice between watching you die or watching the world die... Dammit, this is so hard. I almost. I really almost can say with full honesty that I— I want to choose you over them. The three of us together are a team..."

Finding the strength to force himself to let go of his friend, Kara takes a step back and insists, "The two of you together are an excellent duo. Besides, you'll still have me, in some fashion. In fact, you both have nearly everything from our group now. Together, you are unstoppable, just as I said you would be, back on the train. A real force to be reckoned with."

Holding himself so he won't be tempted into grabbing their Cover and never letting go, Jyushi gently butts heads with Kara, delivering his final sentiments, "I promise. Whatever is left... Won't get left behind. We've got you, till the end. We'll never really be separated, right? And... I'll finish everything too. The other Eaters won't escape."

Nodding his agreement, Choro tugs Jyushi to him and they both stand by. Waiting to witness Kara's terrible miracle.

Knowing that he might crumble and lose his resolve if he looks directly at them one more time, Kara turns his back to them and walks out of the blue fog, leaving the Shifters, the trees, and the ring of rubble behind. They follow him from a distance, and the sound of their footsteps at his back urges him forward until he has a clear view of the growth.

It looks the same as it did just a few hours ago, when he had fled Shroud's seminar hall. Still disgusting and seated in a bright red lake of untold horrors. How many had been tossed into its waters and converted into the Empty?

Pushing back any feelings of abhorrence he still harbors towards the red color, Kara focuses inwards onto two things. His never-ending hunger, which he allows to fully manifest at the forefront of his mind, and the dark abyss inside his head, which he now knows to be true.

His mouth waters.

And Kara eats with his gaze alone.

And nothing escapes his sight.

Through each surface that shines and glints and glitters, he sees and hones in on red, only red. Red light, red Eaters, red waters, red growth. The image of a single blue eye appears and he sees it repeated and reflected back at him countless times in every hall of broken glass, in every corner of the ruins that still stand. Drawing each and every Thing to him, dragging them straight into his abyss, he makes them disappear. The Lake dries up and the growth breaks apart into nothing and the light in the Cavern slowly, softly, gently dies. He Devours systematically, biting down on each source of scarlet light until the only thing left is the light that he saw mere days ago, against the backdrop of the crimson setting sun.

Idly, he wonders if he could eat that too.

He might.

But he won't.

Distantly, he remembers a promise made to him. They'll stop him before he gets that far. Jyushi promised that the other Eaters wouldn't escape. And now that includes him too.

Face angled up towards a symbol that no longer bears any meaning to him, he swallows it with a blink and the dark swallows him in turn.

The only light left comes from somewhere behind him, faint and blue. But instead of walking towards it, he allows himself to collapse where he stands. Though there is no longer any light nearby, he doesn't need it to see, and he knows himself, knows what he looks like now. His body is a shade of blue that's darker than black, something he's only ever seen on computer screens. His features are no longer distinguishable from any other part of him. He has become a walking shadow in truth now, a living void.

But that's only on the outside.

The sound of slow and deliberate footsteps nears him and he at least remembers to quickly close his eye, as he falls deep inside of himself, coming upon a red ocean. His ocean.

The ocean of an Abyssal Eater.

Using a strength of will he will only ever be able to muster this one time in his life, he freezes the water, trapping the vast majority of what now constitutes his being inside of it. What's left of him, the last remaining bit that hasn't been corrupted by all the red he Devoured, sits atop the surface. But the stillness, the ice, the clear divide... It won't last forever.

So much for being endlessly cold.

If he could keep himself separated like this, there wouldn't be a need for what comes next. But he can't, and he can already feel the churning going on beneath him, can hear the beginnings of cracks splitting his frozen sea. It reminds him of the Lake itself, during its first transformation.

How it had frozen and fractured and oozed red.

He can't allow anything to escape.

If the Lantern Bearer had been the glass, and Shroud had been the metal, and Iyami had been the stone, then he is the water. The water of this place that almost became the source of hell on earth.

It has to die with him.

As he feels a pinch at his neck on the outside, and then a pull, and then a separation, he thinks to himself that his friends must be the light and the air, because suddenly, he's no longer in the middle of the endless frozen wasteland he turned himself into.

Sand and the smell of a real living sea, a gentle mist and a bright white sky with rolling gray clouds... These are the things that surround him now, coming in to cradle him on all sides.

From all around, a gust of wind and a light spray of mist carries with it a cry of, "Kara!"

A body collapses to its knees beside him, and then another at his other side.

Choro and Jyushi are here.

Well, of course they are. This is their space, he recalls.

As they prop him up between the two of them, he looks down at himself with deliberate detachment. The ghost of a memory possesses him as he remembers another time he had done this, back when he only had a slightly discolored arm to worry about. But the memory swiftly takes its leave and he sees...

The return of a normal body. There he is, in a pristine uniform, completely human looking. Is this how they remember him?

The tide rushes in, almost touching him, and a voice reassures, "We've got you, it's okay, Kara please answer..."

A sleeved hand holds his own, threading its fingers with his beneath the cloth.

Kara?

The name.

Echoes.

In this place, that isn't his own head.

That's him, he thinks. He's Kara.

But not really.

He isn't anyone anymore.

Barely able to move, he squeezes his hand over Jyushi's and croaks out anyway, "I'm... here."

His voice comes out sounding normal. His friends, they remembered it for him. He thinks he can remember what it feels like to be happy, and so he applies the memory and attempts to crack a smile.

There's so much of him missing though, even if he appears whole to them.

Choro tightly grips his other hand and holds it as if he'll never let go. Which he won't, because this is the last time they'll hold hands like this.

"Are you ready, Kara? We don't have much time left. We're not leaving you behind."

What goes unsaid is that they'll Devour this bit of him before whatever is left of his body on the outside dies, whether he allows it or not.

But this is what he asked for.

And so he nods.

And he feels an immediate tug at both his palms.

It actually hurts.

Something tears and the most bizarre thing happens.

He can see himself in two halves that stare back at one another.

It's the sight of his own fear that he sees last,

Right before

they

Chapter Text

He can't stop sobbing.

The notebook lays closed and pushed under the couch cushions beneath him, his pen is somewhere on the floor. Impulsively, he threw it away at the far wall in order to grab his pillow to muffle his crying.

Unfortunately he's an ugly crier, and a loud one if he lets the noise start.

Which it has.

Why had he ever thought this would be a good idea?

At his back, the heat of the rays of the sun have been keeping him too warm, which he notices now.

Oh no.

A whine crawls its way up his throat, collecting behind his closed lips, and he presses the pillow tighter over the lower half of his face.

Oh fuck no.

The shadows cast in a room from the light of a setting sun have never looked more ominous.

Panicked, he spins in his seat and stands on his knees to look out the window, blinds already pulled up to reveal a view of the city, the other apartments in the area, and yes, there it is.

A soft blanket of pink, a gentle brush of orange, a thin, vibrant line of red, a beautiful sunset that only makes him sick. Any other day he'd try his hardest to remember these colors, common enough as they are for a man who looks forward to witnessing every sunset, but today...

The colors become over saturated, turning red, red, redder, the furthest apartment complex darkens and becomes the Monolith and he can already see it falling, splitting apart into rubble, clouds of dust racing forwards to choke him—

Slamming himself down into the couch with the pillow over his head to block out all visual information except for the texture of the fabric, he tells himself over and over.

He's at Chibita's place. He's okay.

No, wait, no of course not.

Idiot, he's not okay!

It had been night when he started writing. It's bloody dusk, almost, the sun is setting. How long, how long has it been?

The sooner he lifts his head the sooner he can check the time but he's afraid to do anything and his insides are still sore and raw and bleeding from everything he tried and failed to write. But he isn't actually hurt. He knows he's not, but everything had pained him, everything had hurt, emotional turmoil in his dreams harms when he wakes up and writing has been so very similar and so very difficult, he could feel it all aga—

Think about it later, one train of thought at a time, please, focus on the distraction.

What an incredible thought, is this an oxymoron?

Save it for later.

But the physical pain in his dreams, that's an entirely different story and isn't that a trip? One thing that shouldn't hurt him for real does and the other thing that would be an acceptable source of pain... does... something else.

He's a freak.

Thinking about this is easier than recounting all the things he couldn't write down, and so he does, stalling for time before he has to force himself to sit up.

He had done his best to color each scene of injury with 'normal' sounding descriptions for pain. Having been hurt on many an occasion in his waking life through mishaps and fights and tussles, he has an extensive collection of experiences to pull from. Minor and moderate hurts can always be exaggerated for effect in his writing, to match up how things should have felt.

But in his dreams...

Does he really want to think about this?

A sliver of hazy light peeks in at him through a gap between his pillow and the couch cushion and he hurriedly covers up the space.

Yes, yeah sure, think about it he will.

As if to torment his waking self with even more dissonance, every lost limb, every stab or poke or spike, every death he experiences in his dreams...

Feels...

Alright.

Relaxing even, calming, he feels great even if he knows it should hurt, even if his dream character's screams echo in his ear, startling him awake some nights. Or days. Or mornings.

His sleeping habits are a wreck. But that aside—

It's as if his mind has two, or more, layers to how events are presented to him. On the surface, where most of everything occurs, his character walks and talks and thinks and reacts as they 'should.' But beneath that, there's him, the Ghost, the Observer. Sometimes he's perfectly aligned with his dream character. Sometimes they're slightly off kilter with one another. Sometimes he's far removed, completely out of their body, shadowing them. The Ghost feels no pain, but he knows when he should. He just... doesn't.

When his 'Kara' had been attacked on the train, he'd seen the crushing hug and only felt an embrace. When fingers had pierced Kara's side and arm, he'd only felt a type of satisfaction, the equivalent to when he scratches an itch. When Kara had been eaten...

They had fully separated. He could see Kara stare dead ahead into nothing while he was stuck and could only watch it happen. Kara's eyes had burst in his skull and oozed out with blood and some sort of fluid. He had to look up the name of it afterwards when the image wouldn't leave him in his waking hours. Vitreous humour.

But while Kara had screamed and choked and swallowed down sludge inside that giant eye, he had felt something like the beginnings of a sneeze, a watering at his eyes, and then release and satisfaction, but further... Once the burning started, curling smoke and blackened goop breaking apart and disappearing into thin air, he had felt good. As if losing an eye and having its remains burned out of his head would feel nice. Even now, he can't describe it. Maybe...

If he were to put it into words, he'd say it felt like someome placing their thumbs at his eye sockets and pressing down and in, popping something out of his head.

No, that doesn't work, that's pain, again. Disturbing, uncomfortable, gory... He can't say it like that, people would think he's...

Ugh.

Then... more like... If that pop was the equivalent to removing something that shouldn't be there?

He has no idea how to describe this.

Closing his actual eyes, he tries again. He might need to explain this to someone in person, someday. Hopefully never but he might as well be prepared.

...Losing his eyes, watching Kara lose his eyes, had felt like removing a very obnoxious splinter under his skin. It had felt like the removal of something that shouldn't have been inside of him in the first place, and so its loss was relieving instead of traumatic. For whatever reason, 'the dream' had decided that those spaces in his head were naturally supposed to be empty, and he had 'agreed,' and so events had arisen and twisted about in order to make that happen.

It is this type of reasoning could be called the third layer of his dreams. One beneath 'himself' that looks into the strange nonsense decisions and pathways his dreams can take. Maybe even the start of lucid dreaming, if he could ever feel his way into that layer of thought, of dream logic, more often than almost never. He's tried to reach that place in his dreams but nothing has ever worked. He can't train himself to do it either, making attempts at lucid dreaming have ended only in spectacular failure. His brain had rebelled against it, locked him into looping sequences of gibberish that were even worse than normal dreams and so he had quickly stopped trying.

Those loops that go nowhere, he would call them, and one other thing, nightmares in truth. If he ever started having those on a daily basis, he knows for a fact he'd never sleep again except under extreme duress. He'd stay awake until he was forced to pass out, praying for dreamless sleep.

As for the other thing...

Dreams with real people. In a real world setting.

He almost never has them, but he'd classify them as nightmares too. He'd sooner take a thousand reiterations of his normal dreams than a single one of those. They're the most dangerous kind. Out of all the types of dreams he has, each one affects him poorly, but those ruin him.

If they had a threat level... starting at the bottom would be dreamless sleep, a rare beauty that still comes with its own pros and cons. Cons being: waking up feeling only half rested and closing his eyes only to open them to a completely different time, something he'd call a Time Skip. The pros would simply be not being pushed further away from 'real life.' Nothing happened, therefore his condition hasn't worsened.

A step up from this would be his normal dreams. They usually have a clear start and end, although sometimes they can warp into something worse, only worse and never better. Whenever he has one of these, he categorizes them into Originals, Offshoots, and Alternates. What he's written so far is the incomplete story of an Original version of a dream he's had many times before. He won't write the other versions. He...

He's getting off track again.

The next step up would be the looping nonsense. Completely indescribable, chaotic and meaningless, there's no story to them, no rules, no world, just... A horrible feeling stretched on and on and on in a background mess of colors and a jumble of places smashed together. He could describe it as simply a 'stress dream' if someone asked but that wouldn't be nearly enough to explain. There's one upside to them, however. If he does ever have a Loop, he's usually blessedly woken up by one of his brothers hitting him awake. Apparently he makes noise during Loops but not during his normal vivid dreaming.

He's tried asking his brothers what sort of sounds he makes but none of them will give him a straight answer. They only say... the same words to him.

Painful, annoying, don't worry about it, shut up already.

Well...

The final tier would be real world dreams. The worst kind of nightmares. He doesn't need to think about it, does he? He's already thought about it twice in one day and that's enough to last him for the year.

Yeah.

No need to elaborate.

Forget about it.

Wiping his face, he finds that his tears are still fresh. A rush of emotions almost hits him but he stops the wave by refusing to acknowledge it. Not yet, not now, not here. Later, think about it later.

Or never, never is a good—

No, he can't ignore things forever, that's how he started experiencing Time Warps in the first place. Oso's phrase comes to mind...

"You cant ignore unpleasant shit forever."

Ironic, considering Osomatsu has built his adult life around doing just that. But they're not the same person at all.

...Should he write down a lexicon of his vocabulary terms inside his notebook? In case he loses his mind completely and thrusts the book at someone so he won't have to explain everything with spoken words alone?

Later, always later.

Though it causes him a great deal of stress to do so, he lowers the pillow from his face and clutches it to his chest instead. He takes a long moment to stare at the fabric of the couch cushions, noting their wear and loose threads, before sliding his legs off the couch, one after another. Righting himself in one jerking motion, his eyes dart over to the clock in the tiny kitchen area, which he can see from here thanks to the apartment being so small.

He's been awake for over forty-eight hours. He's been writing for well over twelve.

Head snapping to the side, he checks the window again. The setting sun has barely moved.

Well.

That's new.

Usually ambling down the path of his fleeting threads of thought makes him lose chunks of time. But now, it seems as if he's in some sort of hyper-drive. The phrase at the speed of light comes to mind. He can't figure out whether this is good or bad. How long will it last?

As his eye follows the stretch of his own shadow now that he's seated upright, it comes upon a glass of water sitting upon a coffee table in front of the couch.

Oh no.

There's a paper between the glass and table. There are words written on it, he can spot his name there, printed in bold, larger than anything else.

Karamatsu. And an exclamation point. Several, in fact.

He's Karamatsu and he's never wished harder to be someone else. Except for maybe one other time, but right now, it's a close second, a near tie.

Anxiety, fear, and shame weave themselves into gauze over his mouth and nose. He can breathe but his breaths are muffled, he's suddenly unable to get enough air with each inhale and each exhale makes his face grow uncomfortably hotter.

He could knock over the glass, spill the water by 'accident,' and make the note illegible.

But he doesn't. Karamatsu's grown accustomed to having intrusive thoughts and forcing his body to not follow through if they're destructive ones. It had taken him years to stop throwing punches.

Don't think about that right now.

Placing the pillow to his side, he stands up, laces his fingers behind his head, angles his face upwards, and breathes in deeply through his nose. Exhales through his mouth. Breathing with deliberation, he's used to doing this too. No one else has seen him come close to real anxiety except for Chibita. He's fine. Whatever is written on the note... It'll be fine.

He wishes he had a second or third voice in his head to magically give him insight, like Kara had. Then again, that would be 'very bad,' wouldn't it? Although... he does have his own thoughts and that's nearly the same. But it's all him, just him, and he's still well put together, isn't he?

Picking up the glass and firmly setting it to the side, he swipes the paper up.

His hand clenches around it and he immediately stops himself from crumpling it up into a ball.

In the hazy light of the sunset, Karamatsu drags his eyes across each line of text.

Karamatsu!!!

If you run away, I'll tell Todomatsu that something is up with you, and this time I won't be ignored, you can bet your ass I'll make at least one of your garbage siblings listen to me.

If you're reading this then I had to leave for work, I have a shitload of day jobs to do, it doesn't mean I left you because I don't care about you or whatever shit you might come up with in your head, got it? Drink the water by the way and for fucks sake eat something, I'm leaving you food in the fridge.

I haven't read whatever it is you're writing. You wouldn't respond to me and honestly it was freaking me out. It still kind of is considering I'm writing this in front of you and you're not paying attention to me at all. What the hell??

We need to have a talk. I won't be opening the oden stand today. Don't you dare run away Karamatsu! You had better be here when I get back.

The hasty writing ends without a signature but it's definitely from Chibita. The water is room temperature now, and judging by the mark on the page, it had been cold when his friend left it out for him.

He drinks it anyway. He can follow directions. Usually.

Being reminded of how long he's gone without drinking or eating prompts his body, particularly his stomach, to cramp on him and twist to show its displeasure. The glass in his hand is already empty and he feels like he hasn't had anything to drink at all. The only upside to this level of need his body displays is that he won't feel sick to his stomach if he drinks and eats now, even if he thinks about things that are upsetting and of course, his mind assaults him with something that he's been delaying before the thought of convenience is even over.

Crying in front of another man's fridge is not a thing he thought he'd ever be doing in his life but here he is. At least these tears are silent.

Opening the fridge and scanning its contents for something clearly set aside for him, his brain projects the image of a dead 'Oso' before him. It looks so lifelike.

Karamatsu's brain is both good and bad at remembering things. Events in his own life before high school are blurry. Childhood is hazy. The normal occurrences of everyday are completely forgettable. But when it comes to his brothers, things he's seen them hold, like favorite items or snacks, are memorable. Their expressions are easy to re-imagine. Their sleeping figures are also a permanent fixture in his head. It's this last thing that's most often transformed into some sort of death pose. Thankfully, it doesn't happen too often without prompting when he's awake.

But it does happen in his dreams. And the images his brain has memorized are from nearly every angle.

Standing above them. He's seen them from that angle each time he woke up and couldn't bear the thought of going back to sleep. Like a creep, he'd spend a minute or two just looking over them, making sure they were all actually present in the room. He had needed to readjust to sensing their presence, listen to their breathing, affirm to himself that they were fine, alive, and all accounted for. Afterwards, he'd silently walk out of their room and stay outside for the night. Chalked it up to getting an early start on exercise when really he'd just been pacing the streets nearby their house. He'd come back inside for breakfast and leave again, only returning to the house once everyone else had either left or settled down somewhere. Then he'd pick someplace to crash and sleep alone, usually somewhere his body could be found just in case someone needed him.

Just in case he had a Loop, his sleep noises could be heard and would be annoying enough to interrupt.

Leaning over them. Hovering from just above. He's seen each of his brothers sick and sleeping, either dead to the world or restless and feverish. Both images have been twisted into something frightening in his dreams, taking the form of the stop of a slow rise and fall of their breaths. Or the redness of their cheeks becoming too bright, turning into running blood or fresh scrapes and bruising. It spurs him every single time to take care of them, even if they hate the attention, even if they ignore him, even if he gets sick from their sickness. His own fever dreams are usually blank and empty.

At one point he had considered allowing himself to continuously fall ill in order to chase dreamless sleep. But that hadn't worked out, Choromatsu in particular had become especially... Irate with him. His younger brother had assumed Karamatsu was simply being difficult, obnoxious, stupid. Wearing clothes that were always inappropriate for—

It doesn't matter. The last time he had done that was around a year ago. And up until now, he had been sure Choromatsu would forget. But he had told everyone that Karamatsu was getting sick just last night.

Last night feels like it happened days ago.

Night...

The worst possible angle he's seen his brothers in during his dreams, when he's shown their counterparts dead bodies, has to be up-close. Sleeping next to each other for years has netted him the image of each of their faces beside him, only a hand's length away from his own. He's opened his eyes from a dream only to stare in front of him at the same face he just saw with sunken in eyes and hollow cheeks and an open bleeding mouth. He's had to resolve the dream image into one of a living brother, perfectly fine, dripping only drool and not blood, not something worse.

His eyes leave the image of Oso's corpse and dart back to the fridge.

There's a spread of typical breakfast foods inside, neatly set aside and covered and each item has a paper with his name on it. Chibita must have thought Karamatsu wouldn't eat anything from someone else's home if wasn't specifically labeled for him, assuming he wasn't with his brothers and simply being a huge shitter and following with their hive mind.

Well, Chibita was right. He wouldn't have touched anything and yet there are options to choose from, all with his name on them. Had he ever noticed Chibita being this meticulous before? His perfectionism for oden apparently applies to all foods he prepares, as each bowl and plate looks restaurant worthy.

Karamatsu should have noticed this from the last time he was here. But he had been so self absorbed back then, hadn't he?

He still is really, barely anything has changed.

Picking something at random and warming it up in a dinky little microwave, his eyes travel back down to the tiled floor, back to Oso's dead body. Right, that had never disappeared, and blood has seeped out beneath him.

It's not actually there, but he's good at imagining things. Too good, really, it's troubling. More than troubling. He should probably.

Probably...

No.

Staring down at the image of someone who isn't his brother but looks exactly like him, his tears well up again. Oso, in his dream, had been someone not even his dream character could hate or blame or judge. Somehow, Kara had felt it in his heart, that if Osomatsu was dead then the world was no longer worth living in and the death of any others would only naturally follow. The landscape itself had turned red and the buildings had crumbled and the people had dropped off one by one. Everything ends if Osomatsu dies. That's what it had felt like. There was no way to describe this dream logic within the confines of his approach to writing the dream as just a story. Even now, it's unexplainable.

What would his brothers think of the notion, even if only in a dream, that if Osomatsu died, all their deaths would naturally follow? And that Kara, Karamatsu...? Would allow himself to fade away too.

He doesn't want to know.

Karamatsu shoves the question away, even as it fights him to be thought about, to be answered.

Not now. Maybe he'll think about it again later.

Checking the microwave's timer, he finds that only thirty second have elapsed.

...Right. Something else then.

Oso's corpse is replaced by Chibita's and Karamatsu inwardly flinches and curses at his brain.

Fucking dammit. Always the dead bodies. He always needs to get rid of them first.

Chibita... His real friend is fine. The note is proof of that, his apartment is further evidence of a world not invaded by red light, and the food Karamatsu's warming up is yet another reminder. Everything is sort of okay.

But truly, the body looks horrific and he's not sure how he was able to imagine such a thing. Maybe one too many horror movies or crime scene shows or murder mystery novels? Possibly even an old history assignment on Sokushinbutsu...

Chibita's moving corpse pinning him down, his shoulder blades digging into cold stone floors—

Emptiness, and how it felt when physically touched with his own fingertips—

Emptiness in his dream turned people into bottles. Bottles with no caps, bottles turned over, bottles that had their contents spilled out onto the floor or drunk, liquid splashed into an open and waiting mouth. Bottles that had one final desire etched into their inner surface, written so that the message could only be deciphered if seen through a mirror. The outside would have clear writing saying Devour, Eat, Consume. But the inside...

Had he taken a mirror to Chibita's bottle, its inner writing would have said Stop the Traitor, Warn the Team.

Iyami's would have said Stay by Oso's Side Until the Very End.

Kara hadn't felt the writing through his fingers or seen the image of a bottle but Karamatsu had, through him. The feeling of simply knowing something that his character doesn't is always strange. It happens when they're misaligned, when Karamatsu as the Ghost drifts a little too far, like a copy-pasted image skewed over the original.

There had been other things Karamatsu had known or picked up on as he haunted Kara. Ichi and Todo had been trouble recruits, the Agency had wanted them due to their strong Traits but they were on a watch-list detailing them as difficult, stubborn, and too inquisitive. Oso and Iyami had been assigned to their temp team to keep watch over them. Ironically, Orbit had also given their orders for the pair to observe the Medic and Parser, to invite them in if they showed enough distaste for the way the Agency operated.

But Ichi had wanted to help people even if they were ignored by the vast majority of the population, he had championed the outcasts, the strays. And Todo had dug too deep into other people's business, he had dirt on too many people, he was a threat that could expose too much, flip over too many stones and cause too many ripples in a rather large sea of people of import. They would never have joined, even Kara knew this.

And Choro and Jyushi...

The Alternate paths, the Offshoot dreams.

The beeping of the microwave finishing its job gives Karamatsu an excuse to delay thinking about those particular things. But his mind in general is still running its wheels and cogs and gears at top speed.

What's a safe topic to think about while he eats?

There isn't really anything that falls into the category of 'safe' when it comes to his dreams.

Something the least damaging then.

Kara, he guesses, as he recalls where Chibita keeps his utensils and seats himself back on the couch.

Kara...

Karamatsu could never be as bold or as brave as his dream Kara. Had Karamatsu been on that train from the start, he would have surely perished in the first encounter. He would have never even followed Oso to the front cabin. He would never have figured out his Cover either, in Kara's place. His hand would have been cut to pieces if he had the gall to swipe it over the red light, especially since Kara's activation of his Cover skill was dictated by strength of will alone. Because Kara had assumed the light was merely light and that one of his teammates was about to do something that could possibly hurt them, he had been able to use it without thinking, banishing the idea of a threat. Things might have gone differently if Kara had seen the light cut something before he had fearlessly broken it, but that hadn't happened.

Karamatsu would never have been able to use Cover, even after figuring out how it worked from shadowing Kara further.

Invulnerability as a power, but only if one believes in it...

The scenario is equivalent to if he was told in real life that he could definitely fly. It would never happen. He could fall off his roof a hundred times and never get his supposed power to work. Karamatsu just wouldn't believe hard enough to ever use it. And with that first step missing, that vital first experience of using an ability like flexing an unknown muscle, he'd remain powerless.

He wouldn't have been able to Jump either. He hadn't done it justice in his writing, already too affected by having to write about Osomatsu's death... Even a dream death is enough to cripple him for a few hours. Or days. Depending on how long it takes to get over it. Somehow, he never gets used to the loss of characters in his dreams. It sucks every time. It...

He doesn't have time for this! He needs to eat and write something easy to understand for Chibita, if his friend is going to... Have a talk with him.

We need to have a talk.

One of the worst phrases in any language.

Pushing his food around, Karamatsu notes it's still steaming hot.

The new speed of his thoughts is persisting. Is it because he focused so diligently on writing? This isn't something he's ever encountered before, not even in high school when he wrote daily. Then again, he's never been forced into writing under these specific set of circumstances and about his own convoluted dreams. But if writing results in this sort of hyper thought processing... He'll have to be careful. Instead of spacing out for a whole day, he might condense that day's worth of self torment into a single hour.

What was he even thinking about before this?

Right, the reflective Jump and how he'd rushed because he couldn't bear to write Kara's emotional pain in detail, hastily scrawling out the end. One End at least. The 'happiest' ending, the Original.

Too many thoughts at once. Pick one.

The Jump then, just the Jump.

Inside that space beyond reflection had been shards of reflective surfaces glinting and winking at him from all directions, each tiny or large or massive 'window' suspended in between nothingness, his brain wouldn't supply him with either a dark or light background, there was just nothing. If he absolutely had to describe it, it might be like the noise one can see when they close their eyes and stare at the back of their eyelids for too long.

Time flowed differently inside of that space, separately from the outside world. The longer Kara stayed in there, by his own reckoning, the worse of a prickling sensation he'd felt on his body. So there was a limit to how long he could hide inside, but that limit was never reached since he was determined to go in and out as quickly as possible, within a certain time frame relative to the outside world.

But Karamatsu the Ghost had no such restrictions, and he'd been able to sit inside that space and watch through several surfaces at once. It was bizarre, like having a camera angle of a single event from all the oddest positions. The Jump sequence had lasted minutes for Karamatsu while for Kara it had only taken seconds for his actions to be completed.

Time is already a strange thing in his dreams to begin with, and for it to have been doubly so due to an extra layer of awareness, that Dream Logic layer, he'd gotten more than a little disoriented when he woke up feeling like his brothers were dead despite knowing otherwise.

He's getting off topic again.

Karamatsu's hastened thoughts have unfortunately not become more streamlined. It's a shitty problem to have, and now he gets to chastise himself ten times a minute instead of only once.

Lovely, perfect, brilliant.

It's annoying, bothersome, frustrating, he hates himse—

When Kara used his sight to eat everything, he had peered into that space. Karamatsu had felt the slightest bit of fear that Kara would see his own reflection and Devour himself or see Karamatsu the Ghost and eat him. But that hadn't happened. Instead, Karamatsu was able to watch as Things simply got sucked in, dragged through spaces that shouldn't have been wide enough for them to fit. And from there, they were pulled out again, tossed into the pit of Kara's eyes. Other Eyes that had attempted to hide from him in that space were easily plucked out as well.

Karamatsu had curiously looked into Kara's empty eyes once he figured he couldn't be eaten, that he was safe as a Ghost.

And inside that dark space in his head...

From an impossible distance away, he could spot a dot of color. A single blue eye. Inside Kara's head. Inside his own head.

Ghost or Character, the divide between them shifts and wavers and doesn't always stay solid or fluid. It's ever-changing. It's difficult to explain. Karamatsu needs to come up with a way to put everything to words before Chibita walks back into his apartment.

Or he could run from here, let Chibita call Todomatsu, and run from home too.

He's fortunate that his body refuses to feel nauseous, because he's just eaten everything in front of him and he can't recall ever knowing what it was.

He had only picked something out at random, right?

He hadn't actually looked at it.

Scanning the kitchen counter, he sees a slip of paper with his name on it.

Oh good, Karamatsu didn't eat it. Though it would have been fitting with his thoughts. Karamatsu 'eating' Karamatsu—

The clink of his dish hitting the sink startles him. When had he gotten up from the couch? Why is he like this?

Swiping the slip of paper with his name on it and shoving it into his pocket, Karamatsu washes his dish and sets it aside while thinking of every term he needs to explain. He'll have to do it fast, write out his Lexicon because he definitely can't see himself speaking without tripping over his words and completely shutting down by spouting half-assed excuses for poetry.

He glances at the clock.

No way.

This can't be happening, surely it's wrong?

Taking more time to double, then triple check, Karamatsu stares hard at the clock, disbelieving. He feels like he's being misaligned from himself, that 'Karamatsu' is just another one of his dream characters because—

It's only been fifteen minutes since he first checked the time.

He stomps his way over to the window before suddenly reminding himself he's in an apartment. Overly cautious, he kneels on the couch again and stares out at the sunset. The sun has dipped lower into the horizon, which is reassuring, until he is again self-reminded that this means Chibita is headed home right now since he won't be opening the Oden stand.

Dammit, how much business is Karamatsu costing his friend—

Jamming his hand under the cushion, he retrieves the item that's suddenly become the most important material possession he owns. His notebook. His dream journal.

He should look into possibly backing it up somehow, buying a flash drive, maybe scanning its pages at the library—

Without stomping on the floor this time, he walks around until he finds and grabs his pen. It's almost out of ink from his single writing session and that's inconvenient, he'll have to start carrying multiples, wear clothes with better pockets—

Fuck fuck fuck!

He writes.

Character vs Self

Self: the real world dreamer (see Dream Layers)

Main Character (MC): the current acting 'star' of the dream, the lead role. Main Characters can 'die' within the dream and be replaced by a Side Character.

Side Character (SC): any character(s) that can become the Main Character given the instance of death or separation from the MC.

Other Characters (NPC's): all other characters that don't fit the criteria of MC or SC.

Ghost: the Self as a ghost, always 'haunts' the MC no matter who the MC becomes given the instance of death or separation. (see Dream Layers > Alignment)

Observer: the Self as only an observer, in the case where there is no MC but dream events continue to play out. (see Dream Types > Offshoot).

Dream Layers

0. Alignment - Imagine a scale from 1 to 100. Now Imagine a transparent image of a person. Now duplicate it. The lower the number, the further away the two images of the person drift apart. Full Alignment is at 100. Alignment dictates the experience of the Self as a dreamer.

1. Surface - This 'layer' includes MC typical actions, thoughts, and decisions. Access to the Surface implies the Ghost is Fully Aligned with the MC. Ghost and MC are essentially the same despite being 'different' people. ex. Dreamer "Ka" and MC "Oso" combine into a single acting MC which acts primarily as "Oso" would in any given situation.

2. Self (Awareness) - This layer includes awareness of the Self as either Ghost or Observer. Spectrum of Alignment comes into play as this layer can only be reached through any degree of misalignment, in other words in any case where Alignment isn't at 100. The Ghost can influence MC choices and sometimes sees themselves as 'out of body' from their MC. An MC is never aware of their Ghost (see Exceptions) but the Ghost remains stuck haunting their MC, knowing what they know, following or making their decisions, feeling what they feel (see Exceptions > Pain). In the event of no MC, the Observer can choose which Characters (SC's or NPC's) to follow but cannot influence them.

3. Beneath - aka Dream Logic aka Lucid Dreaming(?). Brushing upon this layer while dreaming will give the Ghost or Observer innate knowledge of a dream world, its rules, how it operates, the paths it can take, etc. May also grant the ability to make a 'Decision' that can alter the dream entirely/change the course of the dream (extremely rare phenomena). There's almost no way to reliably reach this layer. Sometimes innate understanding of a dream is only attained by the Self upon the dream's conclusion and/or waking up. Rarely will this occur during a dream, even rarer for the knowledge to be passed down to MC via Ghost. *NEVER attempt to induce Lucid Dreaming! (See Dream Tiers > Loops)

Dream Tiers (Real World Intensity Scale)

0. Dreamless Sleep - As the name implies, no dreams at all. Will net a 'half-rested' feeling, Time Skip (see Time), and no further sense of disconnect from reality. Nothing happened, nothing worsened, nothing lost/nothing gained. About as good as it can get, not too disorienting, can bounce back in a few minutes. Can be induced via sleep during Sickness. Can be induced via exhaustion. *This is not advised. Energy steadily declines, leading to more instances of collapse, tested and found that the risk of Looping due to exhaustion is too high. Not worth it.

1. Dreams (Normal) - Vivid, nonsensical, morbid. Dreams at least (usually) have a Beginning and an End. Can feel like an eternity. Worst dream felt like years passed by. Rate of experiencing a disconnect (dissociation) with reality is high. Hard, but not impossible, to recover from. *Do Not ignore disconnects, will eventually lead to Time Loss (see Time).

2. Loops (Nightmare) - Looping nonsense, not a dream at all. Extremely stressful both during a Loop and after waking up. Left with persisting feelings of depression, anxiety, dissociation, fear, etc. Very Intense. Avoid at all costs. *Do Not attempt Lucid Dreaming, Do Not pass out from Exhaustion unless it can't be avoided.

3. Real World/Life/People (Nightmare) - No.

Dream Types (Content)

1. Original - Either the first iteration of a dream OR the 'best outcome' version of a reoccurring dream. These are usually one and the same.

2. Offshoot - Dreams (set in a previously experienced dream world) that follow only SC's and/or NPC's.

3. Alternate - Other versions of the same dream. Outcome is always worse than Original. Multiple 'bad end' scenarios. Can include Offshoots. ex: "Original Offshoot" vs "Alternate Offshoot"

Time Related Terminology (Real World Phenomena)

1. Time Skip - When time is lost in the blink of an eye (a literal feeling, not just a figure of speech). Only known trigger/cause is dreamless sleep. Mild disorientation, negligible if ready for it, expecting it, or inducing it (all via an expected instance of dreamless sleep). Not known to happen under other circumstances.

2. Time Stop - Time slows down, a moment stretches on and on (again a literal feeling). Can eventually lead to a full stop, which can result in the creation of a near Photographic Image (memory). Very Disorienting! Stops on its own usually. *At least one known trigger for Time Stop, combined with lethargy, sleepiness, and possibly tranquility(?). Falling asleep to this specific trigger can lead to anything (see Dream Tiers). Staying awake (in the event of this specific trigger) very rarely results in a total blackout which leads to Time Loss.

3. Time Loss - The worst possible outcome. Real World Self does things that can't be recalled/remembered. Real World Self seems to act 'normally' (mostly) but doesn't respond to people 'properly.' Time Loss is the most dangerous effect of disconnection! NEVER able to remember events point blank! No known Direct cause/trigger. Seems to stop randomly after some time has passed, longest Time Loss currently stands at 2-3 hours (best estimate). Extremely disorienting, have always been nauseous afterwards, can't stay near anyone for long periods of time during recovery. Avoid at all costs!

Exceptions

*MC being Unaware of Ghost - at least one dream where 'Ghost Haunting' was a major 'Plot Point' not sure if this counts, multiple layers of Ghost(?), double MC (a Character and their ghost) leaving the 'real' Ghost (of Self) to haunt them both. It doesn't matter, reclassify later.

1. Pain (non-Physical) - Non-Physical (ex. emotional) pain from within a dream. It hurts. Phantom pains experienced by Real World Self upon waking up. 'Taken Apart' feeling. Don't ask. It just hurts. Might just be a by-product of how Self deals with emotional stress in general, dreams or no dreams. Don't. Ask. Can't explain yet.

2. Pain (Physical) - MC experiences physical trauma within the dream. Ghost 'understands' injuries and damage but feels 'something else.' Upon waking, disorientation. Death is relaxing somehow. Don't. Ask. It doesn't hurt, it's weird. Can't explain yet.

Karamatsu heavily suppresses the urge to tear off the "Exceptions" part of the final page of his Lexicon. It's horrid, too personal, and just plain stupid as he reads it back to himself. But he can't find the will to rewrite it or add further details.

What an embarrassment.

The moment pain turns to pleasure while he is awake will be the moment he dies of absolute mortification. It is for this reason that he hasn't fallen to the cliché of pinching himself to check if he's dreaming. Not only would it be not enough, he doesn't ever want to find out that particular switch in reaction to physical stimulus has followed him into his real life.

What he thinks is his real life anyway.

Pain being normal is the only indicator he has left. He doesn't go out of his way to hurt himself but he won't avoid situations that could harm him. He's become a bit of a careless person over the years.

At least he kicked his habit of picking fights before the dreams started.

A loud bang! at the door startles him from his self-disgusted thoughts.

"Chibi—"

Again and again and again, the banging assaults the door, as if someone is throwing their entire body against it.

Heart rate speeding forth like a race car going from zero to a hundred, Karamatsu breaks out into a sweat and darts into the kitchen to grab anything at all.

Who the fuck is at the door? What is he supposed to do in this situation? If he were in his own home he'd fearlessly confront the attacker, he'd have back-up in the form of his brothers and his parents if they were home, he feels the most safe there when he's wide awake. But at Chibita's he feels like he's in an entirely different world where he's completely vulnerable.

Probably because he is and he could have still been stuck in his writing had the banging started less than half an hour ago, completely oblivious to everything, everyone around him.

He grabs a knife from a knife block sitting in plain view. He can already tell it's wickedly sharp, Chibita has an excellent eye for quality.

What does he even think he's going to do with a knife? Pretend to be deranged, scare off the intruder? As if.

And yet he holds it in front of his body, the trembling of his hands getting worse as the banging never ceases.

Which, of course, it does, the moment he thinks of it.

There's no phone in the apartment, Chibita doesn't have a landline, he has a cellphone like everyone else in the modern era except for five of the six sextuplets.

Splendid, marvelous, incredible.

Karamatsu can't afford one but he should really consider getting the shittiest, cheapest, crappiest model because something is boring its way through the heavy wood of Chibita's apartment door, nearby the first set of locks.

He hasn't made any noise, he could probably hide somewhere and get the jump on whoever is at the door once they come in.

No, wait, he should slam the door open in their face since they're clearly drilling a hole through the wood.

No, wait, someone, anyone, any of the neighbors nearby can't have not heard all the noise, surely someone is already calling the police, but does he really want to take a chance on that?

He's scared and he's standing in the tiny hallway facing the door, brandishing a knife he can't actually use. He's really fucking stupid.

What would Kara do?

Fuck, no, idiot, Kara doesn't exist, Kara's powers don't exist, Kara's entire world doesn't exist, it's meaningless drivel in a notebook that's about to become crime scene evidence and everyone will know that he's losi—

Karamatsu isn't capable of fighting people on his own anymore, he throttled that urge a long time ago, he never thought it'd become detrimental to him at a time like this.

With a heavy thunk, the first set of locks gets popped out of the door. Karamatsu jerks so bad he almost cuts his own face with the knife in his clammy hands.

A thin, bony hand shoots in through the hole left behind and Karamatsu takes a step back, trips on his own damn socks, and lands hard on his ass.

Noise, he's made noise, he's done for—

An arm.

Fingers scrape and scrabble at the door and search for the other locks to undo them, but the arm is too thin.

Karamatsu scoots his ass down the hallway until his head hits the far wall, the dead end. Belatedly he sees the knife standing embedded into the floor by its tip, far away at the other end, he dropped it when he fell.

Damn that's sharp.

But.

This can't be happening.

The angle the arm is forced to assume is too awkward for the person at the door to reach the other locks, and so it withdraws and the banging resumes, now accompanied by an inhuman wailing sound.

This isn't real.

Karamatsu hopes with all his damn glitter and guitar strings and skull themed accessories that this isn't happening, that he's only dreaming, that he's not having some sort of vivid hallucination.

Please let it not be real. He can't fucking tell.

The light from the window casts a shadow of the couch into the hallway but the moment he notices it, something shoots across, spreading a dark line along the floor and up the wall. Vines, a few at first, and then more, grow in seconds, branching off, casting vein-like shadows that try their best to reach him.

Karamatsu draws his legs up to his chest and out of the light. Any plans to retrieve the knife are abandoned like a hat lost to a windy day. There they go, goodbye forever.

With his back pressed to the wall, it's laughably easy for a pair of arms to grab him and drag him further back.

The shadows were a distraction, his brain surmises for him. Makes sense.

One jerking motion at a time, the tiny hallway stretches beyond its limits and grows longer and longer and longer, taking Karamatsu with it. As the door of the apartment gets further away from view, the wailing grows in volume until the arm appears again and desperately seeks the locks once more, but in its frantic search it snaps itself off with a crack and falls to the floor.

Gray fingers drag the broken limb towards the hall but it's futile, the arm is withering away. Skin peels and flakes off, revealing dry bones that break apart into dust and get blown away by an unfelt breeze.

Empty Chibita's arm crumbles into nothing and all sound is suddenly cut off.

Karamatu feels deaf for the longest time, dragged back until he can no longer see the door at all.

Over his neck, almost-but-not-quite choking him, is a glossy black arm with a gold threaded Ogee pattern on it, giving it the illusion of having many eyes, all of which have moving waves of golden light surrounding a faux dark pupil, which is really just the blackness of the arm itself. Probably.

And around his middle, keeping his arms pinned to his sides, is another black arm, but this one has bright, poisonous-green tipped fingers and sharp, glowing green chevrons patterned onto its skin.

The light from both arms pulsates and grows bright, then dims before brightening again.

(You're not Kara.) The smell of blood and ocean water, salt, salt, salt, metal tang.

Karamatsu's eye twitches and he swallows down a gasp. He's seen these arms before. Jyushi and Choro as advanced eaters, they're from an Alternate dream of his. A bad end. He's going to be—

(But you look like him.) A final sigh, a last breath, soft, weak, death.

Another pair of hands clasp themselves over his wrists tightly, restricting his blood flow and he can feel the creak of his bones. He's so scared it no longer matters that nothing is real, he—

Sound leaks into his skull, dripping in through his ear, chilling his brain.

(Is he inside you?)

A voice scratches his face, splitting warm, wet, red lines across his cheek.

(You look just like him.)

Karamatsu can't speak. He can't Jump out of their hold. He can't Cover himself. He isn't Kara. He takes too long to respond.

Irritated, they both squeeze and demand, "Answer."

He isn't being choked out but he can feel his pulse in his head and it's sending disorienting waves through his scalp, and his eyes are watering, no wait, those are actual tears. There's a stinging at his middle, the green parts of Choro's arm are cutting into him one milimeter at a time, it's... It's not painful but he panics anyway, he doesn't want them to know, they'd use it against him, oh god they'd draw it out and drive him mad and he can't stand—

Karamatsu opens his mouth and immediately a line of drool leaks out, his mouth is watering, he wants to vomit, but he manages to eek out, "You...! You already ate Kara!"

A whine, a demand, a golden eye blinks up at him, (But we want more.)

Discovery, information stolen through many tiny cuts, (And Kara must have come from you.)

Excitement, vicious glee, (If he was just a little piece of you—)

A smirking lead up, a small rush of blood as the wind pulls it away, (—Then you must be...)

(Delicious.) Too many eyes.

(Exquisite.) Too many hands.

(Kara was the best thing we ever ate.)

Washed in cold water, being dragged down into the sea.

(Don't disappoint.)

The last breath of air gulped down.

Reeling from the intense invasion of mental images, sensations, and forced feelings, Karamatsu is unable to move as the green tipped hand crawls its way up over his chest and presses its fingers in at the middle, sinking one joint at a time, so, so slowly. Blood wells up but is barely seen before being immediately absorbed into the hand. Pushing inside, it curiously taps at his lungs before suddenly plunging deeper to grasp his heart, making minuscule cuts at its surface, intending to draw out its meal for as long as possible.

Golden eyes from another impossible arm wink at him before snaking forward to follow its green twin, easily widening the wound, Devouring its way inside, spending more time raking its nails over his parts, his organs, before squeezing and crushing them one at a time, eating them whole through its palm.

Mouth slipping open in a silent wail, blood and spit drips down his chin before another hand, he can't tell which color this time, slaps itself over his mouth to catch whatever leaks out, unwilling to let anything spill onto the floor. Nothing can go to waste.

He bites down on it and unseen shoulders behind him shake with silent laughter. They pull him closer, his back is no longer against the wall, he's wedged between two cold bodies.

Karamatsu's blood isn't being drawn away fast enough, he won't pass out at this rate, they're keeping him alive and breathing while everything else is carefully, meticulously, being eaten in small, savored pieces.

Once they sense that he can no longer move, the hands at his wrists let go and thread their fingers through his in a horrid rendition of intimacy, mocking him. A thumb gently runs across his palm and he screams for the first time, crying out his absolute disgust into the hand over his mouth. It twitches and forces his mouth open, he bites down but isn't strong enough to stop it from keeping his jaw pried apart. A finger presses down on his tongue and he can't pull it back far enough to get away from the foul touch. He gurgles, choking on his own spit as a nose is pressed against the nape of his neck.

His thoughts become a string of no's and stop's and let it end, when will it end, just kill him just kill him just stop please just stop don't touch him like this stop touchi—

Someone eats away at something in his middle and he loses all feeling in his legs. Karamatsu cries in relief, that's one entire half of his body he won't be able to feel, it's half over, he's half done, but he moans and his blood freezes as he realizes his terrible mistake and he cries harder.

They know.

Hands stop their revolting caresses, their horrifically gentle eating of his insides. Someone breathes out in fascination by his ear. The fingers at his mouth withdraw and wipe his blood and spit off on his tear streaked face. It's his one and only chance to beg while they're distracted.

"Please..."

He can't.

No, he has to.

"Fuck, god, please, please!"

He falters. Time is running out.

"Kill me! Let me die! Now, destroy me, I'm begging, I'm begging you—"

"No can do, fake Kara." Jyushi grins into his shoulder.

Choro reminds with ill disguised glee, "We can't eat a corpse, you have to be alive."

"Besides, you like this, don't you?" Wet fingers stroke his cheek across their bloody lines, given to him by his one time friend.

Elated, Choro rests his head on Karamatsu's trembling shoulder, disclosing, "We've never met anyone, anything, that enjoyed this."

"Does it feel good?" Jyushi strokes his hand.

"How disgusting. You're perfect." Choro laughs and it almost sounds sincere.

The longer they speak, the more human sounding they become, and it's an awful juxtaposition to what they're doing to him. Nothing hurts but he dearly wants it to, he'd rather take an unending cascade of scouring, mind numbing, shameless, guilt-free pain than this mortifying humiliation, this twist of his senses, this perverse, unwanted, appalling—

Something tears. And snaps. And gives way.

They're pulling him apart, eating away a line, cutting him in half from sternum to pelvis. Things are happening fast or he's finally lost his mind and his ability to tell time, to feel its passing. Whatever the cause, he's grateful he's dying. It'll all be over soon.

His head stays attached to one half of his body and it lolls to the side beyond his control. Everything is beyond him now, he can't even blink.

But he feels the worst kind of shock at seeing another head attached to the other half of his body. Empty, blank, endless pits for eyes stare back at him. Their expressions are the same. Fear, only fear, the only pure thing about them in this state.

With reverence, the wind lovingly strokes his face and softly sighs, (There he is.)

Blood covered lips laugh and deliver a compliment, "Knew you had him in you."

Together,

"Now we can have you both."

they hold hisKaraKaramatsu's hands and drive a stake of glass—

A door slams shut and Karamatsu's eyes snap open.

Although his heart is beating, pounding away at his ears, he hears only white noise and can feel the thrum of his blood in his veins. His body is locked in place on the couch. He can't move. He won't allow himself to move. Whenever he doesn't understand what's happening around him, he shuts down, he curls up, he stays deathly still so that he won't hurt someone by accident, so that he won't hurt himself somehow.

He learned that the hard way very early on.

But it's too soon, he's been stripped raw, his body is still shaking with a nauseating combination of fear and something else.

His face is bright red. He isn't ready to be seen by anyone but reality isn't his friend as he hears Chibita lock his door with two clicks.

There's one thing he can do, and he's the worst sort of coward. He just isn't ready, he'll take any escape, and there's at least a fifty-fity chance he'll have no dreams at all.

He stands and lets the pounding in his head get worse, doesn't fight the darkening edges of his vision, he's felt this before. He knows what this is.

He hears everything as if from far, far away. His fingertips are numb. His face is numb.

He angles himself so he'll fall backwards instead of forwards, towards the couch and not the coffee table.

Karamatsu faints.

Chapter Text

He wakes up.

He's on the ground, no, a futon on the ground, in the small living space inside Chibita's apartment. The coffee table has been moved to the side, placed against a wall to leave a wider space for him on the floor in front of the couch.

Despite his mind immediately kick starting thanks to the effect of his self-named Time Skip, his body is much more relaxed than it was earlier. How much time has passed? How many hours have gone by without him this time?

He might be becoming too accustomed to dealing with these time related side-effects.

Whatever.

It's cursed his life for a few years and humans adapt quickly. And his body, or his brain perhaps, has clearly said No to keeping up such ridiculous levels of intense stress, like a wire being stretched too tightly until it snaps. He knows exactly what that looks, sounds, and feels like from years of guitar practice and tuning. He's the guitar with a broken string in the hands of a novice. Eventually the string will be replaced but for now he feels... nothing really.

If only this would last a little while longer and longer each time it has come to this. Would he take feeling nothing over feeling overloaded?

Yeah, maybe.

No, that's a lie.

Yes, definitely, especially after waking up from his dreams. He'd take that so fast he'd sprain his wrist. In an ideal situation, if he couldn't get rid of his dreams and nightmares altogether, he'd suffer through the experience while asleep and be fine with waking up feeling nothing at all. He's good at pretending to be alright anyway, it'd only take a few adjustments to keep up the act.

He's a performer after all. Karamatsu is an actor... Even if he genuinely does enjoy 'obnoxious' things and used to want to be seen and sincerely searched for love, in any and all of its forms.

He sort of doesn't care anymore. The dreams and dealing with them have eaten up his life. Maybe this is what he gets for ignoring all his real problems as a teenager and an adult.

Even in the dream he wrote out, Kara had 'snapped' and simply stopped moving, stopped fighting, stopped caring. He stopped. And had to be saved by his 'friends' who wore the faces of Jyushimatsu and Choromatsu.

His real brothers, they...

They can't help him and he doesn't want to ask for their help at this point anyway.

There's sound coming from the kitchen, shuffling and the clinks of things being put away. Chibita hasn't noticed he's awake yet.

Slowly, quietly, Karamatsu turns to rest on his side, intending to curl up and pull the covers over his head, but before he can he spots his notebook laying on the ground beside him. It's been deliberately placed there, judging by its position, closed but perfectly aligned with the futon, not merely tossed to the side. Meticulous-Chibita's work, probably.

On impulse, Karamatsu's hand darts out to skew it just a bit, but afterwards he returns to his original plan of hiding beneath the sheet that's been draped over him.

Nothing of his, nothing about him, is allowed to be that orderly. He's a mess that almost no one has noticed yet. But also, he just plain finds amusement doing annoying trivial shit sometimes. Maybe he'll glitter-bomb the next delinquent he comes across. It's the most he'll do for kicks now that he's become a 'pacifist.'

He closes his eyes.

Regardless, now would be a good time to review all those things he set aside, while his brain is temporarily down for the count, while he can't ruin himself so badly he actually passes the fuck out from thoughts alone. Ignoring things further is dangerous... This is just what he has to do now, isn't it? It's gotten so bad he can't just ignore everything anymore.

His brothers and their counterparts...

Himself and his counterpart.

Maybe he should have forced himself to write everything after all. It seems like stress from remembering the dream but not writing it out in its entirety backfired on him. Spectacularly. The nightmare he just had...

It starts with Osomatsu. In his dream, even though Kara had never known him, the moment he heard from Oso that Osomatsu was dead, it had felt like the world had already ended. Suddenly, the setting had ceased to be frightening and stressful and overwhelming. Suddenly... it was only natural that everything would die. Just like earlier, when face to face with an empty Chibita attempting to eat him, to tear into him with its teeth, Kara had stopped inside.

After that, he could only passively listen to Oso's story as it unfolded and slowly, silently agree. Had Osomatsu been Kara's brother, he would have gotten revenge too. He wouldn't have killed the others, however. He would have done something worse, set events into motion that would turn them into Eaters, strong ones, ones that could survive indefinitely in a new world of dire light. Red light, everywhere, in memoriam for Osomatsu. Kara had made sure not to let the thought slip in his mind that he pitied Oso, but Choro had still been able to tell both he and Jyushi wanted to forgive him. Almost everything had been lost at that point, and there was no clear way to bring an end to the coming apocalypse. What use was there in causing one more casualty?

But in the end, Oso had asked for death. And with that last bit of Osomatsu gone, Kara had wanted to follow. Seeing Oso's dead body laying before the three of them had been a horrible reminder of how he had laid in front of them only hours prior, back inside Coil 4, still alive and putting on a performance that Kara wanted to believe in.

What Kara had done in the end wasn't heroic, it was only styled to be as such. What had actually gone through his mind was that there was no longer a point to anything, no meaning to going on, no reason to survive. He had a way to end everything for himself and it was a bonus, a very nice one but still just a bonus, that he could use to pretend to be someone better than he was. To sacrifice himself to save his friends, to save the world... But in truth it was only heartfelt suicide.

As for Jyushi and Choro, he had already resigned himself and detached from them the moment he saw them work together to kill empty Chibita. They were a duo. He was no longer a part of their Team. Kara had a feeling that they would continue without him, as they had in the time when he was gone. Like how his body had felt when 'reattached,' like an old friend.

Karamatsu had written down the words that described it best.

"Familiar but awkward and distant, like they'll never be as close as they used to be. No matter how much time they spent together, the time spent apart ended up being what mattered the most."

He often feels that way about his real brothers, despite having never been physically apart from them for long. But he has been... separated from them for a while.

But thinking back on the dream, the rest he had failed to express...

His nightmare wouldn't let it die. Ironic, really.

While Kara hadn't ever felt guilt, having the emotion consumed, or regret, he had felt shocked and disturbed at how much of himself he lost to pull off his stunt. Suddenly, most of what made him him was gone. His clear blue, empty sea, had been filled with trash, unmentionable horrors, and filth that could never be scrubbed away. He had become unrecoverable, no one could save him even if they tried. Falsely, he had thought that dying would be a relief.

It was not.

When the last bit of him was separated, he realized a few things. One, he no longer held any of his conviction, his drive to do 'the right thing' even under the guise of heroism and two, without this, the primal terror of death was no longer being held back. They would know upon eating him, his terrible secret, and not only that, they would feel his cowardice, his shame. But even all of this emotional turmoil had been swept away in the end and he was almost grateful for the mind-wiping fear. Fear would be an acceptable emotion when faced with imminent, assured death.

Karamatsu had been fully aligned with Kara as he stared at his own body torn in two. And because his friends had envisioned a normal human body for him...

The sight was.

Not pleasant.

The dream refused to end even after Kara's death. Karamatsu had been able to Observe Choro and Jyushi dispose of what remained of his and Kara's... Body. They had been thorough, unlike with empty Chibita, whom they had actually shown restraint for since he had been their teammate. Kara had thought it brutal, the way they dealt with him. But in actuality it had been efficient and the least disrespectful to the man. A beheading and one fatal body blow. They hadn't exploited the Clasper's weakness, they hadn't dismembered his corpse.

They took no such risks with Kara.

The sight of his human body being eaten in their mindscape had been bad.

The sight of his physical Eater body being destroyed was worse. His Clasper half was dealt with... accordingly.

His head had been split open perfectly in half thanks to Choro's usage of Closer. And an Eye had oozed out from the space where his brain should have been, thankfully already dead.

That had been in Kara's head, his head, that had been him, "the brains of the operation."

Dreams are odd things. Karamatsu has wondered but never asked his brothers about their own dreams. They've all had nightmares at some point in time, but he wants to know. Have their nightmares ever felt real? Truly real, indistinguishable from reality in the moment? Is he the only one like this?

...

He might as well finish his thoughts on the dream. Maybe he'll find a way to ask them later. Tomorrow?

No, too soon. Everything is... too soon.

Jyushi and Choro had burned all of Kara's pieces, ignited a pyre with Source, lighting a green flame. That part at least had looked almost beautiful, as long as Karamatsu ignored the charred remains and focused only on the light as it danced and flickered.

A new feeling in the form of a spectral flick of a finger to his forehead assaults Karamatsu. A memory...

"—just as the flames of a fire yet waver in the wind."

...What?

When had he ever said... Ah. Right. He had almost forgotten what he told Choromatsu and Osomatsu right before he... Lost Time.

But just now he heard his own words repeated back at him as clearly as if they were spoken out loud. This is new.

Brow furrowed, he sighs deeply. Hopefully this won't become a new thing that just happens, or if it does continue, maybe it'll actually be useful in remembering real li—

"I heard that! You're awake, aren't you, Karamatsu."

The sleep, even if nightmare ridden, and the rest, even if forced by exhaustion, have done him good as Karamatsu is able to quickly slam a door shut on his running thoughts and walk back on stage.

Although, he's still startled into jerking forwards and hitting his head on the couch.

"Aw jeez..." Chibita sighs as Karamatsu sheepishly sits up and rubs at his head, letting the blanket drop to pool on his lap.

As soon as the minor, thankfully normal, pain fades, Karamatsu leans back on the couch attempting to look laid back, an imitation of suave. Thinking quickly, he recites, "Forgive me if I wanted to sleep a little more, it seems I may have over exerted myself by staying up too long. But it was critical for me to get my writing done without anyone to stop me, and for that you have my gratitude."

Eyes narrowing, Chibita comments, deadpan, "You passed out while standing up the moment I got back. What was so important that you spent like, half a day writing instead of sleeping? Is this what you've been doin' to make yourself look like shit?"

Playing it off as a joke, Karamatsu runs a hand through his hair to intentionally tousle it, asking, "Oh? Do I look that bad? I was going for something world-weary, something with depth of character!"

Blank faced, Chibita takes two steps closer, leans over him, and says with impatience, "Cut the shit man." His shadow falls over his friend.

Immediately dropping his hand from his hair, Karamatsu looks down, spots the notebook, and grabs it, flipping it open to the pages with his most recent writing.

Inwardly, he sighs in relief. The Lexicon section is there. He must have fallen asleep just after finishing it, though he'll still check his pockets later for that slip of paper with his name on it.

Chibita watches him with what he thinks is curiosity mixed with something decidedly unpleasant, apprehension perhaps. Of course, Karamatsu has only ever shown Chibita his very bad poetry, things he regurgitated in high school, a mess of poor decisions and even worse taste. In the end he had turned it into a very strange artform to help cement his over-the-top persona, which he actually had fun with for a while because it was just him, but dialed up to eleven.

Making a show of coughing self-consciously, Karamatsu wordlessly holds the open notebook out to Chibita, feeling very much like how Oso must have felt when he tossed Todo's Device to Choro.

Something like... Please read this and piece it together so he won't have to explain everything with his acting voice. Please call him out. Please see through the veneer. Please understand.

But he knows these are unfair expectations to place on his real world friend. This isn't a dream where everyone magically understands each other and works perfectly together.

Keeping his head down, unwilling to watch Chibita's face as he takes the notebook and reads, Karamatsu slips a hand into his pocket and does indeed pull out a paper with Chibita's handwriting on it. He has the impulsive urge to tear it perfectly in half...

But he slips it back into his pocket and grabs his pillow and blanket, opting to sit on the couch instead so he won't be so low to the ground while Chibita stands. His friend may be short, but he isn't that short, and Karamatsu would rather be level with him once he says... whatever he will say in reaction to what's in the notebook.

After only a short time has passed, Chibita asks with confusion evident in his voice, "What kind of dictionary is this? What's it even for... This all sounds kinda annoying and complicated."

Annoying and complicated.

Well, he's not wrong.

Lie.

This is his chance to back out. Normally his heart would be pounding by now but all he feels is apathy, partly due to his emotional responses being dried up and partly due to such a normal, lackluster response. But he was waiting to be disappointed anyway. And it's always easier to run.

Without thinking about it much, Karamatsu's mouth runs for him, curving into a smirk and detailing, "They're a set of rules for a novel I'm writing." He forces himself to make eye contact with Chibita.

The man eyes him with tired disbelief and parrots back, "A novel. Really."

Is he just fed up with Karamatsu or does he not believe the lie? Nodding firmly, he doubles down and adds, "I'd really like to try my hand at writing a series of short stories that have horror or thriller elements to them since my music career, ah... refuses to set sail."

Not moving from where he stands, Chibita levels a look of distaste at him and retorts, "A horror novel? What happened to your romance schtick? Aren't ya the guy who writes love letters to fish..."

Placing his chin in his hand and looking to the side to showcase his face in profile, he confesses, "I lured not a single fish with my adulation of love." Moving only his eyes to stare at Chibita, he grins, "It was time for a change of pace. Maybe this will be my calling."

Something freezes over in Chibita's hard stare and he states, "I called Todomatsu."

"What!?" He exclaims without meaning to, voice high and strained. His pose is dropped in an instant and his hands clutch the blanket.

With no amusement, Chibita barks out a laugh and comments, "Yeah, that's what I thought."

Moving until he's standing directly in front of where Karamatsu is seated, he glowers and answers without prompting, "No, I didn't tell him there was something goin' on with you. But I did yell at him for leavin' you behind for me to clean up. Told him you were sick and it was easier to drag your ass here than to take you home."

Automatically, Karamatsu replies, "Thank you, you didn't have to do that for me."

Instantly, he gets back a response of, "No, I really didn't."

He leans further back into the couch and says nothing as the tension between them builds a wall he can't begin to talk over.

Chibita has no such handicap.

He jumps into accusing, "Do you think I'm stupid? You can't fuckin' pull that zone out shit in front of me twice in the same span of twenty-four hours and expect me to brush it off. What's going on with you?"

Karamatsu stays silent.

His throat has closed up on him, it's hard for him to swallow, and his chest feels restricted. It's not unusual for Chibita to always sound 'angry' but this is different, this actually stings and his eyes take that as their cue to sting as well. He blinks and finds that he's dangerously close to crying, which is terribly embarrassing.

Oh.

He just remembered he had been crying non-stop during the final parts of his writing session. It would be written all over his face, the evidence of human weakness. He must have looked like a fool in his attempts to cover up the truth.

In some ways, being backed into a corner is a relief. He can no longer run.

But he still can't speak and his lungs feel like they're being bound together with plastic wrap.

Despite his lack of an emotional response, his body seems to commit to being upset, and his hand actually trembles while he does the best he can do in this situation without using words. He points to the notebook.

A beat passes and then a look of recognition flashes in Chibita's eyes, and they quickly dart down to re-read the pages. He takes a much longer look at them this time, reading the lines back and forth more than twice.

Karamatsu wants to curl up and—

He folds his arms over the pillow, keeping it as a physical barrier between him and the world at large.

"...Is this real?"

He can feel Chibita's perturbed stare on him but Karamatsu stubbornly refuses to look the man. He nods, eyes studying the color and fabric of the pillowcase covering his makeshift shield.

Chibita lists off, "Depression, anxiety, dissociation, fear. Time Loss," and it's surreal to hear his writing being read out loud, by a friend's voice no less.

Karamatsu nods again at the unasked question. His head feels empty, his thoughts have stopped. He's stopped.

A thick silence invades the room. Stomping from an upstairs neighbor occasionally breaks it, but nothing else happens as several moments pass.

What had he been expecting, really? Dumping his issues onto someone else was never what he intended to do, and he knows how unsolvable they are, how difficult approaching real problems can be. Karamatsu never wanted anyone to know, and furthermore, he had wished they'd go away on their own if he ignored them hard enough.

His body relaxes and apathy settles in for an extended stay.

He can finally speak again, so he does so with his normal voice and a shrug to his shoulders, saying, "...I think I'll be okay. I figured out a way to make time run normally for me now, and that's what's most important. There's an unfortunate side effect but suddenly I don't think it'll be a problem anymore. Can I keep coming over to your place to write? It's helping. I obviously don't want my brothers to know and my things get destroyed fairly often. If that notebook and its contents are lost to me, I fear I might. I don't know. Keel over and die?"

He absolutely hadn't meant to say that last part out loud. Well, whatever, it's out there.

The couch creaks as Chibita takes a seat next to him.

With difficulty, he begins to question, "...Why didn't you tell me sooner? Do I need to— Dammit I... Are you sure you don't want to tell your brothers? People don't just start dissociating for no reason."

"The dreams—"

A hand smacks the couch cushion between them as Chibita refuses to be mislead, spitting out with ire, "That's not what I'm fucking talking about and you know it. You've always been a space cadet ever since you and your brothers stopped being weird clones of one another. How long have the dreams been going on, huh? I bet it didn't start before your zone outs."

...This isn't something he wanted to acknowledge in his lifetime.

All Karamatsu can say is, "You're right. I've been... Detached from a variety of things for a while. Since high school at the very least, maybe even further back, I can't remember anymore. The dreams started afterwards."

He feels 'detached' right now, this time from his emotions instead of from his surroundings. It isn't that bad. It's better than anxiety, better than depression, better than anger. He doesn't have to ignore things if they no longer strongly affect him. He could write out all his dreams now and keep himself from losing time. He can be semi-functional again, and it'll only cost him his mind while asleep. He can make this work. And if it doesn't, well. There's always plan B.

Meanwhile, Chibita seems to be holding back a tirade as Karamatsu finally side-eyes him to get a look at his friend. Eventually, the bald man settles on offering, "Okay. Write at my place, leave your book here. But you have to talk to me—"

Scoffing, Karamatsu interrupts, "About what? What's there to talk about? You've apparently already figured me out. Congratulations, I'm dissociating, I have been for ages."

Stunned for only a moment, Chibita reacts with fire in him and a deep scowl, clearly stating, "You have to talk to me about the shit that's upsetting you, the shit that's making you disconnect. If it's only gettin' worse over time, if it's givin' you such intense dreams, dontcha think it's important to stop keeping it to yourself! God dammit, you idiot, why the hell have you kept this a secret?"

That pisses him off.

Why would he keep it a secret? Where the fuck should he start? The fact that it's deeply personal for one, and another it's bizarre, nearly unexplainable to any normal person. It's painful, it's embarrassing to just tell someone all the things that are deeply wrong with him. It's private, and it's so very easy to misunderstand. How could he ever begin to explain his predicament without writing out a textbook of his deepest fears and insecurities and pains. Why would he ever ever ever share that.

Should he announce to the world that he feels like a ghost in his own damn body? Like he's possessing someone and isn't actually alive? That he isn't real, isn't really real? That he can't remember what his face looks like despite checking it in mirrors every day and seeing it on other people every day? That the most he can recall are his eyebrows and their permanent down turned expression or his sunglasses?

Does he just come out and say that he's made himself as bright and obnoxious as possible just to be memorable to himself? That somewhere along the way the act became permanent? That he started enjoying being so ludicrous because it was easy, it was safe, it was distinguishing even if his brothers turned on him? Does he just talk about when they had gone their separate ways in high school, he had been so alone and that he started drawing attention from people who wanted to knock him down a peg for being 'full of himself'?!

He had reacted poorly, had felt threatened that he'd lose whatever identity he had built up if he allowed them to beat it out of him, and he had always been good at fighting but he'd gotten vicious when no one was around to see. And in the public eye, he had pretended that nothing had changed, that he had joined the drama club when in fact he had quietly dropped out after a measly three weeks to slip into literature.

More than once he had beat someone with a book in his hands.

More than once, he had to stop himself from hitting his brothers when they mocked him using the same words other people had paid for with blood and bruises and broken hands. He deeply resented them for a long time— What he was should have been harmless, it's just fucking clothes and flowery words! Instead it painted a target on him but he refused, absolutely refused to let it go. He tried being nice, he tried giving in to their demands, anything to get their approval again but it had the opposite effect. Pushover status was awarded to him.

And then... he had graduated and stopped caring. He had stopped. Everything was just going to suck forever and he didn't give a shit and he didn't have plans for the future. What future?? He paid attention to his brothers because there was nothing better to do. He figured out their problems. He watched.

Nobody watched him. No one had his back for the longest time. He was too 'painful' to look at, too 'self obsessed,' a narcissist with a worthless mirror glued to his hand showing him fuck all.

Despite feeling less and less alive every day, he made an attempt to make something, anything, to be creative again. He was even using his brothers as inspiration, writing about them, for them, trying to show he noticed them and their problems, he wanted to help them and he wanted to be helped.

And then his notebook was gone.

Nothing mattered, nothing ever matters unless people make things matter and believe things matter.

And Karamatsu doesn't believe.

With a growing meaningless smile, his normal speaking voice exits his mouth as a cloud of poisonous fumes, asking, "...hey Chibita, why do you give a single shit about helping me even though I tormented you when we were children? I bullied you the most out of the six of us demon brothers. That part I remember. What I don't remember is why we're even friends. Ah, no wait. This I know, we're not. You're just used to having freaks visit your oden stand and I'm just another person you pity. You genuinely want to help people, but I've just been inserting myself into your life, haven't I?"

While Chibita is speechless by his complete change in topics, Karamatsu snatches his notebook out of the man's limp hands and pushes aside the pillow and blanket, throwing them to the couch as he stands.

Grabbing his plastic bag of soiled clothes, he walks away while tossing empty words behind him, saying, "Sorry, I'll be leaving now."

As he shoves his shoes on with no feelings at all, the pillow he just abandoned hits his back from behind. Chibita's aim is off.

"I'll tell them!" He sounds panicked.

What the hell does Chibita have to be afraid of? How annoying, that ticks Karamatsu off.

His mouth is stretched into a disgusted sneer so he stays facing the door as he retorts, "No one will believe you. And on the small chance that they do, I'll just leave them too."

"You can't just leave! Ignoring this isn't the right thing to do! Karamatsu, don't." Panic bleeding into anger, the words hit his back with actual force.

That gets him to pause. There are so many things he could say to that, so many mean, nasty things.

I can do whatever the hell I want to, a puny shrimp like you can't stop me.

I don't give a fuck about what's the 'right' thing to do, isn't it obvious? Just look at my life, I have nothing going on.

You don't tell me what to do. You've seen me take down people twice my size.

The last thought delivers a memory to him like a punch to the gut.

Oh.

How had he forgotten.

That's why he and Chibita are friends.

Although his head is still mostly empty of emotions, his hand trembles. As if he was seated atop a high tower, he looks down at himself, at his arm, and he catches the sight of it just in time to watch the plastic bag slip out of his grasp and fall from his fingers in slow motion.

The sound it makes as it lands is impossibly loud. It hurts enough to make his eyes water.

But it doesn't stop him from noticing that the hand holding the notebook, his dream journal, is steady. He would never drop it, his body is with him on that point.

He exhales a shaky sigh directed at himself. He's such a fool, he truly is an idiot. He had almost walked out on someone who is probably his only friend. He had literally forgotten the moment their bond had been forged. The fight that ended one thing and began another.

Before he can dwell on the memory, relive it again, a clammy hand darts out and clasps his wrist tightly. Chibita's grip is strong but nothing like the hands from his nightmare.

However, this isn't a dream, where 'strangers' holding hands is waved away. Not even friends just do that sort of thing, there are even horrid dating shows on the NHK where hand holding is an event that only happens after months of supremely awkward, overly polite interaction. But Karamatsu has pushed Chibita into physically touching him, even though he's such a piece of shit. This is painful, he feels like he's sustaining damage from forcing such a desperate gesture out of his friend.

A depressing thought comes to mind, and he voices it at once with a stutter, "You... You don't owe me anything. For that time, years ago. You don't have to give a damn, it's not your responsibility."

The hand latched to his wrist jerks as if burned but doesn't let go, instead it follows through with the motion, yanking his arm back and setting him off balance. Unprepared, he falls and lands hard on his back. A kick is aimed at his side but it's barely anything, more a gesture than a blow. Karamatsu holds the notebook to his chest and stares at the ceiling as the ache at his back fades a little more with each wave of pain.

An odd mix of wrath and sorrow color Chibita's sentiments as he fires back, "Fuck you too. That's real presumptuous of you, I don't owe anyone jack shit, that isn't why I want to keep you from, from— Whatever it is you think will let you get away from this. I don't know, I don't know! How to help you. Okay? Maybe I shouldn't have threatened to tell anyone your shit before you were ready, I panicked and now it seems obvious that that was a stupid idea but can you blame me? You look like you're going to, to run off and— And that'll just be it, you'll just be gone."

Ignoring all the implications that come with Chibita's words and anxiety ridden voice, Karamatsu evades the topic and tiredly questions, "Hey... Chibita? Do you think I ruined those people's lives? Granted, they can't have been very... Nice to begin with, what with the whole 'hobo hunting' hobby they had. Regardless, did you ever see them around after that? After I beat the shit out of them and had to drop them off someplace public so someone else could find them and have them hospitalized? What would have happened if I left them in that alley? I used to think about it a lot, but then I stopped and completely forgot it ever happened. I think... It was so mundane that the fights in my dreams overrode the memory. Isn't that absurd? I forgot a real fight because it wasn't as flashy or fantastical as my dreams. But it was real, real people got hurt. Badly. Ah, and that's a severe understatement. You would know, you were there, right? Am I remembering it correctly?"

Karamatsu only barely flinches as Chibita doesn't hesitate to reply, "That's really fucked up that you forgot— "

Ah, good old Chibita, ever straight to the point—

"—and I don't really understand how dreams could make you forget, but I do want to know if you'll tell me. And if you're actually having trouble remembering, I'll tell ya what happened. Yeah, those guys were absolute shit, around this time of year they'd mess with anyone out too late who looked too scruffy to be normal. In other words, people who wouldn't be missed if they just up and disappeared. And I never forgot their stupid ass justification that they were cleanin' up the streets of 'trash.' So why the hell would I care that you sent them to the hospital when they beat the shit out of people and left them in deserted alleys to freeze to death. No, I never saw 'em again, good riddance. I don't have the time, the patience, or the fucking motivation to give people like that a second chance."

Karamatsu can see part of Chibita's expression in his peripheral as he stares up at the plain ceiling. The man has the face of someone who looks decided, although it figures he would. If Karamatsu hadn't been out that night, being his usual self and 'seeking inspiration from the bitter winds' then he would have never spotted Chibita getting cornered between two tall buildings, being driven further away from any potential witnesses. If Karamatsu hadn't been Karamatsu... Someone else might be living in this apartment, he wouldn't even be here right now, and years of oden theft would never have happened.

And yet, he finds himself driven to wryly ask, "...'People like that,' you say. Aren't you a bit biased? You keep trying to assist me, but I'm a little like them. And I can't help but think that perhaps you think that you owe me something when really you don't. Osomatsu would have jumped in too."

Another pretend kick to Karamatsu's side is followed by an exasperated reminder, "We've had this conversation before, Karamatsu. I'll give you the short version because honestly, fuck this. One, Osomatsu wasn't there, so 'what if's' don't matter for squat. Two, I already told you I don't owe anyone shit. Three, that fight is what got you to stop picking fights in the first place. You stopped on your own. Don't compare what they did and call it equivalent to what you did. At least you stayed in your own damn lane and fought people your own age who, might I fucking remind you, started shit with you first. Teenagers, I never want to be or see 'em ever again. That entire period of life is hell."

Cracking a crooked smile, Karamatsu finds himself blurting out, "Don't you mean 'you don't owe anyone jack shit?' Maybe you really are getting old, my friend, despite having not even a decade separating you from your teens."

"Shut up ya idiot, and get off my floor, you look like a corpse. Are you done with your fit now? Not gonna just up and leave?"

Although anger is still present in his friend's voice, the undertone of fear persists. Karamatsu will have to be careful around Chibita, the man has strong intuition... But it's all the more reason to trust him.

Not allowing himself to flee any further, he forces his arm to jerk into the air, holding the notebook to Chibita while pushing out his request, "Take it from me. Before I change my mind. Please read the story, the dream, I've written down. There's only one so far, it starts at the back of the book. Once you've read it... I'll... try. To talk to you. You'll most likely have many questions... But please, please, please, don't tell anyone else. People would think the worst, that I have some sort of psychosis and not 'merely' dissociation."

Sitting up off the ground with his back to Chibita and his arm out behind him, slowly dropping, he softly suggests, "Or... you could just forget all this. I'd understand fully and completely if this is too much for you—"

Snatching the book out of Karamatsu's hand, Chibita swiftly interrupts, "I'm gonna stop you right there and tell you again that I want to help. We'll do this slow, okay? I won't rat you out to anyone and you'll keep writing at my place. We'll just lie and say you're doin' the whole apprentice thing again, alright? Or ya know, you could do it for real, it's worth learning! And I won't..."

Taking steps to be visible, standing directly in front of Karamatsu, Chibita struggles with his words before choosing to confess with a serious expression, "...I'll be straight with you. I'm worried. I think I'm a good judge of character and ya look real bad right now, really fuckin' bad. I won't tell anyone unless I absolutely have to. But if I think you're about to do something you can't take back, I'd have to get more people in on this. Don't run, don't be afraid okay? You know me, right? We've known each other since we were kids. Trust me, okay? I know I fucked up a few times in the past, specifically with you... and your shitty brothers. If it turns out they won't be good for you, if they ever find out, I'll help you deal with that too."

Dulled concern manages to worm its way inside the back of his head, and so he plainly seeks an answer, "Who would you ask for outside help from?"

"Your parents." Chibita is conveniently blocking Karamatsu's view of the door.

Trying to offer preemptive support, his friend firmly adds, "Don't freak out. It's a last resort. Promise."

He can feel a crawling sensation running up the back of his skull now. His parents. What a mess.

Wishing to get away from the all too real 'threat' of involving more people in this clusterfuck, Karamatsu nods, not too quickly or too slowly, and glances up at Chibita through his fringe, pushing ahead to the next hurdle.

"Will you read it now?"

He needs to distract Chibita for a while. He needs space, right now. Luckily, his voice comes out level and sincere sounding, he's still avoiding usage of the deepened tone he usually favors. He dislikes using his regular speaking voice for other people but he must convince Chibita that he's being sincere, even if he has ulterior motives.

Despite eyeing the notebook in his hands with consternation, Chibita holds it with care and nods stiffly.

"Yeah, of course. S'what I said I'd do right? Can't help you if I don't know what these dreams are about. Um, anything you wanna tell me ahead of time? You look like you wanna say something important."

Karamatsu really needs to work on being less transparent with his facial expressions. It's an unfortunate drawback to exaggerating them for effect for years as part of his quest to remember. That aside, he pushes himself up and finally gets back on his feet. Now he's the one looming over Chibita.

"I need air. And, more importantly, I can't sit here while you read that. I'm going for a walk." He says it as a statement, not a question, he's not asking for permission to leave even if he feels like that's what's going on.

A number of different expressions almost show on Chibita's face before he finally settles on something tired but understanding. With only mild reluctance, he waves Karamatsu off, advising, "It's cold out, so... Tch, I can't exactly tell you not to come back at ass o'clock because you always wander around, even now, don't you? Just layer up or whatever." Embarrassed, he quickly gets out of Karamatsu's way. Normal aid and advice trips him up more than serious conversation.

Instead of poking fun at the reaction, Karamatsu lets it be, shuffling to the closet to look through the old junk he left behind here. Something gets tossed at his head, Chibita's aim has recovered, but the man is nowhere in sight when he glances around. Looking down, Karamatsu find a key on a plain key-ring. Must be a spare...

He grabs it, gets dressed, and silently leaves. As he faces the outside of the Chibita's apartment door, he gets an uncomfortable sense of déjà vu. Was it really only last night when he coerced his way into his friend's home? So much has changed for him in the span of a single day. His writing, the nightmare, being outed to Chibita. The emotional overdrive, and now the drought. His body feels okay but his head feels... clear, vast, and empty, like there's a lot of space to bounce thoughts around in there, a harsh comparison to before, when he felt clogged up with fog.

Karamatsu figures out which lock the key is for and locks the door with a loud and satisfying click.

Slowly, quietly, perhaps even like a ghost, Karamatsu makes his way down several stairs and back to the street. Standing still under a flickering lamppost, whose light is a plain off-white, not red, his legs automatically turn him towards home. He won't go all the way, just to the park in between here and there.

There aren't many people out, the chilly air has driven them indoors. Karamatsu won't have to worry about running into anyone as he takes his sedate and meandering walk. He stops at every lamppost just to stand under its light for a moment before moving on. The real world... seems too quiet. There isn't even a breeze to be felt. He feels a bit like he's wandering around a ghost town and that the other people he spots in the distance are just other apparitions like him.

Karamatsu spaces out, but doesn't lose time. He doesn't find himself suddenly somewhere else, as he normally would. He's still just standing still under a light, casting a short shadow. Experiencing time again without starts and stops feels tiresome in its own way. Maybe he just can't be pleased with anything anymore. Idly, he touches the lamppost to feel the cold metal on his fingertips before moving on. At least he's not going towards the bridge.

As the park comes into view after he rounds a corner, he drags his feet forward and sits heavily at a bench. It's cold.

He's wearing a mish-mash of clothes. Pajama bottoms underneath worn sweatpants, an undershirt, a dress shirt, an ugly windbreaker.

But he's warm enough and eventually he doesn't feel like he'll freeze—

"Come on, don't freeze your ass off on the roof. Don't you feel cold?"

"No." He answers the air while his body shivers like the flame of a candle in the slightest breeze.

That was Osomatsu's voice. From just yesterday.

There aren't many sources of illumination in the park, he's practically sitting in the dark, haunting a park bench like a real specter, talking out loud to a memory. But all of that is fine, he guesses. He could be doing worse things. He could be feeling worse.

In response, his mind gives him the lovely image of a hand peaking out from beneath his bench. A forearm, just laying there, body presumably out of sight, casting golden light from illusory eyes. Weird, how he can imagine light shining on his shoes even though he's sitting in total darkness. It doesn't last, as another arm, Choro's arm this time, gently pulls its twin back into hiding. They're gone.

Sliding down the bench till his head thunks on the back of it, Karamatsu breathes out a shuddering sigh and looks up at the tree with its dark branches over him, creating a sprawling array of vines against the backdrop of a purple night sky. Clouds, this color he knows comes from cloud coverage and light refraction.

He closes his eyes. Wonders if he could ever be as good of an actor as Oso. Wonders why he'd ever dream of such a bad ending for his brother's counterparts.

There was a dream he had, an Alternate one where Oso had never revealed his story and attempted to kill them to buy time for the growth to bloom. In the end, of course, Kara won and devoured Oso for daring to harm one of his team. He had broken his promise to not eat the Jack, had proved that there was nothing 'pure' about him, that Oso didn't understand him at all. But then, through Devouring him, Kara learned everything.

However, they were too late to stop the scarlet light from being released.

Betrayal, further loss of self, and absolute failure started a depressing downward spiral that dragged them all down a path of fighting and Devouring the best Eaters. With so many versatile Traits at their disposal, they were unstoppable. But they made a terrible mistake when together, they Devoured Shroud. The act killed whatever remained of 'them.' They had been warned that the more you are, the less you were, and Shroud was quite a lot. Warped beyond recognition and powerful beyond measure they...

Kara was 'quite a lot' all on his own, he retained the slightest bit of humanity when the other two had lost all of theirs, just enough to realize far too late that they'd fucked up somewhere along their journey. For him, his death was nearly the same as the Original Kara. Suicide, again, failure, again, irreversible corruption and a desire to have them survive no matter what. They ate all of him and he allowed it.

Either Kara dies and any of the others survive and become Eaters, or he survives and Devours the world as the Abyssal Eater. In that dream, his ocean evolved into one of stars instead of merely water. Karamatsu could never fully understand what happened in the end of that Alternate. The concept is too alien for him to figure out. That particular dream always left him feeling floaty and out of himself, separated from everything. He'd have no reactions to anything for the rest of the day, things would sort of just happen around him and he'd brush everything off.

Even when he burned himself while cooking.

He only remembers that incident because Todomatsu had screamed that Karamatsu's sleeve was on fire. He had only stared at it. He doesn't remember what happened afterwards, just Todomatsu's voice. Urgent and afraid.

"Niisan?"

That's not a scream. But that is Todomatsu's voice—

His eyes snap open and are immediately drawn to the light of a Devi— cellphone, one that's in Todomatsu's shaky hands. A blue glass spire juts up from the ground but the incomplete image is banished nearly instantly as he's blinded by the light of Todo's phone. Todomatsu's phone.

"Todomatsu?" Karamatsu calls out without being too loud while raising a hand to shield his face from the annoying light. He had grown used to the dark and... Guilt sneaks up on him, of course, Todomatsu is afraid of the dark and he's just come across a brother-shaped body draped over a park bench at night.

"Why are you out here?" They ask each other at the same time, one tired and the other peeved.

Karamatsu waves his hand to signal Todomatsu to speak first. It usually goes down this way whenever one of them among all the brothers speaks at the same time. Karamatsu always speaks last.

The light stays trained on his face as his brother manages to sound both irritated and afraid, launching into his explanation, "I was on my way to pick you up from Chibita's. That pipsqueak actually yelled at me over the phone in front of— Well, it doesn't matter. He said you were sick so we decided to bring you home."

"We? Why are you alone then?" Squinting, Karamatsu tries to see past the light to spot Todomatsu but the most he can discern from beyond the glare are striped-gloved fingers around a familiar pink and white phone. There's a rabbit charm dangling from it. Huh, he still has that...

"Short straw. Plus, you know how the others get distracted. Osomatsu-niisan wanted to find a bar we haven't been banned from..." He trails off, shuffling forward, and Karamatsu senses that he's come under scrutiny as the light dims but stays trained on his face.

"...Have you been crying?" Todomatsu sounds concerned, although Karamatsu can't tell when he's being sincere or when he's using his socializing voice.

Lie.

It's not unusual for Karamatsu to break out into tears, fake ones, for any number of things, and so he easily evades by admitting, "Heh. Of course! I was reading a novel earlier and couldn't help but identify with the hero, crying at their bitter losses and tearfully cheering over their successes. And when the time finally came for them to confess their love—"

He's interrupted by the sound of Todomatsu clearly losing interest, expressing with exasperation, "Yeah whatever. You and Choromatsu-niisan cry over the weirdest things—"

Slightly pissed off, Karamatsu cuts him off as an act of minor revenge and takes a page out of Oso's book, using parts of the truth to tell a lie, announcing, "I fell asleep and had a dream about it. A nightmare. Which is why you've found me at this lonely hour in this silent park. Although... I thought myself to still be dreaming until you came along."

A beat of silence is followed by the light finally leaving his face as something is tossed at it instead. Feeling around while blinking past his light blindness, Karamatsu finds a facemask and a scarf.

Softly, a question is voiced, "You had a nightmare again?" But Todomatsu immediately groans as if to detract his concern and complains, "Ugh, you know what, nevermind. Let's just go home already Karamatsu-niisan! My phone battery doesn't have much of a charge left." Judging by the tone of his voice, Todomatsu seems fed up with being in the dark.

Brotherly instinct awakened, Karamatsu shoves the facemask into his pocket and puts the scarf on before reaching out to bump his hand into Todomatsu's arm. His brother latches on and Karamatsu can detect fine tremors coming from him. A tiny bit of hideous jealousy eats away at him as he's faced with Todomatsu's one great fear. Karamatsu wishes he could be so lucky, he can't afford to be afraid of the simple dark. If his little brother were to ever be beset by the things that Karamatsu is afraid of, he wouldn't last a week...

No, he shouldn't think like that. He's just... tired. He'll escort his brother home and...

"Ah, before we go, may I borrow your phone? I must inform Chibita of where I've gone to so he'll know not to expect my return tonight." Karamatsu feels a surprising lack of anxiety at leaving his book at Chibita's place.

The hand on his forearm tightens its grip and Todomatsu begins marching them forwards, insisting, "I'll just text him for you... And there, already sent."

Sighing, Karamatsu gives his thanks and lets it slide. Though he wonders why Todomatsu wouldn't part ways with his phone, he usually isn't that incredibly possessive over it. He has let other brothers borrow it on occasion... Maybe he's being extra clingy due to the dark?

Whatever the case is, Karamatsu leads his brother back home without incident. Neither of them talk and Todomatsu stays tense during the whole walk until their home comes into view. His hand slides down and Karamatsu thinks he's about to be dumped for the safety of the house but Todomatsu surprises him by grabbing his cold hand and dragging him into the house with him. The texture of his striped glove is too soft and plush for Karamatsu's liking, he lets go as soon as they're inside but the feeling doesn't leave him for a few extra seconds.

The door closes behind him with a muted clack. That's different. Usually it's so loud it hurts.

Being home again afflicts him with a wave of fatigue, Karamatsu is forced into placing a hand at the wall just to keep himself upright as he gets his shoes off.

"Chibita was right, you really do look bad." Todomatsu peers at him from the side.

Shrugging and having zero energy to figure out something safe to say in response, Karamatsu begins trudging his way into the living room instead of upstairs to their bedroom, choosing to go there to corroborate Chibita's story of his 'illness.' He's stopped before he can get very far, however, as a hand tugs at his elbow.

"Don't bother, just go to our room. The others aren't home yet so there's no one to stop you." There it is again, that odd note of worry in Todomatsu's voice. His face is neutral, but suspiciously so.

Something is off here.

"If... If you say so, brother."

He's nearly forcefully led upstairs to their room by Todomatsu's firm guidance, finding that the futon is already set up, or perhaps no one put it away this morning. Regardless, at the sight of it Karamatsu is hit with a second wave of fatigue. He's going under.

"Niisan?"

He fumbles to get his layers of clothing off, leaving only the pajama bottoms and the undershirt, tossing the rest to a corner of the room.

"Karamatsu?"

Whatever is it that Todomatsu wants will have to wait. He literally can't stay awake as he makes it to the futon.

Eyes sliding shut, Karamatsu feels the covers being drawn up over him. They feel like the final weight dragging him down into sleep. It kind of feels like drowning without any of the panic, pleasant but unnerving.

A cheerful chime of Todomatsu's phone signals the arrival of a text message.

He falls asleep.

Chapter Text

"It's the absolute worst possible timing for this to happen..." Anxiety riddled, a hushed voice manages to tear through the silence of the room and punch straight through the rapid beating of his heart in his ears. Todomatsu.

What's wrong with him, what's wrong with him? Why does he feel like he's dying, why does he feel like someone has hooked his insides like fish on a wire, reeling him out of water by his guts, depriving him of his entire world?

He can't breathe!

"Karamatsu, wake up, I need you to wake up now, alright? It was just a nightmare a-and I need you to be awake because we..." A poor attempt at comfort from someone who needs to be comforted themselves drifts over him, he's trying to fill the role of 'reliable brother' but is horribly ill-equipped in the moment. Choromatsu.

Karamatsu is being shaken awake by hands that twitch and don't know whether to be gentle or harsh. His throat aches, there's a ringing of sound in the air as if an echo of something just died and he's catching the tail end of its life. The death of a scream. Did he yell?

How could he have, he has no air!

"Okay, that's it! Move Choromatsu!" No 'niisan' this time.

Choromatsu pulls away from him as if he's a red hot iron brand coming for his face. Todomatsu immediately replaces his shaken brother and yanks Karamatsu up into a sitting position. Nose to nose, his younger brother squeezes his face between his hands, pressing against the bones of his skull, talking to him clearly, slowly, giving orders. His grip hurts.

"Listen to me, you need to breathe, I know it feels like you can't but you can, pay attention to my face, do what I do, you can hear me right? Nod."

He croaks. Todomatsu's grip on his head won't allow for movement. Even his rescuer is too rattled to think properly.

"Good enough. Now, breathe in."

Karamatsu can follow directions. His body gladly latches onto his brother's instructions but with every breath, Karamatsu slips further away from it. He's being exhaled out of himself, and that's just fine. More room for air.

Hunched over in a corner of their room, painted in the orange light of a setting sun, Choromatsu has his arms at his middle, hands clutched tightly at his elbows, face redder than it should be, colored with shame brought on by failure to act.

Karamatsu wants to reassure him that it's fine, but he's not in control of his mouth right now. Todomatsu is still making him breathe, manually operating his lungs for him with each command, all given without hesitation or a single note of boredom, repeating the steps for him over and over.

Eventually, he lets loose a shuddering sob but nothing else follows it. With difficulty, he controls his arm with invisible strings to place a hand at Todomatsu's shoulder. His fingers refuse to grip and so they stay limp. Karamatsu focuses on words next, insisting, "I'm good now. Thank you, brother. Sorry."

He doesn't know what he's apologizing for. Apparently, neither does Todomatsu, who looks at him with pity.

Why pity?

Casting a look at Choromatsu, who jerks forward as if summoned, Todomatsu takes the hand on his shoulder in both of his and gives Karamatsu a hard stare, trying to gauge his response to what he's about to say.

"Listen... I know this is a bad time, but there's something you need to know. Osomatsu-niisan is downstairs with mom and dad's not back from work yet. Jyushimatsu and Ichimatsu are out..." His eyes stay trained on Karamatsu, just like last night. Concern and worry and the slightest bit of fear shine through to nearly blind him.

Jumping in, seeing it as an opportunity to redeem himself for earlier, Choromatsu comes right out and says, "The police are downstairs. They want to talk to you, they already spoke to Todomatsu. It's Chibita, he's missing. You two were one of the last people to contact him. Normally he wouldn't be listed as a missing person yet but someone broke into his place last night. A neighbor called the cops..."

The hands on his tighten and Todomatsu asks if he needs help breathing again, but the offer comes in with static that scratches furiously at the inside of his skull.

What?

He shakes his head and Todomatsu takes that as a 'no' to his question when really Karamatsu is denying what he's just heard. There's no way, there's no fucking way Chibita is gone. Missing? Last night?

The police want to talk to him.

Whatever look has come over his face causes both of his brothers to jump forward, Choromatsu's hands are out to him in preparation to catch him should he fall. But he stays sitting still.

Every word that leaves his throat burns another line inside of him as he states, "No. Chibita can't be missing. The world isn't that cruel. I just saw him, I just saw him last night, we were just talking! He was there!"

Karamatsu's almost convinced smoke should be escaping his mouth as the fire that's been lit in his guts burns him and scorches his chest. All the air he breathed in is only fuel.

Hands at his shoulders squeeze tightly and Choromatsu hisses at him, "Don't yell, you need to stay calm, please try Karamatsu. Chibita is missing, whether you believe it or not. I don't want to let you go downstairs until you're ready but either we do this today or they'll come back tomorrow. You just need to give them a statement, okay? It'll be easy, practice with me now. How long were you with him yesterday? When did you leave his apartment?"

The desire to deck Choromatsu in the face is strong but one hand is locked in Todomatsu's grip and the other is supporting him, keeping him from keeling over into the futon. But he wants to fall face first to suffocate, snuff out the flames, he can't breathe without burning himself.

This can't be happening.

He needs to get away.

His body comes alive at this wish, already planning an escape.

Karamatsu mechanically responds, "I was at his apartment all day. I didn't leave until night. I don't know what time it was." The breath that leaves him is too hot.

Todomatsu is quick to offer his support, reassuring, "That's okay, I have the time on my phone, my text message history has it. We'll just say you left about thirty minutes before I texted him." His clammy hands tighten over Karamatsu's burning one.

Karamatsu yanks his hand away and harshly shakes off Choromatsu's grip on his shoulders, scuttling away from the futon all together and using the couch to pull himself into standing.

Fire, his legs are on fire, heated pins and needles poke through from under his skin.

Loud and clear, he speaks into the room, "I need a moment to. I just. I need a moment alone. Leave." The last word nearly comes out as a snarl, he attempts to take it back, but only manages to say with no inflection, "Come get me in ten minutes."

Not even the two brothers most likely to take offense to such words find it in themselves to react with anger. Their looks of worry and condolence and their quiet exit serves only to stoke the flames within.

It hurts it hurts it hurts.

Condolence, as if the matter is already settled! But Chibita is missing, not dead, missing. He's missing.

And just moments ago Karamatsu refused to believe but now he wants to take that thought and hold it close because missing is an unanswered question whereas death is a definitive answer. A period on the end of someone's life.

He breathes in and the heat spreads to consume his lungs, creates a blazing fire out of him that he can't hope to stifle. In a moment, he's through the window, jumping down to the ground, falling, rolling over the grass, shoving himself back up to his feet, running.

Running back to Chibita's under a red sun in nothing but socks and pajamas.

He has to go back, he needs to go back to last night, he shouldn't have ever left his friend alone! Didn't he say that it was cold out, that people like those would-be murderers come out on nights like those?

Pain shoots up his leg from his foot, running without shoes is inconvenient but only because he could be running faster. The pain is nothing, not if it's to prevent something greater, far more terrible.

Licks of flame travel up his back and set it to smolder, the burning at his legs almost causes him to fall, but the fire in his chest is something different all together, every defiant, sucked in breath feeds it and Karamatsu can't tell if it's trying to burn him up to help him move faster as ashes in the wind or is simply attempting to kill him outright.

Would death be better than finding out Chibita is gone forever?

Smoke billows behind him as he races back through the park. The sun has shifted throughout his desperate sprint, from sunset to noon to morning. The light now grows dim in the cloudy, foggy, pre-dawn day. It's not enough.

His footsteps leave behind scorch marks and steam as he leaps over bushes and darts across the grass, not bothering to stay on the paved paths in the park. Cold rushes in but it does nothing to extinguish him. Nightfall has never been more beautiful, he's almost there.

He runs past himself, seated with closed eyes on the bench. The other him doesn't notice.

The building comes into view and he dashes up the stairs, falling on all fours at one point but never stopping, scrambling his way up and up as the sun peaks out from the horizon again. It's almost sunset.

He slams into Chibita's unbroken door, he's made it in time! He doesn't have the key, but he figures it wouldn't have mattered, it would have melted in his hands with the heat he now exudes. As he strikes the door again with his full body trying to get in, in, in, he hits it with everything he's got, screaming his frustration with fiery breath, why won't it let him in!

He claws at it, chipping it away, setting fire to its pieces, making a hole around where the locks should be on the other side, he'll get through the wood and melt the metal away if he has to. He's running out of time, he's reached his brightest point, his zenith, but soon there won't be enough of him left to burn.

Punching through the weakened wood, he finally makes a large enough hole and shoves his arm inside, breathing in to stoke the flames. Hand over the locks, he softens them with focused heat and loses his arm for his troubles. It drops and crumbles to ashes on the other side but he doesn't need it anymore as he hits the door one more time with the full force of his body.

It slams open.

His other self is being eaten to death down the hall but it's irrelevant. Still, he grabs the knife from the floor and throws it to the begging, screaming man.

Resting on the coffee table is his notebook, glossy surface shining with light from the window.

Chibita hasn't come home yet, but he will. He absolutely will. And this time, Karamatsu won't walk out on him.

He's almost burned out, it should be safe enough for him to touch the book, he just wants a look, wants to make sure everything is written down. He needs Chibita to understand.

With the only hand he has left, he flips it open.

But there's nothing inside.

No. No no no, he shakes it, desperately hoping words will fall out.

All that drops from between its pages are a few specks of glitter and two slips of paper. As he catches sight of blue ink, he hastily grabs for the pieces and turns them over in his hand with blackened fingers.

It's only his name, cut into perfect halves, now smudged with ash.

The embers in him die but the sunlight at his back keeps him warm.

He shivers as the wind cuts through him on the roof.

The orange hue of the sunset warps the colors of his returning brothers but he wills the image to be burned onto his eyes. He never wants to forget this moment, even if it's one that's filled with disappointment.

The notebook in his hands is empty, he didnt manage to write anything down. And yet... He wants to run his fingers over its pages, pretend there's something inside. Maybe he can try to draw the scene he's just committed to memory, dye it in blue. It won't be the same, the sunset will turn to the ghostly blue of early morning twilight, but that's alright. His brothers' colors will remain skewed, the disconnect between their usual rainbow of colors and the unsettling change during certain times of day is what matters the most.

They can't always stand under perfect lighting. The differences in each of their colors adds greater variety to them, making each one a rainbow of their own hue, a wonderfully varied spectrum containing every iteration of one standard color.

How many shades of blue are there anyway? He should be able to take a blue and translate it to his brothers' colors under fog and low light if he searches hard enough for the proper equivalent.

He opens his notebook just to sketch, to imagine it, but the sparkly pen slips out of his hand, rolling and bouncing right off the roof.

Shame and embarrassment heat his face and he begins to sweat.

Who did this? This is... Choromatsu's handwriting? When, when did he find Karamatsu's notebook?

How disgusting.

Is this aimed at him??

The entire two pages he's opened to are covered corner to corner in that one phrase. They're written in blue, which means it was most likely written with one of his own pens too.

As he reaches to turn the page with a sweat-damp hand, the wind does it for him, freezing his clammy skin, numbing his fingers. The pages fly across from one side of the notebook to the other and he sees it. Each one is covered in writing. The same thing.

There's something different scrawled by itself, in the center of the back of the last page.

You're perfect.

What kind of joke is this?!

He springs to his feet, he doesn't even know if he's scared or angry or upset, he just feels and spots Choromatsu with the rest of their brothers, but they're leaving home, leaving without him. Didn't they just come back?

He screams his wrath from the roof, a strangled sound, coming out as one name through lips with bared teeth.

"Choromatsu!"

Legs stiff and numb with the cold, he stomps his way over to the edge, intending to jump down, but he slips.

He sees Choromatsu look back at him as he's falling, but he doesn't see much else once he lands with a crack, body sliding down the roof of the first floor before falling again, this time to the ground.

It's the worst it's ever been. He might truly be injured this time... it hurts so much.

Why does he feel like he's dying?

Every breath tastes like smoke and burns in his lungs, there are lines of fire being scraped into his ribs from the inside. He coughs up something that looks black under the light of the setting sun. It's morphed from orange to a brilliant red. He's heard that you don't see sunrises or sunsets this vividly red without the presence of a fire nearby.

"Karamatsu-niisan!!"

His eyes lazily drift over to Todomatsu, Todomatsu who hasn't stopped yelling at him from the doorway for the past half-minute. He looks terrified, hands clutching the frame but taking not a step forward into the kitchen.

Tears stream down his youngest brother's face as he screams, "Get out of there!"

Karamatsu looks back at the stove and oh.

The fire, it's here.

It's him.

His sleeve is wrapped in flames and his sweater is rapidly changing colors, burning up. Blue turns black. The stove is worse, whatever he was cooking is a charred mess and the flames have jumped the counter via a spare hand towel to crawl up the wall. His skin is starting to blister but he doesn't feel anything and he can only smell acrid smoke. When he lets go of the handle of the pan he's holding, his skin tears and melts and burns and bubbles. He can see the part of himself he left on the handle before it blackens to nothing in the flames.

Looking back to Todomatsu through a wall of fire that's steadily growing higher, he appears terribly conflicted. In his eyes is the clear desire to jump the flames, to grab Karamatsu and drag him out of the kitchen. But his body is shaking, the only thing keeping him in place are his hands with their fingers dug deep into the doorway.

At the first searing touch of a rising flame, those hands reflexively let go and Todomatsu's legs carry him away.

Karamatsu is left with the dying sound of his brother's unintelligible screams as the room is overrun with brilliant red and orange and white.

He feels nothing.

Watching the ceremony from the back, in a dark corner that's out of the way, not even bothering to be seated with his parents in the crowd, Karamatsu blankly looks up at the stage through his shades and deliberately chooses to feel absolutely nothing.

His bandaged hands clench and the sting of the cuts and bruises on them prove that his body continues to feel for him even if he wants to deny everything. He relaxes his aching fists and shoves his ruined hands into his pockets without checking to see if they're bleeding through the gauze.

Blood stains no longer matter, he's not wearing his school uniform, he won't ever be wearing it again.

Each of the Matsuno sextuplets are graduating today, all except for him. He'll have to take equivalency tests or enter a vocational school like Chibita, who is the only friend he has left.

Everyone else is afraid to get near him now, ever since he got expelled, ever since he was exposed for being a 'bully.' All the students who tormented him throughout high school took advantage of the one disastrous fight that went public, coming together to craft a sob story about how he targeted them.

Their other victims didn't band together to clear Karamatsu's name.

But he knows what sort of fear holds them hostage, he can't—

No, he doesn't need to filter his thoughts anymore, school is over for him, permanently.

Cowards.

They're cowards, more than once he fought their fights for them, he knows their snot and tear covered faces, he knows the sight of them running away as he takes center stage for them. He stood up for them in the dark, but they've left him alone under the spot light. Cowards in the crowd, they won't even boo him, they just stand there and pretend that nothing ever happened.

Nameless, faceless cowards. These were the people he defended. Why had he even bothered to get involved? If he had fought only his own battles, maybe this wouldn't have happened.

The crowd cheers.

The ceremony is ending.

Rain greets him as he swiftly escapes, unwilling to face his family inside as the one black sheep who didn't even have the grace to fail out of school. The only place that will greet him anymore is the outdoors and it does so now with curling fog and icy mist. He welcomes the chill, allows it to seep into himself, pulling his hands out from his pockets to have them go numb in the cold.

He wants to collect memories of different forms of weather by bracing himself through them, willfully touching the unpleasant to have the sensations stick to him so that he'll never forget.

So far Karamatsu thinks it's working, how could he ever forget the wind that's trying to scrub his face off with a steel wire brush? At least his nighttime usage of sunglasses is actually protecting his eyes but he really should have worn more layers, what he has on is barely serving as defense from the invading cold, and if this were a war, he's definitely already lost for his body is suffering greatly. For once he thinks he isn't being melodramatic for flare, he's so cold he feels like he's burning, and isn't that dangerous? Next time, he'll be better prepared for his outings.

Turning back and getting blasted by the wind from behind, Karamatsu uses the whistling gale to power his jog through barely populated streets, dropping his slow, brooding gait in favor of returning to the safety of his home. It's getting late anyway and he has school tomorrow. His final year is almost over.

While thinking of the next milestone he's about to reach, he almost misses it as he runs past a space between two buildings, but the shine of something metal catches his eye just right, in the gap between his face and his glasses. He turns his head as he passes by and the image he catches sight of yanks him into a dead stop.

He takes a step back, then another, and another, until he's at the entrance of the moonlit alleyway.

Raucous laughter overtakes a rattling wheeze as one of three men kicks a forth person laying prone on the ground. Clouds pass overhead and the alley grows dimmer.

The wind, the cold, the dark, the numbness in his body. None of these things matter as his head fills with white noise and his legs drive him down the length of the alley and his arms reach out to grab the metal pipe that caught his eye, yanking it out of the hands of one of Chibita's assailants.

Between the time of the kick aimed at his side and Karamatsu's head-cracking first swing, Chibita's curled up form has stopped moving.

He will kill them.

The narrow alley prevents him from having full range of movement to swing, but he's used to cramped conditions and his body moves without needing direction. When he can't aim for their heads he aims for body shots that aren't nearly as satisfying to feel in his hands through the pipe, the meaty thump doesn't compare to the whack of steel hitting bone, but he knows where to strike to make them curl up into a ball. He'll lay them flat and unable to crawl away or scream for help. Two of them quickly learn to back away from him, a quick glance shows that he's sufficiently managed to beat fear into them.

The first man goes down, and he's definitely a man, fully grown, well into his twenties or thirties and that enrages Karamatsu, the Karamatsu that's watching from behind his body's eyes as the physical part of him wails on the downed man. The other two hesitate to step in, their eyes are darting past him, looking to the mouth of the alley, preparing to run.

That won't do.

As he jumps over the first man's body, the other two spring forward, but there's not enough room for them both to get past him, and in their own disorganized haste to flee and leave the other behind, Karamatsu strikes. The pipe silently swings down in a blur, aimed at the head of the second man, who jerks back just in time to not have his skull caved in from the top, but he fails to avoid it completely and blood gushes from a gash in his face running from his brow to his cheek. In one smooth motion, Karamatsu continues the downward swing and slams the bloody pipe into the back of the knees of the third man, who almost managed to get past him. But almost is not enough and he falls flat on his face.

With derision Karamatsu deems that these people aren't very good at fighting despite their many advantages. The first man never had a chance after being hit from behind, the rest of his movements had been slow and uncoordinated after that first unfair blow. But the other two should have been able to wear Karamatsu out, if not for their cowardly and selfish mistake. Although the alley forces one-on-one fights, Karamatsu is short for his age, he's just a wiry teenager whose voice still cracks on occasion. Chibita is even smaller. And these men are adults, but perhaps they weren't expecting him to come at them with murderous intent.

Well that's just too bad.

Hands pressed to his face, the second man is crying and babbling about his eye, the first man is down for the count, and the third is quickly trying to get back on his feet. Karamatsu swings the pipe in an upward strike to the chin, sending the second man crashing further back in the alley, before dropping the metal altogether with a clang and grabbing the third by his gelled back hair.

Disgusting, Karamatsu will never be able to touch the product again.

Fisting both his hands in the man's hair, Karamatsu slams his head into the brick wall face-first and is rewarded with the satisfying crunch of a broken nose. Stupidly, the third man tries to claw at Karamatsu's hands instead of protecting his head, and he takes the opportunity to crack the idiot's skull against the wall again.

The cold and the wind eliminates the smell of blood that would normally be present and Karamatsu consequently doesn't stop until the hands at his wrists let him go and the arms of the third man go limp, swinging back and forth from repeated strikes of his head to the bricks. After an unknown number of hits, the crunch and grind of bones stop and he only gets a wet squish and slapping noise out of the third man and the wall.

Overhead, the clouds clear away, leaving the moon to peer into the narrow strip of space between two buildings.

The third man's nose is caved in and his face is a raw, bloody mess of pulpy flesh and bits of pink and white. His teeth maybe, or his cheekbones or his brow. Karamatsu drops the body to the side and lets it fall face-first for the last time, to the ground.

Karamatsu's hands have had their skin scraped away from where they came into contact with the abrasive brick, his nails have blood under them, his fingers feel thick and unwieldy, the cold making them feel both numb and bloated. It doesn't stop him from clenching his fist and shaking out his hands. He's not done yet.

Knees hitting the pavement hard, Karamatsu looms over the second man, knocked unconscious from the last blow to the face. Karamatsu can see a bit of his skull from the gash that cuts straight through his eyebrow. The eye he clipped with the pipe is ruined and cannot be salvaged, his chin is split open and his lip is busted. Overall, the second man's face is so bloody it's annoying to wrap his fingers around his throat, searching for the right places to constrict to stop the flow of oxygenated blood.

Usually, Karamatsu would only do this to force someone unconscious for a short while, he's learned that people can pass out from a headlock and wake up within minutes or less, disoriented. In that time, he'd normally run away. But tonight, he isn't running and he chooses to not let go, locking his grip tightly in place and holding it there, patiently waiting.

He didn't need to check on Chibita to know that his friend was never going to get up again. Karamatsu arrived just in time to hear him die. His friend...

His friend.

His friend.

His friend.

The beating under his hands ceases. Karamatsu pries his own fingers out of the bruised throat of the body underneath him.

He'll never get to apologize to Chibita for every prank and fight and argument from their childhood that went too far. He'll never be able to properly thank Chibita for helping save his only older brother from the criminal lodger that everyone else has deliberately forgotten. He'll never perform another poorly written poem or song for Chibita in exchange for someone to just listen to him, even if he's saying nothing of importance. He'll never confide in Chibita again, he won't be able to tell him just exactly why he's involved in so many fights. He'll never make Chibita lie one more time to cover for him in front his brothers, share another look of knowing and thanks with him. He'll never walk beside Chibita again as he gushes about what's he's done that day for his culinary training, all while trying to convince Karamatsu to learn. He'll never hear Chibita yell at him for any reason at all, that voice is gone forever. He'll never see Chibita smile and direct a Karamatsu-worthy sparkling look to his own work as it gets better and better. He'll never get to try Chibita's first professionally made and sold bowl of oden.

Standing and walking over to what used to be his friend, Karamatsu straightens out the body while he can still reposition it and slips his jacket off, covering Chibita's face.

He sits down nearby and leans against the wall.

Karamtsu thinks he's had his blood replaced with all his nevers because he gets the sense that he's never going to get up again.

And it feels like he's dying.

His body feels hot, like there's something searing and blackening his insides. When he exhales, the smallest puff of steam leaves him before it's torn to nothing by the wind. He can no longer make a fist with his hands, and looking down at them he sees dark coagulated blood and shocking discoloration at his fingers. Karamatsu doesn't get to stare at the purple-black color for long as clouds move in again to block the moon's view of him and what he's done.

The slap of shoes against concrete startles him into jerking his head towards the faint streetlight at the end of the alley.

"Karamatsu!!"

The scream sounds desperate and searching. But he can't answer back, his lips are glued shut by a combination of the cold and the nearly bloodless nature of his face. Whatever is in his veins now flows too sluggishly.

Someone runs past the alley, just like he did earlier. And just as before, they back up until they can stare down into the dark and narrow space.

Even from here he can tell who it is, by their stance, the way they hold themselves, the way their body jerks into motion.

Osomatsu runs like someone lit a fire under his ass, ungainly but with the speed of a knee-jerk reaction.

Karamatsu's head tilts down until his chin is resting on his chest. He can't seem to keep his eyes open.

Skidding to a stop before him, Osomatsu doesn't hesitate to insert himself up close, leaving barely any space between them as he shakes Karamatsu by the shoulders.

"Listen to me, you need to get up. You're alright, I swear, you're going to be alright."

No, there's something definitely wrong with Karamatsu. He's never going to be alright. How could he be?

"Please, just get up, just open your eyes. You have to believe me, do what I say!"

But he feels like he's dying.

"No! You're completely fine!"

He can't breathe.

A loud slapping noise is followed up by heat blooming across his cheek, then more shaking of his body before someone yells, "The hell are you trying to do?! Support his head you shitty eldest!"

Choromatsu...?

The notebook, the writing, the blur of words in the wind and words missing from blank pages and his name on a piece of paper—

Orders get spat out by an irate third-born, demanding, "Ichimatsu, get water, Todomatsu, just stand by, Jyushimatsu, get our idiot brother away from our other idiot brother and hold him steady please, you're the only one strong enough to keep him from hurting himself until he wakes up."

Arms tighten around him and roll him and someone else over from a soft surface to a hard one as an obstinate and offended Osomatsu yells back, "That's not going to wake him up! You can't just let him sleep through it! Just fuck off and let me pull him out of it!"

Hot, the body around him is warm but Karamatsu feels unbearably hot and sweaty and what's wrong with him, what's wrong with him, why does he feel like he's dying?

"Let him go!" Frantic worry from Choromatsu, the sound of a scuffle, and a brush of limbs past his face breeds panic in him, he doesn't understand, his eyes won't open.

"No! Just let me do this, I don't need your shit right now Choromatsu!" Confidence and anger ring in his ears as Osomatsu argues. He can't breathe.

Him and the body attached to him get tossed somewhere and the back of his head hits a solid surface. The thunk he feels isn't one of concrete or roof tiles or grass but he doesn't even know why he'd be expecting anything but the flooring of—

Gasping, Karamatsu wakes up.

Dim blue morning light washes the room in pale, cold colors and he feels so sick, something about the hue makes everything look dead and he gets the image of furious scribbling in a notebook stuck in his head along with the sound of blue ink being scratched into paper until it dents and tears.

Too hot hands squeeze his face and his body locks up, he doesn't understand what's going on or where he is or who is around him. His brothers? Their voices, he thinks he just heard their voices but he's not sure, he's not sure of anything.

"Look at me."

He looks.

Swimming into view beyond his squinting, watery eyes is Osomatsu. Once his older brother finds that Karamatsu has successfully managed to look at him, he holds him close. A hand drops down to cover Karamatsu's face and his view of the room.

Low hissing escapes his brother as he gloats, "See? I know what I'm doing, now all of you scram. Oi, Ichimatsu, just leave the water here. I'll come get you guys when he's out again."

More muted shuffling and the hushed beginnings and swift endings of an argument serve as background noise to Karamatsu's struggle to reorient himself.

Tumbling colors assault him in the dark as he stares at Osomatsu's palm. Places come to mind in no order he can discern, the roof, their kitchen, Chibita's apartment complex, their old school auditorium, a cold, dark street on a lonely night. Sensations rise up and overtake him at that last image, hot and cold, hot and cold, freezing and burning, scraping and bleed—

It comes to Karamatsu's attention that he's been holding his breath and the lack of air hits him like a bat to the stomach. He sucks in a breath as he imagines Jyushimatsu's baseball bat rushing in to swing at him but it glints like metal—

"Shhh, it's just you and me now." Osomatsu's crooning voice stops his thoughts from running. Like a hand tightening a faucet.

The whispering of cloth sliding against cloth ends with something being wrapped around his unmoving body.

"You're still awake right?" Without waiting for an answer, the hand shielding his eyes moves away and he blinks before shutting them closed.

He tries to shuck the blanket off but Osomatsu stops him, hands gripping his arms to give him a reassuring squeeze.

"Hey hey, don't go undoing my hard work. I finally got you up and man, that's got to be the worst it's ever been. At least you didn't deck me in the face this time, huh? Well, you only did it once."

Osomatsu's voice comes closer as he rambles on, "You just go stiff in my arms now and you stop breathing sometimes too. That's scary, you know! I'd rather get sleep-punched. Are you even really awake right now? Will you open your eyes for me? There's no one else around. Talk to me, Karamatsu."

Worried, pitying faces and screams and rain and wind are still playing behind his eyes and hitting his skin. There's something more pressing though, something he should be concerned about. But...

That voice is really calming, Osomatsu is here with him.

Is he okay, is he really okay? He doesn't feel okay.

Karamatsu doesn't respond.

A sigh blows past his face and a hand comes up to ruffle his hair. Osomatsu's lazy grin can be felt through his words as he allows, "Alright, guess I can't make you. I wonder, do you remember any of these talks we've had? Well, not that you ever answered back, but this is nice. I get to talk your ear off until you fall asleep again. And everyone gets to watch you pull your freaky 'rising from the dead' act. It's actually been bothering us for a long time. Like watching a doll come to life. I think..."

Osomatsu leans heavily on his shoulder and groans as if carrying a heavy burden, admitting, "I think we can't ignore this anymore. I mean yeah, sure, it doesn't happen every night or anything but Choromatsu is starting to get paranoid that you might be like, having seizures? He knows you're not but you know him, he'll blow shit out of proportion. But he's got a point, it's getting worse and you've stopped breathing more than once. And uh, Ichimatsu's a light sleeper so he kind of ratted you out once that happened. So... You've been getting up in the dead of the night and fucking off to who knows where. What do you even do outside that late?"

The warmth at his shoulder and throughout his body slowly ceases to be overbearing. But something jittery and electric is flowing under his skin now. Panic, maybe. The words are both dragging him towards sleep and shocking him awake with anxiety. If he focuses on them hard enough, the 'sick' feeling surges up his throat and claws at his brain telling him to stay awake.

Several moments of silence and calm breathing are shared between them before Osomatsu huffs and shifts away from his shoulder. The sound of him releasing a long drawn out uuuugh gets Karamatsu to tiredly open his eyes.

Everything around him looks alien even though he can now tell where he is. It's just their room, the same room they've lived in for years and years. He can navigate it in the dark without issue, knows every hiding place inside of it. But right now, it feels like someone else's room. Like he's intruding on what is clearly someone's personal space, their bedroom, he shouldn't be here, it doesn't belong to him.

He's afraid to look at Osomatsu, he doesn't want to feel like he's looking at someone who isn't his older brother. He hates when he feels like he's not one of them. One of six.

But sometimes, that feeling comes naturally and he doesn't find discomfort in it. Sometimes, he looks at Choromatsu and thinks that he's the second-born and there are only five brothers plus one odd house guest that's going to pack up and leave soon. Like he's here only temporarily, enjoying some sort of vacation that never seems to end but has to someday, even if he's had fun watching the others get up to their antics. Maybe that's part of it, he feels like he's watching them and he hasn't actually been a part of what's going on around him. He can't remember the last time he felt involved.

"You haven't fallen asleep yet."

He can't stop himself from looking at Osomatsu, who looks pleasantly surprised, sporting a small grin on his face.

"Hey! Well fuck, this is awkward." He rubs the back of his head self consciously before whatever anxiety he has drops from him with a shrug of his shoulder. It's so easy for Osomatsu.

"You've never not just fallen asleep on me again. Do you... Are you awake, Karamatsu? Do you remember what I talked about?" He looks hopeful and hesitant, leaning forward too closely to stare at Karamatsu's face.

Karamatsu shakes his head. He really can't remember what's just happened, he doesn't recall waking up, only that he fell asleep upon reaching their room. Osomatsu's voice and opening his eyes to a room he almost doesn't recognize... It's all so surreal he's not completely sure that this isn't just a dream. The room is so blue. Feels like he's underwater.

"I feel like I'm drowning."

Belatedly, he claps his hands over his mouth. Angles his head down. Clenches his jaw.

This is the first time he's ever... In front of Osomatsu.

He can tell that Osomatsu has frozen and is looking at him with wide eyes, whatever grin he had on is dying.

Karamatsu doesn't move. Can't think of a way out of this. He's too disoriented and it feels unreal. Maybe he's asleep. Maybe he should just sleep.

Sleep sounds like a good idea.

A hand comes up to his face and stays there for a moment. As it pulls away, Osomatsu remarks, "...well you're breathing, so you can't be drowning."

It figures he wouldn't understand.

Disappointment and relief, a terribly familiar combination, fill his chest with writhing swirls of energy that are prompting him to move, get up, do something, save the situation, send Osomatsu away, Karamatsu can't deal with people right now. His body feels sore and feverish, as if he's just run a marathon or had the crap beat out of him with a metal pipe.

Instead of doing something, as he should, he does nothing.

"Hey, no... Don't stop talking. C'mon, say something else. Please, Karamatsu? For me? Do it for oniichan!"

Warm arms wrap around him from the side.

He does nothing.

His brother whines obnoxiously into his ear, "I'm dying of loneliness here, Karamatsu..."

He does nothing.

Osomatsu starts to rock them back and forth and he croons, "Karamachuu..."

He does nothing.

But no one can outlast Osomatsu when he gets like this, even Karamatsu's half-fried brain can figure this out.

And yet...

The only person that acts like a living being in this room is not him.

He does nothing.

The rocking stops and Osomatsu's face is suddenly in front of his.

"You're really scaring me."

He doesn't look scared at all, in fact, there's a frown on his brother's face and a look of confusion.

He does nothing.

Karamatsu really can't.

He can't do this right now. Looping nightmares are the worst. He doesn't remember what he dreamt of and it's probably for the best. This feeling. It's like someone took clips of a random assortment of places and people and senses, blended them all up, carved his head open, and drowned his brain in it. The sharp bits are prodding at his nerves, lighting them up, improper stimulus to things that aren't actually happening to him, mixing good and bad touches together until they're unrecognizable, mixing happy and sad like colored paint until everything is one ugly shade of dark something. In his head are disjointed scenes of places, images of people, disembodied sounds, and the feeling of residual sensations, but under no context. It's all painful, and he's come to hate the word for more reasons than one. He's got five other reasons why.

He wants to curl up and—

Osomatsu rests his forehead on Karamatsu's as he complains, "Usually I can barely get you to shut up. What's going on? You used to talk to me. Why'd you stop?"

That triggers a stabbing pain in his inner ear, he jerks away and Osomatsu ends up face first into the couch cushions. He watches his brother flail before righting himself and shooting an incredulous look at Karamatsu.

Why did he stop talking to Osomatsu. What a funny question. A trick question. Osomatsu stopped talking to him.

Choromatsu is Osomatsu's confidante, not him. Not Karamatsu.

Voice unsteady, something putrid burbles its way up and pries his lips open, he slams his face into the couch cushions as well as he exhales—

Fuck you.

He managed to completely muffle it between the couch, his hands, and their death grip over his mouth.

A curse from his brother is the only warning he gets before he's pulled away from his silencer.

Large, worried eyes are in his face again, Osomatsu just won't leave him be as he gets reprimanded, "What the hell are you doing? Karamatsu, come on, this stopped being funny ages ago, are you awake? Did I fucking imagine you talking to me before? I seriously, I need you to talk to me, say anything, anything, okay?"

Osomatsu tries to yank his hands away from his mouth but Karamatsu refuses and like a god damn child he throws himself to the floor and curls up on his side.

"Oh shit."

A quiet, steady stream of fuck fuck fuck ending with what do I do now makes him want to slam his head repeatedly into the nearest wall until he knocks himself out or dies.

Osomatsu's legs pass him by and he's hit with fear that simultaneously makes him want to run away and also binds him in place. He holds his breath.

Things get hastily rearranged and shifted somewhere behind him before hands worm their way under his armpits to drag him away towards some unknowable destination.

Huffing from exertion, Osomatsu explains, "I used to do this when we were younger, do you remember? I think you're the only one who found me out that one time. Fuck, why are you so dense?"

Karamatsu's clothing gets twisted but thankfully stays on as he's haphazardly taken for a short 'ride' to their closet. Once Osomatsu manages to stuff him inside, he follows and traps them both in the dark. A line of light bleeds through at the floor and his eyes naturally focus on it. Something hard digs into his back and at his sides but it's irrelevant once Osomatsu begins to ramble again.

"...Maybe you forgot. I used to have nightmares about Tougou and I'd wake up and hide in here. Sometimes I'd skip the waking up part and just wait for all of you to fall asleep before coming in here to hide out. Did you know that you can see the whole room from here? It was a good hiding spot before we all grew up. It's kinda cramped now, definitely not as big as I remember it being."

He can't see Osomatsu's face but he can hear the weary expression in his sigh. What is Osomatsu lamenting? Their childhood? The passing of time in general?

"You nearly made me piss my pants the night you found me here. I was falling asleep and suddenly someone was staring down at me. I realized a second too late whoever it was was my size and I tackled you to the floor. Do you remember?"

Karamatsu doesn't remember. It's really depressing. He feels guilty, like the absolute worst—

"Oh shoot, I forgot! I knocked you out that time, whoops. Guess you wouldn't remember that after all."

A harsh mix of a laugh and sob pushes past his hands, Karamatsu hunches over as his stomach clenches and does its best to crush itself into a ball.

Osomatsu strikes in his moment of weakness and rips his hands away from his mouth, citing, "Gotcha."

He sobs and sounds like a dying animal.

"Yeah that's about what I expected. Now you're gonna talk to me, right?"

Hideous, it's appalling how effective Osomatsu is at never giving up when he wants something from one of his brothers.

"Why are you trying to act like someone responsible now of all times?" A harsh whisper is all Karamatsu can manage, strangled by his own shaking and stuttering. Fuck this, fuck everything, if Osomatsu will pull, Karamatsu will shove.

"I don't know, because you're falling apart in front of me? I've never seen you like this, did you think I'd ignore it?"

Unmitigated anger is shaken and unbottled in his chest and he feels like he'll froth at the mouth, he tries to yank his hands out of Osomatsu's grip but his shitty, moronic, idiot brother finds strength somewhere in his crappy body to hold on as if Karamatsu's made out of cash.

He can only choke out the word Ignore without any context and maybe that's for the best because fuck this guy, fuck him, fuck—

"...f-fuck you...! You piece of shit... You!"

"Oh ho, is that how you really feel, Karamachuu? I've heard it's supposed to be good to let it all out."

He's being taunted, he can feel the shit-eating grin on Osomatsu's smug face, he thinks he's hit the jackpot, he thinks he's getting to the root of the problem, he thinks he's about to win.

He's wrong.

Karamatsu shakes and grinds his teeth and

and

and

and tucks it all away.

Every single one of his brothers has ignored him on a daily basis since he started being 'Karamatsu.' He packs that away.

If he exposed his dreams, his mental state, and his real thoughts he could wipe the smirk off of Osomatsu's face. But he sets that aside.

Instead, he focuses on things outside of himself.

"...Do you still have nightmares about Tougou? Does it ever feel real? Like he's back here, in our house? Do you ever feel like a kid again, getting stalked in your own home? I never asked but I've always wanted to know. What did he make you do when the two of you were alone? Talk to me, Osomatsu."

It's a good thing it's dark in the closet because Karamatsu doesn't know what sort of wretched face he has on.

The moment his grip weakens, he yanks his hands out of Osomatsu's clutches and blindly kicks, hitting something that makes his brother wheeze. The sound makes him flinch, it stops him long enough for Osomatsu to hit back, shoving his head against the wall of the closet. Karamatsu welcomes the pain.

Incensed snarling hits his ear, "Listen here you little shit, I—"

Laughing with sporadic stops and starts, Karamatsu declares with full honesty, "I meant it! I want to know what your nightmares are like, 'oniichan.' Isn't this what you wanted, isn't it better to 'let it all out?' Do you dream about Tougou taking you away from us or do you dream of him taking us away from you?"

Osomatsu sucks in a gasp but before Karamatsu can say Bingo the closet is flooded with light.

"What, what are you doing to him? We leave you alone for ten minutes and he's crying and has a fucking black eye?!"

Choromatsu's wrath is tangible as the man drags Osomatsu off of him and tosses him out of the closet. His older brother's struggles fade as they crash out of the room. Shuffling follows soon after, the sounds of someone creeping in, attempting to be stealthy. A head pokes into the closet and he catches sight of unruly hair before it pops right back out in shock upon seeing him.

Karamatsu wipes his face with the sleeves of his pajama top.

He doesn't remember putting this on.

A stiff and awkward voice addresses him from outside, failing to sound harsh and coming off as worried instead, asking, "Can you get the fuck out of the closet... I need to get... things. Out of there."

"Of course, Ichimatsu."

His booming, deepened voice acts like a force that pushes Ichimatsu back a step, which he hears from inside the small, cramped space. Sliding a grin on, he walks out with a confident stride, as if he hasn't just been found in a compromising state and apparently with bruising on his face. A shiner will make a nice addition to all the 'you look like shit' comments he's been receiving lately.

The first place he goes is to the bathroom, but upon finding it occupied, he turns about-face and climbs up to the attic. And from there...

He's made it just in time.

From the roof, he can spot the beginning of the sunrise.

Seated on the chilly tiles, shivering in barely anything, he breathes in deeply and exhales a plume of visible breath, noting how it moves and wavers and flutters and dies. As he breathes manually like this and patiently waits for the sun to show itself, to come look at the disaster he's just hand-crafted, Karamatsu thinks to himself—

What a good start to the day.

Chapter Text

It may not be below freezing but it's still pretty damn cold.

In the slightest show of self-preservation, Karamatsu tucks his hands between his thighs and the roof tiles he's managed to warm up with his body heat.

The disorienting side effects of the loop are being steadily scrubbed away with each slight brush of powerfully cold wind. Emptying of thoughts, he's become hyper aware of his body and every bit of skin that's uncovered, but he can also feel the sun as it rises and banishes more and more of the early morning bite of almost-frost, turning it back into dew. It warms him too as he idly scans the horizon, eyes stopping upon anything that manages to catch his attention. He's missing his sunglasses, he can't stare vaguely off into the sunrise, so people and cars will have to do, even if he has seen it all before.

He hit Osomatsu.

That's something he hasn't done before, not like this.

The night of their family's celebration for Choromatsu was the first time he intentionally hit Osomatsu, the first time it wasn't part of brotherly rough housing, play fighting, or for a gag. But the situation had called for action and...

The punch he threw after one of his first loops was an honest mistake. But he had tore his hand open on Osomatsu's teeth and when he had woken up, there was blood all over his brother's face. For a moment he had thought...

And just now.

Blindly kicking him in the dark, Karamatsu doesn't even know where he hit Osomatsu to get him to make a sound like that. The wheeze, he can't forget it, but he feels like he's forgetting something else every time he remembers it, something dire, something awful.

The sound of someone dying.

It's probably just a random memory from one of his dreams. It has to be, he's never... Not in person. His brain is too good at imagining things.

But now he's heard something similar in his waking hours, his real life, and he was the cause of it. And from Osomatsu...

Osomatsu who used to have nightmares about Tougou. And maybe still does.

Karamatsu's still angry, but that anger is slowly being torn away by the claws of guilt, to feed the open maw of shame.

He technically never told Osomatsu to stop talking, to stop asking him to speak, to stop pushing, but he had been holding back so many things he knew he should never say out loud.

By the time the stopper had been uncorked, when his hands were pulled away from him...

It had hurt, he had just wanted to vomit to get everything out, shove Osomatsu's face in the mess, here here here, see?

He shouldn't have said anything.

While he doesn't think anything over the top, like that his brother hates him now, he does dread the tension that will clog the air between them. He'll need to get Osomatsu alone with him to have a supremely awkward talk, if not today, then soon. If it's for someone else's sake, he won't procrastinate or push things back. If he genuinely harmed Osomatsu emotionally...

Karamatsu wants to say he didn't mean it, but he knows that in the moment, he had meant everything. He knew where to strike and how to twist the knife and dammit, he just wanted someone to understand what it can feel like.

Forcing an answer out like shoving a finger down someone's throat until they heave. It hurts. He wanted Osomatsu to know what he was doing to him.

And...

Karamatsu truly wanted to know if Osomatsu's nightmares felt real. On the one hand, he would never wish his condition upon anyone, even if he hated them. On the other hand, if it was already happening to his older brother... He'd finally have someone to talk to, someone who might come close to understanding him. Someone who feels the same fear from something that isn't real and has to deal with the consequences in a world that is real but

feels the same

as a dream.

Sometimes, he feels like he's only trapped in another dream.

Othertimes, he feels like everything around him is real, but he isn't.

And rarely, nothing feels real at all, not even in a dream-like sense.

In those times, he believes he could—

Blindness falls over him as some article of clothing is tossed onto his head, just in time to block a rather strong gust of wind. He doesn't move until the wind finishes running past him.

Reluctantly pulling his fingers away from their warm hiding spot, he tugs off the thing that's been brought to him.

Ah.

Slipping his jacket on, he sees someone seat themselves next to him in the corner of his eye. His heart skips a beat as he notes who it is.

Ichimatsu.

Irrational fear makes his hands clumsy as he fails a few times to zip up the jacket. Images of Ichi bleeding to death on a rooftop make his eyes water. He blames it on the capricious wind.

"You're lucky Choromatsu is busy interrogating Osomatsu. If he caught you up here like this, he'd probably drag you inside and drown you in cough syrup."

Hastily wiping his face and cringing as he touches a sore spot at his bruise, he feels better at hearing Ichimatsu's drawling voice. He's alive, he's alright, he's not Ichi.

He doesn't need to mourn someone who never existed.

A pang of stinging sadness goes straight to his eyes at the thought. He's tearing up for reasons known only to him. It's absurd, he's a disaster.

The body next to him hesitantly shifts closer. Ichimatsu's approaching him like one of his more wary cats.

But why?

There's a note of satisfaction in his voice as he commends, "Didn't think you had it in you. Heard what you said to 'onii-chan.' Never thought one of us would actually get to ask him about Tougou. Every year that passed by made it harder to bring up."

Lacking his usual monotonous tone, his brother sounds nearly excited. It doesn't sit well with Karamatsu.

Folding his arms around himself, he tries to find the right words to say to this oddly supportive Ichimatsu.

"...It came out all wrong. That isn't something to be proud of. I fear that I hurt him."

His normal speaking voice is barely loud enough to be heard.

As Ichimatsu stares ahead into the distance, a warped smile stretches across his face before he lets loose a sudden and brief laugh. Hunched over, he murmurs into his sleeve, I would know all about shit coming out wrong, but then he lifts his head and says out loud, "Don't back down now, shitty-matsu. You finally said something real. Hurting people is inevitable when the truth comes out."

Clutching his jacket, Karamatsu can't help but agree. The truth cuts deeply, hurting people in places they hadn't known existed, harming them in ways they didn't think were possible. He doesn't want to do that to other people. And isn't that bizarre, he's hurt so many people physically but he's kept his words as light and empty as air. Until recently.

Pushing his hands into his pockets and politely continuing the trend of not looking directly at one another, he watches as a car eases its way out of a parking space, pointing out, "While that may be true, I made it worse than it had to be. I aimed to hurt him. I can't... I feel worse myself."

Ichimatsu's face goes pensive, deflating back into something normal looking for him, blank and seemingly uninterested. He breathes out through his nose and the air is visible for only a moment before being whisked away. Disappointed, he surmises, "You really feel that badly about it? You didn't get any satisfaction at all? Tch, figures. But if that's how you really are..."

Ichimatsu's eyes dart at him, taking just a second to note his face before escaping back to the cityscape. He gruffly reassures, "Osomatsu's like a wall of rubber. You'd need to do way worse to really fuck him up. Though, that jab about losing us, that's probably going to sting for a long time. But I wouldn't be worried, he'll come to you, eventually, even if it's just to fight. But you're good at that, aren't you."

Tensing, Karamatsu immediately asks, "What do you mean?" How much does Ichimatsu know about him? When, how?

Ichimatsu grunts with minor annoyance, as if stating the obvious, "You're good at handling Osomatsu when he's in That Mood. You're the only one who's been able to, anyway. It'd probably take all four of the rest of us to deal with that idiot when he's being a real asshole."

Realizing that he's been staring at Ichimatsu while trying to detect any lies or hints of unspoken truths, he quickly turns away before he makes his sporadically self-conscious brother too uncomfortable to talk.

He hasn't been discovered. His body eases up. He unclenches his hands in his pockets and slouches a little.

From far away, the two of them must look like mirror images now. Ichimatsu is better dressed than he is though, wearing actual clothes and not just pajamas and a jacket. Did he prepare to come up here to find Karamatsu?

He doesn't know what to say and so he says nothing. Although the conversation abruptly ends, the two of them sit there in... comfortable silence. It's such a rare occurrence that Karamatsu takes the opportunity to bask in both it and the growing rays of the morning sun.

Usually, when he's left alone in a room with Ichimatsu, his surly brother either pretends he doesn't exist or attempts to goad him by destroying his things just within view.

He was never sure what Ichimatsu wanted out of him.

If Karamatsu took the bait and acknowledged his prickly brother, he'd get shut down and could sense Ichimatsu's frustration with him even as it happened. If he pretended to not notice Ichimatsu... His brother would simply leave, and Karamatsu would feel like he failed some sort of test.

But right now they seem to be... getting along? When was the last time this ever happened?

It's beyond his memory, if such a thing ever happened at all.

It feels so different, so nice, that something inside of him eases, something he hadn't noticed was being crushed until the pressure was released.

It stings about as much as when blood flows back into a deadened limb.

He's overthinking it, he's ruining the moment for himself, and that thought makes him crumple up like tin foil. He really just can't enjoy anything without remembering how the flipside of any pleasant feeling hurts, and in this case, every broken pair of sunglasses filters past his eyes. It's ridiculously stupid.

Painful.

Ichimatsu's staring at him.

Karamatsu makes and breaks eye contact with his younger brother in less than a second and stares ahead into nothing, hoping his brother will just go away now.

A blatant confession cuts through the low morning murmur of their neighborhood commuters.

"...I thought I'd enjoy seeing you like this, and I do because I'm trash, but it's not as satisfying as I imagined it'd be."

He can't say anything to that.

Ichimatsu waits, not for Karamatsu, but for himself to be ready to speak again. When he's not acting on impulse, he's slow and deliberate.

Funnily enough, his brother moves a little closer before admitting, "I'm kinda annoyed that it was Osomatsu who got to you first. I've been trying for years to make you cry for real. Sounds awful, doesn't it? But that's just what I've wanted from you since the first time you shrugged off something serious. I don't know why, but it made me so fucking angry that you could do that to me."

What?

Ichimatsu's been waiting to see him like this? He's been... baiting Karamatsu for a genuine reaction?

Something thunks in his head like the sound of a rock being tossed somewhere hollow. While he can't find it in him to be upset about this, he feels strangely guilty for not giving Ichimatsu what he wanted. How was he supposed to know or figure out such a twisted desire—

Ah.

...How was Osomatsu supposed to know what he wanted out of him as well?

He understands Ichimatsu a little better now.

Ichimatsu's voice is too calm for the amount of venom he's spitting as he continues the conversation alone, revealing, "It's easier to talk to you now that you're not acting like the imitation of a school guidance counselor. They're shit, you know. They only say the same safe, bland phrases, and use the same fake, practiced expressions to get you to talk to them, to say just enough to have something to repeat back to your parents. So you'll be out of their hands. So they can say that they did their job while handing you over to a real professional. 'Cuz you needed 'special' attention."

Why is everyone opening up to Karamatsu when he's the least prepared to handle delicate conversation?

Anxiety pokes at his skin from the inside like it will tear its way out, and he's suddenly filled with nervous energy. He absolutely cannot fuck things up with Ichimatsu out of all his brothers, Ichimatsu who has never done something like this with him before. This is Karamatsu's one and only chance to change the pattern of failed interactions with the fourth born.

As he opens his mouth the tiniest bit to respond, Ichimatsu interrupts, sounding dour, then curious.

"The real deal was hellish. Wasted an hour of someone's time saying nothing and sitting... Just like you are. Just sitting there. Are we the same, Karamatsu? What have you been hiding, and for how long? Before you panic or do something stupid, relax." He drawls out the word like a purr.

Cats rarely let Karamatsu pet them.

"I won't make you talk about it. But while you're like this... I wanna get some things off my chest. You won't tell on me, will you, niisan?" He stretches the last word. Everything about this is off, red flags pop up in Karamatsu's mind.

He never calls him niisan. Never.

Ichimatsu is much too close to his face.

He can see his brother's sharp-toothed smile in his periphery as he stares down at the roof tiles. Managing to shake his head to show he's still listening and answering 'no' to Ichimatsu's question, Karamatsu tenses up in preparation.

The tension in the air is the same feeling he gets when he narrowly avoids being struck by something. It's the same brush of air from when an object flies by his face, just as he turns his head to see only a blur of color, right before something crashes and breaks behind him. The startling feeling repeats over and over, he's going to be hit, he's going to be hit by something eventually, he's going to be hit and it's unavoidable.

Nearly at his ear, Ichimatsu softly asks, "Do you ever feel like you want to die? Like we're never going to get anywhere in life unless we break apart and kill this codependency shit we've got going on? Like you're a big part of what's holding everyone back? Because I do."

Ichimatsu wants to die.

Upon receiving no visible reaction, which is enough of a reaction itself for Ichimatsu, his smile tilts with mock melancholy as he observes, "Look at you... They treat me differently than you, don't they? Our brothers, our parents, everyone. They look at me differently. But no one looks hard at you, huh? But they think I'm fragile, and maybe I am. Maybe I'm not."

Before he's aware of it, Karamatsu's already putting his hands over his mouth. It doesn't escape his brother's notice as he stares but makes no move to copy Osomatsu. Instead, his expression turns sour before stating, "I think that we're all fucked, some of us more than others. Maybe you, and I, and Osomatsu... Are on the bottom rung together. Osomatsu's got the worst loneliness. I've got the worst fixation with suicide. And you... I don't know what your deal is, but you're fading away right in front of me."

He's shaking and it has nothing to do with the biting, chilly air.

Karamatsu can't afford to lose this Ichi, this Ichimatsu. He's already been dragged into grieving for too many iterations of his brother, witnessed too many ways a person can be taken away from him, memorialized too many corpses all alone.

Not this one, not this one too.

Stretching thin and taught, something is being drawn away from him and he already knows it's something vital. He can't allow apathy to sever this part of him as if in preparation for the inevitable.

He yanks it back to him and it hits him like an arrow, puncturing something else that he needed whole. But he'll take the trade-off because Ichimatsu is right, Karamatsu is fading away and the worst part might be that he's just realized he cared so little and waited too long to try to fix things himself. The threat of losing Ichimatsu is pulling him back by the hair.

Morals are a luxury for people who never find themselves having to resort to desperation tactics.

He heaves words through the numb hands at his mouth in a controlled overflow.

"If you do it, I will too."

Ichimatsu, who was about to continue his monologue, stops mid-breath, mouth open. Anger quickly overtakes his features and his mouth curls into a snarl, but as he glares at Karamatsu, his expression changes just as fast. Confusion cycles to disbelief and then rests on...

Something unreadable.

Deadpan, Ichimatsu squints at him and states, "You're fucking serious aren't you. Holy shit."

Karamatsu runs his eyes over the same set of roof tiles he's been fixated on for the past several moments, he hasn't looked at anything else since Ichimatsu first hit him with his questions. It comes to his attention that the chip in one of them is his old marker from years ago, back when he hid his notebook's predecessor.

While he's rubber-banding back and forth between thinking of everything and thinking of nothing, his brother seems to be gathering his own thoughts. At least he hasn't pushed Karamatsu off the roof yet. Not that he'd have an easy time of doing so if he chose to. Karamatsu feels weighted by lead, which is a good thing because the nervous energy from before has only multiplied. If he could move, he'd be bouncing his leg fast enough to vibrate right off the edge.

His blackmailing attempt appears to succeed as Ichimatsu comes to the wrong conclusions about him, asking, "How long have you felt that way, Karamatsu-niisan?"

Genuine 'niisan.'

Waves of guilt are acting as a tide upon him, trying to pull him out into an ocean of it, but twisted relief acts as an anchor, trapping him in place.

Shit shit fuck.

His brother legitimately looks worried. This look has never been directed at him before.

Karamatsu shakes his head, both hands over his mouth still. He must look like an idiot but his track record for speaking without fucking himself over is abysmal this morning.

Frowning and staring at him with a calculating look, Ichimatsu sighs, "I did say I wouldn't make you talk." He looks like he wants to take back that sentiment but continues on, "...we'll work something out. Don't do anything hasty."

Ichimatsu's eyes flicker to the edge of the roof before settling back on him. It's as if Karamatsu is dealing with a completely different brother than the one who has, on multiple occasions, intentionally tripped or startled him into falling off of it.

He rushes a bit to add, "There's a difference between wanting to and actually doing it. I've dealt with wanting to for years. It's a constant for me, always in the background. I'm not just going to disappear one day. You..."

Something glints in Ichimatsu's eye and he curses quietly into the air before collecting himself.

"This is what we'll do. I'll ask you a yes or no question. You'll... tap your finger on your hand, once for yes and twice for no. Will that work for you?"

Confused but glad to be given directions that won't force him to uncover the lower half of his face, Karamatsu taps once.

With a hard stare and tense posture, Ichimatsu asks, "Do you feel like you'd be capable of doing it right now?"

He taps twice without needing to hesitate. They're playing the worst game of twenty-one questions ever created. He has no idea what to expect from an Ichimatsu who is actually trying to devise methods of communication for him.

Without a change in expression, he swiftly follows up with, "If I keep asking you questions, will that set you off?"

Again, Karamatsu taps twice. How worried did he make his brother with his sudden inappropriate threat? But he's stuck on this course now, and how the hell did he manage to get himself into this situation...

Sliding over, his brother closes the final gap between them and they sit shoulder to shoulder as Ichimatsu takes a short break to think of how to word his next question. Frowning heavily, eyes trained on Karamatsu's hands, he finally asks, "If I did it, would you really be overwhelmed enough to do it too?"

After a second passes he taps once. Technically it's not a lie, even if it comes with a mountain of stipulations that his brother is unaware of. The end result is that Karamatsu would lose everything eventually if one of his real brothers died in such a way. He doesn't even want to think of the consequences. What if real life completely ceased to 'feel real' permanently? He doesn't think he could live in a surreal dream-like state in this world for the rest of his life while simultaneously missing one of six. One of them. Even among the people in his dreams, when one falls—

A voice filled with tired frustration interrupts his thoughts to argue, "But what if it would be a relief to me. What if I don't want you to care? Out of everyone who left home, I'm the only one who actually had 'no plan' other than to walk the streets until I died."

Karamatsu didn't know. The words are out before he can even panic.

"I care."

He's finally said something that isn't a mistake.

Ichimatsu grits his teeth and looks away but Karamatsu gradually feels him relax at the point where their shoulders are touching. He copies his brother's defeated posture without consciously intending to. They're never this close while they're awake, it's another new moment for him. All it took was an audible breakdown, possibly destroying his relationship with another brother, and a black eye to top off an uncharacteristically worn face.

Despite everything, a few moments pass in another comfortable silence. Karamatsu wishes he had the certainty to say 'he could get used to this,' but he won't jinx himself in his thoughts.

Turning his head back to Karamatsu, Ichimatsu decides their short break is over as he asks, "What's your deal anyway. Are you depressed or is it something else? Ah, fuck... Yes or no to 'Are you depressed' first."

Ichimatsu's line of questioning is worrying and persistent.

Tapping three times at his hand, he points to Ichimatsu, attempting to convey the idea of a 'pass.'

"...You want me to answer first?" Ichimatsu surmises with a scowl.

Hesitating for a moment, Karamatsu taps once.

Immediately, he scoffs, "How could I not be? I can't even handle a fake social scenario with Todomatsu in a skirt. I can't be alone in a room with Choromatsu without it turning weird. My only friends outside of the people I'm related to are cats. And even you guys... Shit, I'm only a part of our group due to circumstance. What if I wasn't born a sextuplet? I'd probably still be the same as I am now except I'd be alone for real. So there's my answer, where's yours? We'll say three taps is a question for me. And four taps is you can't answer at all right now. Okay?"

Absorbing everything Ichimatsu's said to him, Karamatsu taps once but then slowly drops his hands to his lap. His brother stares, silently waiting. Suddenly, they're more in sync with one another than they've been in forever.

Breathing in deeply, a thing he seems to be practicing more often lately, he tries to keep his voice from wavering as he asks just one more time for clarification, "You... truly won't tell anyone if I do the same?"

He receives a dark stare and a nod, Ichimatsu's threatening version of giving an obvious answer.

Carefully staring down at the chipped tile, against his better judgement Karamatsu tries to explain, "...I already feel like I'm alone most of the time. While that by itself isn't... terrible, it adds up to, to something else that I can't describe yet. Even if I feel alone, I know you're here right now. But if any of you were to go missing... Ichimatsu, please, it matters, you matter and if you were gone for real I'd surely. I would. I wouldn't feel—"

Frustrated with himself, he slams his palms at the roof, startling his brother and stuttering out, "Real. I wouldn't feel real, I don't feel. I don't feel real. I don't feel real. Nothing would feel real if you, if you, if I found you."

If I found your body in this world, I wouldn't feel real, everything would cease to feel real, and if nothing is real, then nothing matters.

He doesn't say it out loud, his vision is blurry, his head hurts.

He coughs and says through unflattering sniffles, "The six of us have always been together and perhaps it's true that we're stuck to one another, but I don't think you're a problem Ichimatsu, I've never thought that. In fact I... ever since we failed to break apart, I've been thinking that maybe we're not meant to do things in the same manner as everyone else. Moving forward together might be the only way to begin moving forward at all."

Karamatsu doesn't know what else to add. Ichimatsu isn't looking for 'guidance counseling,' and Karamatsu understands now that his normal way of speaking would be misconstrued as meaningless fluff. And while eighty-percent of the time it is, he does say real things in between the filler. But very few people have had the ability to parse his speech, his brothers rarely put forth the effort and only Chibita made it a constant habit to pick apart everything he's said.

Regardless, he needs to try now, to say something one-hundred percent true. Ichimatsu has made the effort to work with him and Karamatsu can't ignore that.

After scrubbing at the unbruised side of his face, he speaks through a stuffy nose and admits, "I don't know when I started noticing it. When things started to become meaningless to me. Is it like that for you? Do you ever feel that way? One day I got up and looked out our window and wasn't fascinated with the sunrise anymore. Ever since then, I've tried to look at it to find something memorable in it again. And then it happened with the sunsets too, so I started going up to the roof every day I could. And then it happened to my craft projects in school, so I started using brighter materials, like glitter. And then it happened with my guitar lessons, so I stopped taking them so our parents wouldn't have to pay. I kept practicing by myself, I had to, even though I knew you all thought I sounded awful. And then... Classes stopped making sense to me, people became dull, games weren't fun anymore. I tried to read my favorite books only to find that I couldn't feel anything anymore, all the parts I remembered crying over became trivial and boring. The songs that used to take me over the moon were empty and stupid, tasteless. Eating became a mistake, I'd feel uncomfortable at the thought of food even if it was something I used to enjoy. And then... I looked at myself and I... I'll spare you the rest, but you get the idea by now, yes? When everything means nothing, when I can't feel anything when I look at my surroundings, when it feels like I'm blending into the blue of the sky and disappearing into the air. I think of everyone's faces because I can't remember— I think about everyone I do remember even if they aren't— I think I stop thinking entirely but then the thought of— What I'm trying to say is that...! If you ever feel like it's all meaningless sometimes, I know that feeling, even if we didn't get to that final destination by the same path. For you, it's different, isn't it? You want to make friends, you want to be social, you want to be able to be with people. Don't you?"

Ichimatsu is staring at him like he's changing colors. And well, maybe he is, he does have the face part down. It must be a blotchy mess by now with a sickly blush, the bruising at his eye, the circles under both his eyes, the paleness of his tight lips. And speaking of colors, in this moment, he takes in the blue of the cloudless sky behind his brother's open-mouthed, silently astonished, wide-eyed face. Gone is the perpetual sleepy stare. Karamatsu will try to remember this expression, on the cold roof of their home, in the bright morning light of an autumn day.

As he stares back at his brother, Ichimatsu taps a finger against his hand once before recovering from being stunned. Breathing out a soft dammit, he reckons, "I've just been wrong about you this entire time. That's... That's fucking great. Here I thought I'd be blowing your god damn mind and I'd get to see you cry a little and I dont know, try to drag you down with me and mess with your head but you're already... Are you actually more fucked than I am? And I told you, I'm not going to just do it out of the blue. I just feel like shit all the time but it takes more than that to push me over the edge. But you're there. Who the fuck are you, Karamatsu?"

Even though he knows it's not a real accusation, it slams into him like one and he visibly flinches.

Ichimatsu notices, because suddenly his brother has been clued in to never take anything about Karamatsu at face value. He panics at the notion.

He's grabbed by the arm before he can even stand up properly, he loses his footing but is kept on the roof thanks to Ichimatsu's firm grip. His brother hisses, "Don't. I'm sorry, alright? Don't panic. Just breathe okay? I'm not going to tell anyone. We don't even have to talk about this more today if you can't do it. Can you or can't you?"

After being pushed further up the roof and farther away from the side, Karamatsu taps once with a shaking hand.

Looking overwhelmed, Ichimatsu reigns in whatever he wants to yell and settles for staring down at Karamatsu while repeating, "I won't tell anyone. Stop, I mean, fuck! Don't panic. What's stressing you out? Is it me?"

He doesn't want to insult his brother but his hands move for him and tap once.

Ichimatsu groans, "I won't rat you out. I'll say it over and over if I have to but we're running out of time now that you've stomped all over the roof and made me drag your ass back here. Someone is bound to come up to look for us, so listen carefully."

Somehow, Karamatsu has ended up conspiring with Ichimatsu. It's surreal, strange, and thrilling all at once, but it isn't helping him calm down. Shivering, he teeth click as he nods to show that he's listening.

Leaning in, Ichimatsu's jagged grin fails to be reassuring as he warns, "You know I'm a sadistic fuck, right Karamatsu-niisan? But even I have my limits, okay? Just pretend to be normal unless it's just you and me around. Oh, and Jyushimatsu, he knows about me too, so if it's the three of us... Well whatever. Jyushimatsu can keep a secret is what I'm getting at, even if it might be fucking obvious in my case that I've been like this for a while. No one wants to confront me about it because they think I'll snap or something. But I won't. And neither will you, right?"

The way he asks sounds more like a command than a question.

Compelled to get Ichimatsu to stop fixating on it, Karamatsu answers, "I'm not about to 'disappear' either, brother. I'm more worried about you."

Ichimatsu's fists are suddenly at his jacket collar and he almost snarls before pulling back and expressing his distaste.

"You still put other people before yourself even when you're like this? Let's agree to not do this circle jerk. I get it, you get it, we're both on the same page. Just... if you're feeling alone, come find me or Jyushimatsu. He knows about the hand signals too, at least the ones for 'yes' and 'no.' I'll tell him about the rest, but not about you, just in case you ever decide to talk to him. He asks weird questions though, just a heads up." Ichimatsu ends up looking constipated, like it cost him to be considerate towards a brother he's been hazing for years under false pretenses.

Karamatsu is being invited into the magnetic relationship between his two polar opposite brothers. He's bitter, scared, excited, and apprehensive all at once.

Bitter that it took such extremes to be let in, scared that he'll harm them both if he ever reveals too much, excited because he's being included in something deeply personal, and apprehensive because all of these tumbling emotions will eventually drop out of him. How long will it take before he winds up feeling separated from them or being physically distanced again when he ruins it somehow?

Picking up on his shocked expression, Ichimatsu actually looks a bit guilty before he tries to make amends by repeating, "I'm sorry. I thought you were... You always bounced back... I thought you were either dense or too resilient and I hated that you could always do shit that I couldn't. Whatever is going on with you, even if nothing changes and you don't want to talk more about it, you can still come to me if you want, you can listen to me talk shit about the world. We can—"

A bang and the taps of approaching footsteps petrify them both.

Stepping into view, Choromatsu glares at them with a look that could burn paper, ignite it and curl it straight into ashes.

Just in time, Karamatsu's body rebels against him and he sneezes, which sets off a round of harsh coughing. Chibita's cover story has just been authenticated.

"Get inside."

Ichimatsu and Karamatsu share a look, one that says staying outside was worth it even if they're about to face the old Choromatsu from one of the worst periods of sextuplet life, back when they were all adjusting to NEETdom, before the third born calmed down or picked up any of his stress relieving hobbies.

Opening his mouth to no doubt threaten them again, Karamatsu beats Choromatsu to the draw, taking a gamble by not bothering to disguise his scratchy voice as he sheepishly admits, "I can't feel my legs, they're numb. Will one of you help me up? Please?"

While Ichimatsu struggles to not let his bad habits pounce on the opportunity to kick him while he's down, Choromatsu wordlessly yanks Karamatsu up while shooting another withering look to Ichimatsu to help support his other side.

The white noise equivalent of discomforting pain immediately wraps around his legs but he holds back any complaints about Choromatsu's brusque treatment. He murmurs a Thank you instead once he's dragged back into their room.

It sets Choromatsu off and he launches into admonishing, "It's not even eight in the morning and you're already trying to kill yourself."

Ichimatsu has no reaction except to slouch a little more while Karamatsu awkwardly sniffs and collapses onto their couch. Luckily, Choromatsu continues without reading into anything.

"Since we're all already awake, I'm going to help mom make breakfast before she goes out. Ichimatsu, you're already dressed so go to the twenty-four hour place and buy everything on this list. Don't forget the medication we're all going to inevitably need once whatever Karamatsu has spreads." Choromatsu shoves a paper envelope, presumably containing money, with a written list on it into Ichimatsu's hands.

Sharply turning to face Karamatsu, he continues his tirade, "And you. You're not allowed on the damn roof until you're not sick. Better yet, you're not allowed up there until spring because one of two things will happen if you keep going up there, and I shouldn't even have to explain this to you. Either you'll just keep catching colds or you're going to fall off in the dead of winter and we'll be uncovering your frozen corpse in the snow. No. Roof. If I see you heading up there, I will break your legs myself."

As Karamatsu cringes at the death imagery Choromatsu's given him, Ichimatsu slyly deflects, "Kinky, Choromatsu, didn't know you were into that. You can break me too."

He leers as Choromatsu makes a noise of disgust and yells, "Get out!"

Committing to the gag, he informs, "The rope and the wooden splints are in the closet, have fun, pervert. Oh, and shitty-matsu, try not to die before I get back." They share a look and Ichimatsu shuffles out of the room before Karamatsu can think of a safe reply.

Anger temporarily abated, Choromatsu waits till he hears their front door open and close before beginning to leave the room himself, saying, "I'm going to get you something for your eye."

Standing up, Karamatsu begins, "I can get it my... self..." and trails off under Choromatsu's dead stare.

"Sit. Or I'll quarantine you downstairs." Choromatsu waits to walk out until Karamatsu leans back into the couch.

Sharp guilt prods the back of his head reminding Karamatsu to ask, "Wait! Would you happen to know where our eldest brother is?"

Taking an exaggerated step back inside from the doorway, Choromatsu tiredly sighs, "No. Will you stop being a nuisance? You're racking up injuries and illnesses like it's a fad."

Smarting from the slight scolding, Karamatsu's mouth runs itself before he can control it, shooting back, "That's uncalled for, it's nothing I haven't dealt with before. Why—"

Why are you pretending to care so much.

He's briefly reminded of Ichimatsu saying, "What if I don't want you to care?" but he continues on, "—are you so worried. I'm perfectly fine, we've collectively been through far worse, it's just a cold." He could have tried to sound less petulant but he's far too strung out.

Fuse reignited, Choromatsu slams their door closed and stomps over to face Karamatsu, hissing, "Just a— You look sick, Karamatsu. Have you seen yourself lately? You look worse than Ichimatsu, and if this restless sleep thing keeps happening you'll be prone to getting sick more and more often. It starts out with a cold, and then it's a 'just a bad cough' and then it's a full blown fever and then—"

The rising volume of Choromatsu's voice makes him defensively shout out, "I'm fine! I'm just tired, I've been busy. It's..."

Karamatsu struggles to pull back into something more like his usual self before he ends up starting another fight, sighing, "...No, you're right, I'm sick and just feeling irritable. I will gladly move downstairs if that would help ease your mind of the threat of contamination."

The tension in Choromatsu's face eases and he ends up waving away the offer, reasoning, "You already slept here last night, we all live in the same house anyway, if it spreads it spreads, I'm not that anal about it. Did you really think I'd make you sit it out alone?"

"Yes."

Between the two of them, the uncomfortable air in the room grows heavier as they both look away from each other.

Choromatsu is the first to recover, anger drained away and leaving behind only worry. Stepping out again, he reiterates, "...Well, regardless, one of us is already sick. Just stay here and don't go out today. If we start fighting it aggressively early on, maybe it won't be so bad. Wait for me to come back."

The tone of his voice suggests to Karamatsu that his brother isn't only remarking on his cold. Choromatsu has been alerted to his odd behavior and is beginning to pry, but all Karamatsu can think in response is that it's far too late for his brother to begin analyzing him.

He waits until he hears Choromatsu walk downstairs before getting up to collect the clothes he tossed away last night. Finding them without issue, he sighs in relief as he fishes out Chibita's spare key but his eye twitches as he pulls out the slip of paper with it.

It's in one piece and for some reason the look of it being that way unnerves him.

In a ludicrous impulse based decision, he roots around the room until he finds a pair of scissors and cuts the paper neatly in half. It looks right and wrong in his hand before he crumples the pieces up and tosses them out the window. These minor acts of insanity of his are both trivial and worrying. He should... buy more glitter in the future, the urge to do something ridiculous just for kicks is rising. It could also be hysteria but he chooses to think otherwise.

A little mischievous outlet never hurt anyone, right?

By the time someone re-enters the room, he's put a shiny smile made of sequins onto the face mask Todomatsu threw at him in the park.

"Oh my god, why." Phone in hand, Todomatsu stares down at him with mock exasperation.

Smiling brightly for the first time in a few days, Karamatsu happily greets him with a loud, "Hello brother! Would you like to try it on? I haven't worn it so it should be safe."

Giving him a blank look that says otherwise, Todomatsu responds with an immediate, "Pass. Here, Choromatsu-niisan asked me to give this to you." He tosses an ice pack to Karamatsu and adds before he's even caught it, "Also, Chibita's coming over tonight, says he's bringing over a bunch of stuff for you. Food probably, from what he mentioned."

The thought of Chibita makes him fumble the catch and a spike of confusing, baseless worry unsettles him enough to ask, "May I borrow your phone to—"

An exaggerated sigh cuts him off and Todomatsu deflects, "No. Maybe you should get one yourself, Karamatsu-niisan, I'd help you if you ever looked into it. But if you want, you can borrow my MP3 player instead." His brother quickly goes through his things and tosses the pink object at him, bright green earbuds wrapped around it. Smiling cutely, he declares, "Aren't I the best?" and waits for the proper response back.

Ice pack and tiny pink device in hand, Karamatsu deflates a little at the obvious refusal and parrots back the expected, "...ah, thank you?" Recalling his urgent business, he straightens up and asks with more confidence, "Oh, have you seen Oso—"

"Nope! Oh yeah, Choromatsu-niisan asked me to remind you not to go out today, as soon as kitty-matsu gets back he's most likely going to corner you to play doctor, you really have our poor brother worried about you. Take a shower or something, fix your face, you still have time before breakfast is ready." The way he gives his advice sounds both disapproving and concerned and he escapes the room before Karamatsu can insist on anything else.

Does he really look that bad?

Sighing to himself, he picks up his old clothes from yesterday and puts them away to be washed before grabbing new ones to lounge around in after a shower. He debates on whether he should sneak out today but ultimately decides not to unless he absolutely must, Chibita will be coming over anyway apparently.

Has his friend already finished reading his dream? What sort of questions will Karamatsu have to answer? Is he ready to confront the entire situation? There's still time to attempt to downplay everything...

Mentally exhausted from posing questions to himself, he leaves with his things and heads to the bathroom to shower, finding it unoccupied this time. Locking the door and double checking that it won't open, he finally turns around to examine himself in the mirror.

Karamatsu looks... Different for sure. Thinner in the face, maybe, although he can't be positive, he's mostly just comparing his face to his brothers' faces now that the image of himself is right in front of him. The bruising looks mild, and in his opinion it could have been far worse, but the tiredness around his eyes shows in the same way that it does on Ichimatsu, except a little darker. He lowers his eyelids and slouches, imitating his brother, and then he sees what Choromatsu was getting at. He looks like how Ichimatsu used to back when they had first regrouped after their collective failures. Regardless, as he straightens up and assumes his normal expression, he thinks everyone is exaggerating. It doesn't look that bad.

He actually likes it a little. He might remember this face. He looks... like a real person, perhaps, and not a caricature. Maybe he's been going about his way all wrong, or his tastes are changing. He has recently been pulling back on the excessive 'manliness' factor and the romance angle... His dreams might be playing a part in it. He's never been in a relationship in any of them and the characters in them are of all sorts, mostly they aren't even human and don't fit into human categories. Whatever the case is, he's fine with how he looks, it might even help him with his old habits if he ever returns to his bridge with a new, toned down approach. Maybe he's been trying too hard to mimic already extravagant archetypes...

But there are some things he won't get rid of because even if they seem ridiculous, they're clearly his, and he can remember them just in case Ichimatsu asks him again, "Who the fuck are you, Karamatsu?"

At the moment, he doesn't really have an answer.

Spending longer than he should in the shower just for time alone to think on it, Karamatsu finally steps out of the bathroom, utilizing both of Todomatsu's 'gifts' while staring into the closet he was inside a little while ago. He has an itch to personalize an article of clothing, something that could be wearable in public without eliciting the typical looks of scorn or amusement, although the latter could be a positive reaction. Should he aim to create something that can evoke laughter?

As he notes the telltale disarray within the closet that tells him his brothers have already gone through and pulled out their day clothes, something tugs at his shirt sleeve and startles him into pivoting.

"Whoa! So fast, like a mantis!"

Thanks to Jyushimatsu's naturally loud voice, he catches the sentiment through the happy, chirpy music in his ears. Dropping his defensive stance and playing it off as a joke, he removes one earbud and pretends to swipe at his brother, wondering aloud, "Heh, is that a good thing?"

Grabbing his arm and tugging him forward, Jyushimatsu nods and explains, "It's like you were waiting to be attacked but you turned it around! Ambush set up, like a mantis. But you don't have to do that, niisan, there's food downstairs, let's goooo!"

He's pulled from the room before he can protest and by the time they're downstairs he's resigned to having to face everyone all at once.

Seated at their usual spots around the table, the others are already out of their sleeping clothes, including Osomatsu who happens to look up just as Karamatsu glances at him. Their eyes meet and they both look away, although Osomatsu looks instantly frustrated. At least he doesn't appear physically pained as far as Karamatsu can tell.

Tugged into being seated in between Jyushimatsu and Ichimatsu, Karamatsu has to wonder if Ichimatsu really kept his word or if Jyushimatsu is simply keeping him away from their older brother. Either way, he relaxes between the two of them and chooses to abstain from the typical morning conversation, picking at his food as the symptoms of his cold start hitting him. He feels fatigued and sore, the only thing he really wants to do is keep the ice pack on his face and mess around with sequins and thread until he falls into dreamless sleep.

The morning continues normally until everything is derailed as Osomatsu begins his own ambush.

"I don't dream of Tougou anymore. What about you?"

Everyone goes silent. Having never removed the other earbud, Todomatsu's preferred bubbly music plays at his ear as Karamatsu barely meets Osomatsu's challenge, blandly answering back, "I don't remember what I dream of." Again, technically not a lie, as he doesn't truly remember loops.

Silence resumes as the rest of the table's occupants come to grips with the fact that Osomatsu is daring to start something both public and early in the day, a rarity from their normally laid back, lazy eldest. Karamatsu keeps his head tilted down, towards the borrowed music player in his lap. While he wants to talk to Osomatsu, he can't handle being under the scrutiny of everyone else at the same time. He had hoped his brother would seek him out in private but he seems to have decided to push harder after what happened earlier, forcefully including everyone as his back-up. Familial politics are the worst.

Intuitively understanding that he's unwilling to have this conversation in front of all of their brothers, Ichimatsu tries to cover for him, complaining with his usual gruff attitude, "Do we really need to do this right now? I can already feel myself getting indigestion."

At the mention of a medical malady, Choromatsu pipes up, "If it's affecting his health, we should talk about it."

Scoffing, Ichimatsu verbally strikes back, "His health? You mean your health, right? 'Cuz you're a control freak and you get off to having things ordered to your liking? Piss off."

Karamatsu cringes, glad that Ichimatsu is secretly defending him but also concerned that things are about to blow up if his brother continues to be so aggressive.

As if on cue, Osomatsu retorts, "You're the one who told me he was leaving the house in the middle of the night."

Rolling his eyes, Ichimatsu taunts, "Only because you wouldn't stop whining and pretending to be worried. You just don't like that he's not hanging out with you anymore. What, afraid that shitty-matsu got a life outside of you?"

Karamatsu isn't the only one who flinches as the table jumps, Choromatsu's hands slapped flat on its surface.

"Excuse me? Control freak? Wanting someone to not be sick isn't unreasonable when six people share a room."

Feeling guilty for being the center of this rapidly expanding storm of discontent, Karamatsu quietly reminds, "I said I'd move downstairs..."

Surprisingly, Todomatsu rushes to gently turn his offer down, stating with a wave of his hand, "It's fine, everyone gets sick this time of year. Saves me from needing to get a flu shot and we'll get it out of the way early."

Slamming his fist onto the table in disbelief, Osomatsu accuses with a pointed finger, "You're usually the one who complains the most! You almost roasted us alive last time we were sick!"

Todomatsu's face flushes as he rebukes, "Well I've changed my mind! It's too early to get into a fight and I've got places to be so if you don't mind—"

Rising up from the table as if to physically be ready to stop Todomatsu from leaving, Osomatsu shouts, "I do mind, I'm not the only one who's noticed Karamatsu's been flipping out in his sleep and going off by himself lately!" He redirects his finger to Karamatsu, who shrinks back from the table and quickly tucks Todomatsu's music player away in his pocket, just in case a fight breaks out.

Jumping up to stand and face his older brother head on, Todomatsu yells back with clear exasperation, "And? I do things by myself all the time, maybe he doesn't want you to sabotage him like you assholes did to me! Maybe he's having stress dreams because of you guys!"

At the mention of dreams, Ichimatsu is quick to point out, disparaging, "If he doesn't even remember the dreams, what's the point of asking him about them."

Perturbed and off balance, Osomatsu looks between the two brothers who normally verbally haze Karamatsu the most and demands to know, "Why are you suddenly defending him?"

Hunched over and developing one hell of a headache, Karamatsu wishes everything would just stop before he hears Jyushimatsu blithely answer back, "Why not? Karamatsu-niisan is sick, why are we yelling around him?"

Sensing he's losing the battle, Osomatsu sputters, "Because he kicked me! That's not normal!"

"You punched him first." Jyushimatsu says it as an obvious statement despite having no proof and Karamatsu feels terrible.

Outraged, Osomatsu quickly spits, "No I didn't!"

A moment of silence passes by as everyone, even Choromatsu, looks at him in doubt. Osomatsu's eyes widen until he laughs with derision and drones, "None of you believe me? Wow, fantastic."

Karamatsu absolutely cannot allow this to continue. He readily admits, "I kicked him first." hoping that everyone will back off.

Instead, Jyushimatsu's expression becomes worried and he thinks out loud with a sleeve to his mouth, "Osomatsu-niisan probably did something real bad to deserve it if Karamatsu-niisan hit first." The insinuation is made worse by the fact that it's Jyushimatsu who comes to this conclusion, the brother who's received the brunt of Osomatsu's undeserved anger in the past.

His comment receives nods from around the table. Nothing is working out for Karamatsu today, not even his rekindled brotherhood with Ichimatsu, whose violent defense of him has created a downward spiral he doesn't know how to neutralize.

Flustered and upset, Osomatsu stomps his foot and angrily questions, "Why are you all ganging up on me now?!"

Deadpan, Todo immediately responds, "Because you're the shittiest one."

Having been silent ever since Ichimatsu's accusation, Choromatsu finally snaps and is the next to leap from his seat, shouting, "Enough! Shut the hell up, all of you. Karamatsu, we need to have a talk." The third born motions to get up to follow him in a way that's terribly reminiscent of the Closer.

Before Karamatsu can even twitch, Ichimatsu grabs his shoulder and glares at Choromatsu, asking with vicious mockery, "Who made you the reigning authority between us?"

Mimicking Ichimatsu as if it's a game, Jyushimatsu claps a sleeved hand over Karamatsu's opposite shoulder and chants, "Down with the monarchy!"

The weight of their hands keeping him seated tethers Karamatsu to his aching body and he almost resents it simply because he can't mentally flee the disaster, but he changes his mind nearly immediately and finds that the support feels incredible.

Witnessing their full blown rebellion, Todomatsu turns around, dismissively announcing, "Well, I'm going out—"

Osomatsu finally cracks and resorts to utilizing his 'big brother' voice, commanding, "No you're not! No one is leaving until we get to the bottom of this, Karamatsu is hiding something, aren't any of you worried about that?"

Fed up with the eldest, Todomatsu doesn't hesitate to point out with a dangerously smooth voice and sharp tongue, "You got me fired from my job the same day you found out about it. I'd say that's a good reason to hide anything."

Exploiting Todomatsu's responses as an opening again, Ichimatsu drawls with disingenuous concern, "Shouldn't we be more worried about you? You're the only who didn't leave the house after Choromatsu tried to get a real life."

Infuriated that Ichimatsu would bring that up, Osomatsu betrays, "I found you on the fucking street!"

Everyone stills and turns to the resident gloomy brother, except for Karamatsu, who stares at his lap.

All Ichimatsu does is blink and give Osomatsu a nasty smirk, easily answering back, "That's exactly where I wanted to be."

Softly, Choromatsu begins with worry evident in his voice and posture, "Ichimatsu..." but the fourth born is having none of it.

He becomes the fourth brother to stand, immediately verbally attacking at the sign of conceived pity, snarling, "Oh fuck off!! You and Osomatsu are the worst at deciding what we do as a group, so before we start interrogating everyone else, lets start with you two. We have one guy who sat in his room for literal days and we have another guy who almost self destructed from stress once he got a real job. Props to you for even trying, Choromatsu, but you figured out that you couldn't fucking do it, didn't you? The only ones out of everyone here who might be able to stay employed are Todomatsu and Jyushimatsu, and we got Todomatsu banned from that coffee chain and Jyushi got fucking injured on the job, almost maimed."

Stunned silence freezes everyone in the room until Ichimatsu scoffs with pure unmitigated disgust and comments, "Yeah, that's what I fucking thought. None of you actually want to talk about this, about how we're all going nowhere and doing nothing. Tch, before you fucks decide to single someone out, why don't you think about yourself first, spill everything out to all of us, and then start asking questions about other people! If any of you have the balls to go first, I'll go second."

The dare sucks the air out of the room and replaces it with soul crushing pressure.

Karamatsu would fall on the sword for all of them if he could, make the first move and flay himself open, but he's deathly afraid that doing so will start the beginning of the end. He ends up doing nothing all over again.

Receiving no reply from anyone, Ichimatsu shakes his head with a single disappointment laden laugh and shoves his hands in his pockets. As he walks away without looking back, he mutters, "I'm leaving to feed the cats. Seeya."

Once their back door closes, Todomatsu walks out next with a stiff farewell.

"...I'm going out to meet friends today. Bye."

The front door slams shut.

Jyushimatsu stands up next with a wobble and a pat to Karamatsu's back, leaving him the last one seated at the table. Karamatsu almost blurts out a plea to not leave him, but Jyushimatsu's unsure voice prevents him from going through with it as he exclaims, "I'm going to the park, the leaves are falling, it should be pretty! Do any of you want to come with me?"

Zipping up his jacket and walking away, Osomatsu gruffly answers, "Not today. Guess I'll fucking go out alone too. Whatever." He leaves them behind without even going through his usual routine of asking for cash.

They all stand still until they hear the front door slide open and quietly shut.

Awkwardly shuffling in place, Choromatsu coughs and weakly relays, "Karamatsu's not allowed out today."

Deflated from his usual energetic posture, Jyushimatsu nods slowly and leans down to give Karamatsu an awkward hug before giving his farewells too.

"Kay... I'll see you later. Get some sleep niisan, you look so tired."

He walks out through the back, same as Ichimatsu, leaving Karamatsu alone with Choromatsu. Neither of them look like they know what to do with each other.

Falling back on old habits, Karamatsu starts automatically stacking plates and bowls, only deigning to speak as an afterthought, offering without the intent to be refused, "...I'll help you clean up."

His skull is trying to remold itself, he's in a moderate amount of pain, and he can't breathe through his nose, but mundane chores should help him push back the memory of the mess that just blew apart between them all.

"Yeah, sure. There's some stuff in the kitchen you should take. It'll help you fall asleep." Even weary, Choromatsu manages to put up a front of authority.

It's tiresome.

Karamatsu gives him a limp shrug and nod in response before picking up everything he's collected and walking into the kitchen alone.

He's halfway done with the dishes before Choromatsu arrives with the rest and together they silently get everything cleaned and put away.

It draws a memory out of him from when they were younger, when Osomatsu used to shirk his chores and Choromatsu began taking over them just to have them done properly, all because it irked him to no end when minor things were left undone. They would often quietly 'team up' once Choromatsu stopped berating their older brother, finding no amount of scolding to be effective. Karamatsu is glad he can remember something trivial like that.

"I just want to know you're not doing this on purpose."

The last bowl is placed on top of a stack of five other bowls before he registers the question and asks with genuine confusion, "Doing what?"

Choromatsu stares at him, eyes trained on the bruise at his face as he swiftly clarifies, "Getting sick."

His brother must have recalled Karamatsu's risky run of illnesses back when he'd been experimenting with inducing dreamless sleep. One more reckless acquiring of a simple cold must have been just enough to tilt Choromatsu's opinion of him into dangerous territory. Cursing his past self for not being careful enough to avoid detection, he attempts to lie with the truth again, slowly beginning with, "...I'm not. I just found myself losing time outdoors while contemplating the beauty of nature."

He zoned out on the roof while staring at the sunset, drifting through foggy memories and trying to burn new ones into his head. Was it really only two days ago? Or was it three? He never got his sunglasses back from Osomatsu...

Choromatsu's no nonsense rebuttal comes in quick and monotonous, stating, "We live on the edge of a city." He folds his arms across his chest and tries to look down at Karamatsu despite being the same height as him.

Inwardly sighing at such a direct rebuke, Karamatsu brightens his voice and tries to better explain the concept, exclaiming with a smirk, "Exactly! We border the divide between total domination of human constructs and the wilderness. It's as if we live in a liminal space, isn't that fascinating?"

They live on a border, and Karamatsu's head exists on one too. At least in the 'real world' he can walk back and forth between one type of border at his leisure. There's no pressure to stay in one place or go to another....

Because he's unemployed.

Unamused, Choromatsu intentionally waits a beat before reiterating, "...It's just the city and the suburbs."

Sighing out loud with exaggerated disappointment, Karamatsu tries once more, "Non non non, you don't understand, it's... It's a privilege to live here, in this spot. In either direction, we can walk to a new landscape—"

A startling smack of Choromatsu's hand to the kitchen counter gets him to choke on his words as his brother yells, "Stop bullshitting me Karamatsu!"

Pissed, he yells right back, "I'm not! Stop refusing to listen to me when I'm talking to you!"

The volume of his voice was much louder than he intended it to be. The neighbors could probably hear him. He idly wonders if the ringing in his ears is because of his own voice or if it's always been there.

Exhausted, Karamatsu throws his ice pack into their fridge and lets the door shut on its own before speaking, facing it and not his brother.

"...I can never explain things to you because you tune out my words. Why should I talk to anyone about anything if no one will even allow me to convey a simple message? Maybe you don't find it interesting but it used to mean something to me that I could spend a day in a place full of human noise and spend the next day surrounded by nothing but natural silence. Todomatsu would understand, he spends time alone on hiking breaks after weeks of trawling around the city with his acquaintances. You should take Jyushimatsu up on his offer and meet him in the park. It's nice this time of year. There are only so many autumns you get to see."

He's already walking out of the kitchen and heading back upstairs before he realizes it. The taste in his mouth tells him that he took the medication Choromatsu laid out for him in the kitchen, but he doesn't remember swallowing any of it.

Whatever. He's too tired to feel sick.

Instead of looking through the closet in their room to find a project to work on, he lies on the couch and pulls out Todomatsu's music player. He falls asleep to something sparkly sounding, meaningless and benign.

Chapter Text

He drifts away from sleep to the twang of a guitar at his ear, although it feels like he shut his eyes for only a moment.

He has the sudden urge to sob.

Even if he didn't have a dream, he still jumped forward through time, lost another chunk of his life to a necessity that is slowly crippling him and leaving him constantly drained. Helpless frustration circulates around his body with his blood, it's a part of him he can't siphon out and he's become too aware of it again, driving him to watery eyes and not-quite tears. His body hurts more than it did before he laid down, he can feel an ache in his bones, his skin feels tight and devoid of all moisture. His sinuses are clogged and his nose feels dry.

Emotionally, he's flooded for a moment before it becomes clear to him that there's too much to swallow. Between one second and the next, he stops trying to choke things down and allows them to puddle at his metaphorical feet, like a sad drunk that vomits over their own shoes and doesn't cry but just stands in the mess, taking a moment to accept the situation before deciding on how to begin to clean themselves up.

For Karamatsu, the latter part never comes.

He soaks in the guilt from everything that happened that morning, and after glancing down at the light across his blanket covered body, he tiredly accepts that it happened hours ago even if it feels like he can still hear the door closing from Osomatsu's departure.

While trying to devise a way to get Osomatsu alone with him again and noting the Nyaa-chan paw print pattern on the blanket, he begins to understand what he's listening to.

The English words startle him into sitting up and fumbling around to find Todomatsu's music player. Following the length of the earbuds, he traces the cord back and pulls the device out from under him with clumsy sleep numbed hands. As he questions why Todomatsu would have such a song on his music player, he tries to decipher the text on the screen through the head pain that throbs at his sudden change in elevation.

The song that's playing is titled Ghosting. A quick glance confirms that Todomatsu has an entire album from a band called Mother Mother, not just the one track. The song is deceptively upbeat with a hint of something somber, Karamatsu would never have thought twice about it if not for picking up a few words that squeeze at his heart.

He plays the song again from the beginning and listens closely. The words are going by too fast for him to understand the first time, forcing him to stop and play back the last few seconds over and over again. What he's able to translate makes him want to track down his youngest brother to refute the final line of lyrics.

Another part of him empathizes so greatly with it that he almost wants to let Todomatsu be, if this song is describing something his little brother truly feels.

And you don't need me...

It was only this morning that he told Ichimatsu he believed the six of them needed to move forward together.

But that was a lie from Karamatsu the performer, and maybe only wishful thinking on his part. What exactly is 'moving forward'? How exactly would they manage to do anything as a six person unit? Approaching the reality of their situation is daunting. He supposes he means that under a best case scenario, they would somehow manage to find jobs within the same general area so that they could save up money to move out of their parent's house, attempt to get their own place, live together and work separately until they gradually...

Became independent and drifted apart...?

Perhaps 'Learn how to live without seeing each other every day,' would be a more polite term for it. But it would still essentially be drifting apart, seeing one another less and less often until they could go for months without being in each other's presence, presumably getting their own lives to revolve around things and people other than themselves.

Even his hypothetical best case scenario sounds like hell to him. Karamatsu is losing stable constants in his life and gaining ailments in their place.

However.

In his most hopeless moments, he has wondered what would happen if he was truly alone. If he left his brothers, or if they left him. A more normal progression of life would have seen them split apart by now, but instead they still share the same room they've lived in since they were children.

And just like that, the room becomes alien to him, a repeat from early morning, only this time it isn't washed in blue, it's stained red.

The sun is setting for the third time. He's not allowed up on the roof.

Faced away from the window with the sunset at his back, he looks through Todomatsu's music player until another title catches his eye.

Sleep Awake

He plays it, pushing away thoughts of ghostly brothers leaving home. It's slower than the other song, he's able to understand most of it as he lies down into the shadow the couch provides, dropping out of sight of the sun.

Lie awake, I sleep awake. I go to bed with all my lights turned on so I don't slip away. I stay awake.

He stops trying to decipher the English words, but he plays the two songs back to back.

Again and again.

Until the sun fully sets.

And the battery finally dies.

What is he doing...

Karamatsu should be getting up to drink water, wash his face, brush his teeth, take more medication, probably eat something. He should be mentally preparing for when Chibita comes over, deciding on how to downplay his issues if he intends on doing it at all. He should be finding Osomatsu or Todomatsu or Choromatsu or Ichimatsu or Jyushimatsu, he needs to speak with each of them individually for different conversations about him and them. Them and him.

Instead, he's lying in the dark listening to music that's playing in his head without the use of anything at all, dead device in his hand. He should charge it too.

Lie awake, I sleep awake.

Is he awake right now?

When he dreams, is he asleep or awake? And what if he's only having a nightmare, what if the days begin to pass him by as he lies on the couch, what if he learns how to tell time based on the shadows on the wall and the light through the window. What if days turn to nights that turn back to days and no one ever slides open that door. What if he's suck in someone else's bedroom for the rest of forever.

What if he's only living in a nightmare.

He could always start a fight with Osomatsu, allow his brother to speak to him in a language of pain to find out.

Staring at the door that he should be walking through, Karamatsu tosses the impulsive idea out of his head. It's a stupid thought, Osomatsu isn't the type to fight his feelings out with punches that bruise, even if he did give Karamatsu a black eye. It's only an unfortunate product of the two of them overstepping invisible boundaries while literally fighting blind.

A part of him, one that sounds a little reminiscent of Ichimatsu when he calls himself garbage, reminds him that he's a deadbeat delinquent. While Osomatsu isn't the type, Karamatsu used to fight on a weekly basis. Why did he ever stop again?

A line of light appears at the far end of the room and slowly widens. His eye follows it, watches as it stretches across the floor and colors the room. A small gasp draws his gaze upwards.

Choromatsu.

Huffing out a sigh of relief, his brother steps inside and blocks the light with his body, awkwardly admitting, "Jeez Karamatsu, you scared me. I thought you were still asleep and then I saw that your eyes were open... Anyway, how long have you been awake? How are you feeling?" The concern he displays is a face Karamatsu can remember, one that's common for Choromatsu, so common that it has become boring to look at.

Morning fresh in his mind, because to him it just happened, Karamatsu directs a dull stare at his brother and asks, "Did you go out today, Choromatsu? Did you take my advice, have you spent a cold day under warm-colored, doomed-to-fall leaves? Did you spend a few hours with Jyushimatsu, did you keep him company? Our sunny brother is so bright and yet he can't stand the cold. I guess there's a difference between light and heat. Half-sunny brother then, but I guess that's to be expected from a human replica of an outerbody."

"...What?"

Choromatsu sounds lost.

After a moment of internal debate, he takes a step forward with a hand out, slowly asking as if speaking to a child, "Um, Karamatsu, are you—"

Ill tempered at the tone, he snaps back, "I don't know how long I've been awake and I'm feeling poorly. The aching pain is not insignificant but it's also not debilitating. I'm fine."

Choromatsu is staring at him. He seems to struggle with himself, unable to react with anger because Karamatsu is sick, and thus unable to mask his unnerved discomfort with a typical scathing response.

Gingerly sitting up with his head in his hands, he peers at his brother for a long moment before deciding to take another risk, asking, "Will you close the door? The light is hurting my eyes and there's something I want to ask you."

He needs to start truly speaking with his brothers no matter the consequences that come. Karamatsu can no longer continue to do nothing if he has them alone with him, he has no good excuses left in him, not when his condition has become this dire. He needs to try at least, to ease his own mind.

The door slides shut in an automatic response out of his brother, one who aims to pretend to be mindful of others at least some of the time.

Before Choromatsu can get a word out, Karamatsu interrupts just to say, "Thank you, brother."

He can feel the awkward aura from his younger brother, who doesn't know what to do in such an irregular situation with such a strange version of Karamatsu.

"I'm going to assume you didn't go out with Jyushimatsu today." He begins, scolding Choromatsu like a child, patronizing him and speaking with disappointment. "That's a shame."

Choromatsu sputters and Karamatsu presses on, "You missed a golden opportunity, didn't I warn you that there are a limited amount of chances you'll have for just such an outing?"

Scoffing with disbelief, Choromatsu goes straight into rebuking, "Is this about this morning? Are you trying to get back at me for not listening to you or something? Karamatsu, I'm just worried alright, drop the weird attitude—"

Taking the opening, he smoothly cuts Choromatsu off to argue, "I could say the same to you. Why are you trying to act so responsible? You used to be a prankster, a mischief maker. You misbehaved just as often as Osomatsu."

It's personally costing him unsustainable amounts energy to speak without his usual gentle words, but if Ichimatsu taught him anything it's that his brothers ignore or mock him when he's plainly nice. Karamatsu only hopes that his bite isn't going to hurt too badly, these are things he needs to begin approaching, just in case he never gets another chance.

Dismissively, Choromatsu replies with the obvious, "We were kids, what the hell are you trying to say now?"

From what he can remember, Choromatsu was even worse than Osomatsu at times, but he had been a clever child, taking their wild ideas and finding a way to physically manifest them. But as an adult, his brother is impatient and weak to criticism, it's this weakness that Karamatsu shamefully exploits, asking rhetorically, "Why do you feel the need to fill a role among the six of us as the one with 'common sense?' Why are you such a bore when you used to be creative?"

He tries to sound disapproving instead of exhausted and defeated, it's more difficult than he thought it would be, but he successfully provokes Choromatsu, whose voice rises as he prepares to launch into a tirade.

"Excuse me? Someone has to—"

Slapping a hand on his knee, Karamatsu rudely interrupts, "Exactly, 'someone has to.' Why do you have that mentality, why does it have to be anyone much less you?"

Audibly frustrated, his brother stalks forward in the dark, questioning him with a caustic edge to his voice, "What are you even talking about, Karamatsu? Are you seriously asking me why I'm trying to be a decent person? Someone has to be the voice of reason and no one else is—"

He snorts and it isn't part of an act, quickly stopping his brother before he gets the chance to subject him to another fruitless speech. With heavy sarcasm he quotes, "Voice of reason? How patronizing. The others don't need someone to constantly tell them they're doing something wrong. You aren't helping them, either let them make their mistakes or explain why they shouldn't do something instead of just telling them not to and calling them idiots."

Somewhere along the line, Choromatsu started forgetting that his brothers are people, not irrepressible hellspawn. Predictably, he towers over Karamatsu and accuses, "You've seen our brothers! They'd get themselves killed if no one fucking yanked them out of the way of danger. And don't pretend you're not one of us, what do you even think you're doing? You spent months being sick—"

Choromatsu should not have brought that up again.

With genuine anger, he shoots up from his seat and claps a hand over his ranting brother's mouth, speaking devoid of any emotion to remind, "I spent a week in a hospital and no one came to check on me. You can shove your sentiments right up your ass, Choromatsu."

He removes his hand just as quickly and suppresses the urge to shove his brother away from him with deep-seated bitterness, dropping back onto the couch before his arms can move without his will.

While his brother is still shaken, Karamatsu attempts to control himself and continues, "As for the rest... I won't deny that our brothers, that all of us together, are difficult to control. So maybe you shouldn't attempt it. Altogether, our acts of madness have been steadily increasing in terms of absurdity and risk. This behavior is worrying, but why do we do it? Why did we get Todomatsu fired from his job? Why do we sabotage each other. Why do we hide things. Why do we destroy our own chances to do something more."

He isn't really asking questions with the intent to have them answered, he just wants his brother to think about it for a while.

In the dark, he can sense Choromatsu dearly wishes to hit him but is holding back because there are no magazines conveniently laying around to use. With his own bitterness, he attacks verbally, challenging him, "Why are you asking me. If you think you can do better, go right on ahead, Karamatsu-niisan."

He sounds far too worn out for Karamatsu to feel even the slightest sting at the jab. He already knows Choromatsu doesn't respect him or think of him as a reliable second-oldest brother, that was never a secret. His 'younger' brothers only look to him in moments of desperation, the rest of time he barely exists unless they walk around as a set. Even now he wonders how much of what happened this morning was only self serving avoidance. He can't be sure of what it all meant. He isn't even sure if Ichimatsu didn't enjoy causing turmoil among them or if his brother simply operates by clawing at people in general.

That aside, Choromatsu is becoming sullen, and so he candidly admits, "I already know I can't. They don't need to be told what to do. And you don't need to fill that role. You've dropped it a few times in the past, as far as I can remember. You can be just as 'shitty' as the rest of us sometimes. I'm not saying you should cease to care about being a 'responsible adult.' I'm saying you're so self aware that it's destroying you. We're twenty-something unemployed adults still living at home with aging parents who almost divorced each other, and you're letting that drive you in circles."

Choromatsu's body stiffens and his voice sours as he asks, "Why are you bringing this up now? What do you want from me, Karamatsu. How can I not try to strangle some common sense into our brothers when you're right about us living here under those conditions? How did things get this bad? How did I let it happen? Where did we fuck up. What else am I supposed to do?"

By the end of it, the self deprecating questions remind Karamatsu of something he can reveal to escape this pit of despair Choromatsu is digging himself into.

"I know about Choromi."

The effect is immediate, as Choromatsu screeches, "What?!" and swivels his head to double check that they're alone in the dark.

Shrugging even though he isn't sure if Choromatsu can see, he recalls, "...you have a lot of outlets, Choromatsu, a lot of things get left laying around. I found one of your outfits while looking for something months ago. I put it away for you before anyone else could see. And then I forgot about it."

Incredulous tone overcoming even his anxiety, his brother reprimands, "How do you just forget something like that?"

Softly, Karamatsu explains, "...why would I ruin it for you. Not that I think our brothers would care very much even if they found out."

Choromatsu's disbelief is palpable as he scoffs, "Are you kidding? I'd never be able to live it down! And you saw how Osomatsu was with Todomatsu during his interview, and he wasn't dressed nearly half as good as, ah, um."

Drawing the conversation back to his original point, he tries to lead Choromatsu to a different approach, affirming, "You'll always be the brother who states the obvious when everyone else seems to forget we aren't above consequences. You don't need to push so hard, Choromatsu. And you don't need to try to be something you're not. If the typical desk job wore you out that badly, then maybe don't try for one again. What's the point of living if your work destroys your will to live."

"Isn't that too dramatic? And it doesn't matter how bad it is, at least one of us needs to land a job." Now that Karamatsu is politely ignoring his brother's cross-dressing hobby, he's back to sounding like an old man.

Sighing deeply, he points out, "...Only you know how bad it was for yourself, Choromatsu. I'm simply stating what it looked like to me. Honestly, you looked relieved when we regrouped, it was like watching someone come back to life. Your happiness is hard to forget. There has to be a better opportunity for you, somewhere, if you focus on what you'd like to do instead of what you think you need to do."

He hopes his brother will take a hint. 'Choromi' doesn't seem to be a minor hobby based on the amount of things Karamatsu uncovered when he hid the outfit he stumbled upon. It's either a miracle the others haven't found his 'contraband' or they have and thought nothing of it, possibly assuming they were merely props.

His softer language elicits an embarrassed reaction out of Choromatsu as he groans, "Okay, stop. Now you're sounding more like your usual self."

Like a pin to a balloon, Karamatsu deflates, sinking into the couch and commenting, "Is that truly a bad thing."

His brother hesitates before remarking, "No, you're just... Excessive sometimes, to the point where the things you say don't make sense."

He sits in the dark and has no reply. Fatigue catches up to him with a vengeance, he's only had a single conversation and it feels like he's used up all the energy he gained from his dissatisfying rest. Splendid.

Choromatsu fumbles his words as he tries to pull back, speaking while wringing the hem of his sweater, "I didn't mean... In a bad way. It's just difficult to figure out if you're saying something or saying nothing."

Karamatsu wants to laugh bitterly at that but he lacks the energy to.

"I suppose I've said a whole lot of 'nothing' then."

The awkwardness is back, suffocating for only Choromatsu. Karamatsu doesn't care. He supposes their conversation has come to a close.

"What did you come up here for, Choromatsu." He would like his brother to leave now.

Supplied with an easy to answer question, Choromatsu slips back into his usual stance, exclaiming, "I forgot! Chibita is downstairs, for some reason he brought a lot of ready made food. When I left him, he was being cornered by mom asking him to take pity on us and teach us his trade." There's a note of embarrassment tied to the last part that reminds Karamatsu to begin seeding his cover story.

He announces without flourish, "I'm going to start learning from him."

"What, really, since when? Are you seriously going to try to..." Choromatsu's shock and disbelief make Karamatsu's mouth twitch, and something claws at his dwindling pride and self respect.

Rising slowly from the couch, Karamatsu shuffles over to the door while speaking, not bothering to mask his hoarse voice.

"Hopefully this doesn't go in through one ear and out the other, dear brother. I have nothing better to do but to learn something while we stagnate and weigh each other down. The odds of me being hired by anyone in the near or far future are still nonexistent. You have nothing to worry about, I cannot replace you or fill your self-appointed role. I just want to keep busy to feel better about myself since my other hobbies inspire only ridicule from the rest of you. Which reminds me, by the way, I won't reveal your secret to our brothers, even if I'm a hundred percent certain you wouldn't be teased for long. Must be nice. I won't even ask for further details if you don't wish to explain it to me."

He flips the light switch on, and carelessly slides open their door with a clack. The sound echoes.

Motioning out to the hall, Karamatsu plainly asks with no expression, "Choromatsu, can you leave now? I can take care of myself, no matter what you think. It gets annoying to have someone breathe down your neck all the time. Go... do whatever it is that takes your mind off things."

Leave me alone, is what he wants to say as he attempts to kick his brother out of his own room. Their room.

Maybe if he said things without embellishing them, he'd get more results. Karamatsu could probably push his brothers away from him, easily.

If he has to.

Should the need arise.

It happens as if they're both trapped in slow motion. Choromatsu's eyes are red-ringed and his sleeves are damp, and when did that happen? Why would it have?

His brother's hand reaches out and silently slides their door closed before heading towards him.

For the first time in recent memory, Choromatsu pulls him into an awkward sibling hug. The moment is immediately ruined as Karamatsu flinches, remembering his other various Choro's. His brother takes it poorly, not knowing what it truly means, believing something else that Karamatsu can't begin to explain away.

Sound returns to him before he even notices it had been gone, the minute shuffling of clothes blares in his ears as his brother squeezes him once. Words come next and Karamatsu feels them slip past him, he has to mentally catch them and play them back to himself before understanding anything.

"Stop. I'm worried about you, why won't you believe me? This isn't just me being anal, I'm sick of people thinking I don't mean it when I say it. Karamatsu, you've never been like this and I don't know if it's because you're sick and in pain and saying things you wouldn't normally say or if you're reaching some sort of limit I didn't know existed."

He hasn't moved to hug his brother back, trapped standing still, as rigid as his automatic response of, "I'm fine."

Stop thinking about it, Choromatsu, is what he wants to say. He wishes his brother wouldn't question these things out of everything he tried to say.

"You're obviously not."

Choromatsu is pushing.

He pushes back, gently prying his brother's arms off of him and sighing, "I'm tired. Everything hurts. I can't do this anymore. Is there more medication I can take?"

Drained, he's drained and his head is out of things for him to process and turn into words that will inevitably go ignored. He tried, at least.

Choromatsu goes pale and grips his arm tightly, leaning forward and asking much too seriously, "What do you mean 'you can't do this anymore'?"

He tries to shrug the arm off as he answers back without thinking, "Talking. I'm not... feeling like myself."

The hand slides off, brushes past his own. The touch feels like static shock.

Slouching but appearing to be more relaxed, Choromatsu eases up on his line of questioning and admits, "...I'm tired too. And alright, but you need to eat something before I can give you anything, if that's okay with you. Not going to jump down my throat for telling you what to do, are you?" He tries to end with a smile but it's weighed down with self-consciousness.

It's his doing, Karamatsu did that to his brother.

He takes too long to respond with a simple, "No."

Frowning, Choromatsu takes a look at him and comes to some unknown decision, using the opportunity granted by both Karamatsu's illness and the fact that they're alone in a room with no one to see them, to quickly brush away the hair in front of his eyes, asking again, "...How are you feeling right now anyway?"

The hand lingers.

Karamatsu gives him a blank look, batting his hand away.

"You asked me this already. But if you mean in general, I feel worse than when I started the day. My illness has advanced." He shrugs, there's nothing he can do about that.

Choromatsu grabs his wrist, insisting, "Then come downstairs and I'll set up everything you need to take."

"I'm capable of reading labels on bottles Choromatsu." He idly debates on what he could do to gross his brother out and prompt him into letting go.

Scowling but not truly upset, Choromatsu retorts with more of his usual vigor, "Shut up. I'd feel better if you let me handle it. Let's go."

The hand tugs him but he refuses to move as he chuckles at his brother's answer, which makes him flush, which in turn makes Karamatsu laugh a little more. Choromatsu's eyes narrow at him but he casually interrupts whatever he's about to say by asking, "Is anyone else home?"

He receives a dirty look in response but is humored nonetheless as Choromatsu answers, "Jyushimatsu is. The other three... It's already dark, Todomatsu might be spending the night out, which means he'll probably get a ride back home from the friend he won't introduce to us. And I might need to go out looking for Osomatsu and Ichimatsu if they don't come back in the next few hours."

At Karamatsu's raised eyebrow, he tries to justify, "Who knows what the hell either of them are doing, it's not an exaggeration to say they could end up getting arrested."

With a yank of his arm, Karamatsu nods sagely and adds, "No, it's not. We're truly the worst."

Choromatsu refuses to let go and tugs back, glaring at him without any heat, "You're messing with me, aren't you Karamatsu."

He shrugs and says only, "No." before finally pulling free.

Sighing, Choromatsu levels a tired and confused stare at him, saying, "Sure you're not. You're acting strange even for you."

Stepping out into the hall with a glance back at Karamatsu's sleeve, he holds his hand out expectantly, prompting, "Are you coming or what?"

Pulling out the dead device from his pocket and giving it a little wave in Choromatsu's direction, he explains, "I need to charge Todomatsu's music player."

Choromatsu's hand slowly drops to his side. After giving Karamatsu a long stare, he shakes his head and walks off, saying with half-hearted annoyance, "Just meet me downstairs then."

He closes the door before Choromatsu's back is even out of sight, the slow rise of panic sloshing around inside his head. He failed to communicate with Choromatsu, and Chibita is waiting for him downstairs.

The panic turns ice cold and washes down his back. He could always just leave home, half of his brothers are still out as well, having one more leave wouldn't be that big of a deal, the night has barely begun. But the thought of leaving jerks him out of his stance at the door. He turns and searches through Todomatsu's things until he finds the cable he needs to charge the borrowed pink music player. As he plugs the two together and connects the charger to an outlet, he takes another look at the screen, trying to find any reason to cling to that will tell him he's blowing the importance of a simple song out of proportion.

Staring down at the device in his hand, his heart sinks and he almost follows it to the floor.

Ghosting is one of the most played songs on the music player, even without his earlier binge listening of it, and it's on a playlist of Todomatsu's favorite songs. Reading through the titles, Karamatsu finds that the list is mostly comprised of English and Korean songs. The Japanese titles are all typical bubbly tracks but, although he can't read the text, something tells him that the Korean songs are in the same vein as the English ones, there's something depressing he can glean from each track name now that he's heard a couple of them.

At least Sleep Awake isn't on Todomatsu's playlist of favorites.

What is he to do with this knowledge? The only thing he feels he can really do or say to Todomatsu is to reassure him that he's wanted and needed. But...

Would that actually help his brother in the end?

Loosely wrapping the earbuds back around the music player, just as it was handed to him, he sets it down and grabs his jacket from the closet. He has no intention of staying home tonight.

After checking if the coast is clear, he sneaks into the bathroom, just needing a few more moments alone. Once inside, he locks the door and does his usual check to make sure it won't open before pulling a disposable cup from a stack of cups in the cabinet. He drinks water from the tap without issue, body telling him he definitely waited too long as his stomach protests, but he ignores the minor discomfort. Stalling for time, he decides to brush his teeth while he's here because his mouth feels disgusting.

As he gets into the rhythm of performing the routine ritual, he glances at his face in the mirror. One of six, huh.

He looks away and stares down at the sink, avoiding the glare of the bright fluorescent lights.

He has no clue, none at all, as to when Todomatsu picked up not one but two foreign languages. How much does he really know about the youngest? He's clearly hiding his real tastes in music with foreign songs so that no one will be able to understand what he's listening to. Or it could be that Karamatsu is looking too deeply into it, Todomatsu could perhaps enjoy both types of songs, but still, there's a distinct 'happy and sad' divide between them all.

And when did the term 'happy' come to mean empty to Karamatsu? Because that's what it feels like to him, the happy songs aren't happy at all, they're empty. He'd like them better if they had no vocals, the music itself isn't bad, but the lyrics make him want to roll his eyes and sigh.

Accidentally sighing for real, he nearly chokes on the foam in his mouth. Gagging and spitting out the mess, he glances at his face in the mirror again.

Ridiculous. Good job.

But the white dripping mess turns red and—

He quickly looks away, rinses out his mouth and his toothbrush, starting again. His mouth still tastes like trash.

What would happen if Todomatsu left them? His belongings are still in their room, he hasn't packed anything away, but what if he did...

Karamatsu can't say he'd stop his brother, not if it was what he wanted, not if Todomatsu had a real plan to get out and go someplace with a true goal in mind. He won't stand in his brother's way anymore. He isn't even sure how long Todomatsu was employed for before they found him working, for all he knows Todomatsu might have picked up another part-time job since then. He's always out and about, it's not inconceivable...

He doesn't even want to think of this, of them breaking apart again, but he has to if he doesn't want to hasten his slip into...

Is it madness? Is he losing his mind? He doesn't think he's exaggerating for effect, not when he's living out multiple lives in his dreams, not when he wakes up feeling like he's lost everyone he ever cared about while simultaneously feeling like his body...

He can't ever tell his brothers what's happening to him. He just needs to keep himself together long enough to see them out of their parent's house. One way or another, he just wants them to succeed, even if he knows it means they will have to eventually separate, as long as they'll be okay. Nothing else matters. It's a goal he can use to keep his shitty pieces of fucked up psyche taped together.

And afterwards...

If there's an afterwards, he could always stay with Choromatsu, assuming his brother's offer was sincere, that time when their parents were planning to divorce and they were about to be split up.

Heh.

Who is he kidding, Choromatsu probably forgot what he said back then. And Karamatsu is aware that he's dead weight, he's barely alive in the real world. He shouldn't haunt other people's homes while contributing absolutely nothing.

Spitting into the sink, his eye is drawn to a line of red. He drags a finger across it just to check if it's real or not. It smears very realistically.

After rinsing out his mouth, he bares his teeth in the mirror and finds bleeding gums.

Perfect. Exactly what he needed.

His mouth tastes like blood now, but that's acceptable. Making sure to wash all the evidence away from the sink, he drinks some more water before crushing the cup and tossing it into the trash. The act is satisfying.

Staring at the door handle, he knows he's run out of ways to waste time. His body chooses then to remind him how each beat of his heart sends a wave of radiating pain through his skull and his face, bright spots of agony fading in and out nearby his eye and jaw. Lovely.

Karamatsu would really appreciate being medicated right about now.

Halfway down the creaking stairs, he hears voices that hush once their owners hear his own slow approach. A head pops out from the living room before a sleeved hand beckons him in. Jyushimatsu.

The hall seems to stretch and tilt as he watches Jyushimatsu's slowed down retreat back into the room, yellow sleeve going 'off screen.'

Right, Ichimatsu gave him 'permission' to speak to Jyushimatsu. Karamatsu could...

No, he can't vent to his brother about anything, although he might attempt to speak to him about Ichimatsu who...

Stumbling on nothing, Karamatsu puts a hand to the slanted wall, suddenly finding breathing to be more difficult than it should be.

Suicide and Ichimatsu. It sounds wrong, but his brother told him himself, in an attempt to frighten him into being 'real' for once. Ichimatsu has no idea what he's done, what he's really managed to do. Now that the idea is in his head from an outside source, Karamatsu can't hold it back anymore. He's thought about it before, fleetingly, how could he not? When he dies so often in his dreams, how could he not think about it, apply the 'what if' to this world too? But in the real world, there's no one to die for, no one to conveniently save by ending himself.

"But what if it would be a relief to me."

Relief, he understands the allure, the longing in Ichimatsu's voice.

He just wants the dreams and the nightmares to stop. He wants to stop wondering if he's some sort of secret deviant when the pain in his dreams relaxes him, as if to say dying would feel pleasant. Or when the 'pain' in his nightmares makes him afraid of touching people while awake. When Choromatsu had hugged him he had been waiting for the hand to claw at his back, sink into his skin, yank at his spine, have it all feel great while at the same time awful as he remembered at least one Choro who hugged him to say goodbye for the last time.

Pressing a hand to the bruising around his eye, Karamatsu hisses and yes, it still hurts. It's still uncomfortable. But.

It's also.

Nice.

Reassuring.

It's not the same flip in sensation he's subjected to in his nightmares, it hurts, but because it hurts it's bloody fantastic, a sign that he's awake. Or in a dream, haunting 'Karamatsu.' But that doesn't matter, does it? Dreams end. He just needs to see it through and eventually—

"Niisan?"

Yellow and green comes into focus in front of his eyes.

What was he just doing, what has he been doing this entire time?

Still propped up against the wall with a hand to his face, Jyushimatsu tugs the hand away with an unsure smile.

How long did he make his brother wait, did he just space out again? He thought he was better after writing, are the effects already diminishing?

"Do you want to sit down with us? Chibita's in the other room and Choromatsu's been waiting for you. Or um, I can take you back upstairs. You look tired. Choromatsu told us you slept all day but it doesn't look like you did." Jyushimatsu's smile wavers but his grip stays strong. What's with everyone touching him today?

The fabric around his hand switches from feeling abrasive to too soft. Karamatsu clenches his other hand in his pocket, digging his nails into his palm to focus on something constant while thinking on what to say.

"I just felt a little dizzy. I'll come with you, Choromatsu promised me relief in the form of medication, and I'd dearly enjoy being reunited with her soothing chemical affection."

Jyushimatsu's eyes do their thing when he goes pensive and Karamatsu assumes he's lost his brother until he surprises him by replying, "Medication is your mistress now? Don't get too attached, Karamatsu-niisan, not even Dekapan's steroids were safe to use."

On the other end of being lost for words, Jyushimatsu takes advantage of his confusion to lead him to the living room, pushing him into sitting next to a stern looking Choromatsu.

As his brother wordlessly pushes a plate towards him as if to say You kept me waiting, take your shit already, Chibita dives straight into exclaiming, "The hell happened to you?"

With the sudden desire to be cryptic to the person who tries the hardest to understand him, he snaps his fingers and replies, "Seven minutes in heaven. Charmed at first sight, my head kissed a wall inside of a closet." Whatever food has been presented to him goes into his mouth so he won't have to talk further and he ends by giving Chibita a shrug.

His brother pulls through for him as he knew he would, pinching the bridge of his nose and groaning out, "Ignore him, he's high on pain and about to be high on drugs. Osomatsu happened, that's what. Why are you even here, Chibita, what's with the hospitality? If you poisoned anything, Karamatsu's currently eating your food so you'd better speak up soon."

Chibita would never taint his own work, Karamatsu assumes, swallowing without concern. He doesn't really taste anything, he just wants to be done so he can take all the other things Choromatsu laid out for him. Different pills and some kind of liquid, he doesn't remember what he took earlier, he doesn't care what it is as long as he gets it in him within the next five minutes.

Unperturbed, Chibita taunts, "Bitch harder Choromatsu, I ain't here for you, I just thought I'd bring somethin' nice over if I was gonna stop by to see how my buddy's doing. And all I get for my consideration is suspicion and an hour with your mom half threatenin' me to take one of ya with me when I leave. Your entire family is crazy."

Seeing Chibita in their house is odd but extra hilarious when he's pitted up against his brother, who falsely believes being in his 'home territory' will render him safe. He shares a look with Jyushimatsu and swipes the medication off his plate, sliding it over and relinquishing his ownership of the onigiri left behind. Surprising him again, Jyushimatsu gives him a mock look of disapproval before smiling and pushing it back to him, facing away to watch the fight brewing between their brother and their house guest.

Waving his arms around, Choromatsu scowls and points out, "Well you've seen him, here he is. And thanks for the food, but you can leave now, we don't need your insults and I'm not letting you take Karamatsu with you. Finish your tea and head out, don't you have a stand to be running?"

Swiftly taking the medication before anyone can stop him, Karamatsu wonders why Choromatsu is being so, for lack of better words, defensive over him. What a strange turn of events, what is going on with his green clad brother? He had planned to sneak out regardless but this could be a problem.

Eying Choromatsu's movements with disdain, his friend remarks, "Whoa, who said I was taking him with me anyway? But you know, now that you've brought it up, maybe I should, eh? I mean when he left my place he was relatively alright, but now he's got a shiner. Stayin' in this house looks to be detrimental to his health. Do you mind telling me just why the fuck he looks worse than when I saw him yesterday? I don't see anyone else lookin' like they lost a fight." He crosses his arms over chest and waits expectantly for some sort of explanation.

Dreading where the conversation will go next, he blurts out, "I'm fine! It was just a minor miscommunication incident. Osomatsu didn't mean to harm me, I provoked him, I was feeling very... Upset upon waking up this morning."

His last sentence gets both Choromatsu and Chibita to tense for different reasons. Damn, he had almost forgotten, his public stunt with Osomatsu must have clued his brothers in to nightmare related things he's been ignoring. They know... something about him. If only he could remember what Osomatsu said as he was waking up...

A bump to his leg gets him to glance at his side, Jyushimatsu nods to the plate again.

Ah, perfect.

He grabs for the food and uses it to excuse himself from speaking for a little while longer. It still tastes like nothing. As he swallows the first bite, Jyushimatsu asks something that nearly makes him choke.

"Karamatsu-niisan had a bad dream and Osomatsu-niisan wanted to wake him up. Hey Chibita, do you know if there are foods that cause nightmares?"

Chibita's been covering him for so long that he doesn't hesitate when he conversationally replies, "Nah, I don't know about anything like that. Still doesn't explain why Karamatsu ended up with a black eye, but if he says it was an accident, fine. Teach your oldest brother some god damn finesse one of these days. And scram, I wanna talk to Karamatsu alone." He shoots Karamatsu a very loaded look of urgency that demands he gets his brothers out of the way.

Predictably affronted, Choromatsu growls out, "You don't live here, you can't just tell us what to—"

Holding a hand up, Chibita brashly retorts, "Either I get to talk to him indoors or we head out. By your own dumbass rules, I gotta do it here. Don't you got better shit to do?"

Taking the high road, he looks down at Chibita, asserting, "Taking care of my illness-prone brother isn't a good enough task?"

Ever candid, Jyushimatsu silences the room as he divulges, "Choromatsu-niisan is jealous Karamatsu-niisan has such a good friend, he wants to monopolize our big brother's time now that he's got an excuse to make him stay home!"

Going red in the face and clamming up, Choromatsu glares at their brother while the image of the Nyaa-chan blanket flickers over Karamatsu's crossed legs. He feels uncomfortably warm but Jyushimatsu continues, heedless of his brother's deepening frown, claiming, "I want to spend time with him too while he's under house arrest. He hasn't been around lately."

Chibita looks like he's witnessing some sort of miracle as Jyushimatsu faces Karamatsu with a concerned smile, speaking softly.

"Where have you been, Karamatsu-niisan? You're out when we're home and you're home when we're out. It's been weird with only five of us together."

Repressed longing curdles in his gut and turns into something sour, bitter, and all-around foul.

Where has he been? Where have they been, are they blind? Do they not understand?! The minor neglect he's been dealing with from them for years is something he's built himself around, something he can handle by now. But this new trend of talking to him like he suddenly exists again the moment they all realize he's been gone is...

Infuriating. Every gentle word, every sweet sentiment, everything he ever wanted...

He hates it.

He can't accept this.

Being wanted is putting him in a position of leverage he's never had before and all he can do is slam his fist on it to launch every kind gesture back in their faces. They're full of shit, and he's such fucking shit, he can't help it, and he's unable to stop himself, and he's tired of holding back, and the words

slip

out.

"I haven't been around because I grew tired of being called painful. Of being the target of unprovoked blows. Of having my possessions destroyed. The jokes are stale, the gag has run its course into the ground. I'm exhausted, sick of playing this game with all of you. If you want me around, say so. If you don't, you don't need to ignore me until I take a hint, just say it, just say what you mean. And I will too."

He already knows he'll hate himself later for the vicious satisfaction he gains from the silence in the room, the shock on his brothers' faces, the way Jyushimatsu's smile morphs into an expression of hurt. But right now, he feels wired, ready to attack, the spring in him has been sprung and there's no undoing it. Even so, it doesn't slip past his notice that now both he and Osomatsu have harmed Jyushimatsu in a moment of volatile reaction. He seems unable to control his mouth the way he controls his fists, and even that control is slipping... He kicked his own brother, what happens the next time he fucks up?

Karamatsu is a god damned derelict, he might as well bury himself in cement, build the coffin around him, warn everyone away.

Words continue to pour out.

"I'm going to be busy from now on with my own things. No, I don't want to talk about it. No, it's not a girlfriend, it's not other friends, it's not even anything to do with other people at all, which also means no, it's not a job. I'll still come home. I'll still be here. You'll still see me. Just not as often."

A frigid part of him whispers that it's better they continue to expect his absences as he gradually widens the divide. He needs so much time alone. He loves his brothers, he does, but the only thing he wants to do is just enough to make sure that they never need him. He's clearly beyond helping, just like Oso, dead set on one mission, screw the consequences. He's known it for a while, he just didn't want to admit it yet. The dreams, the nightmares, the over sleeping, the sleeplessness, the constant fatigue, the pull at his head that takes him away from himself, the erasing of his face, the ghost piloting the body he's inside of. His condition is unsustainable.

The ghost watches through the body's eyes and finds that Choromatsu has been struck speechless and Jyushimatsu is staring down at his sleeves in his lap, looking as sad as a dog that's been reprimanded, curled up in a corner, as low to the ground as can be. Chibita's eyes dart between them all, sitting stiffly in the incredibly uncomfortable atmosphere that's overrun the room. Their gazes meet and Chibita mouths out Holy hell.

Catching the wordless communication between brother and friend, a friend who is visibly closer to Karamatsu than he is, Choromatsu staggers to his feet. Worriedly looking between them, Jyushimatsu quickly makes his decision and sides with Choromatsu, helping him out of the room. A moment passes before he's half in view from the doorway, hands wrung together in their sleeves.

"You said to tell you if we want you around, right? Hang out with me, niisan, sometime this week, if you're not busy... Just come and find me, okay?"

His brother waits for no answer and the door slides shut. They hear Jyushimatsu run down the hall and up the stairs.

"Just... if you're feeling alone, come find me or Jyushimatsu."

Karamatsu doubts the offer would still stand if Ichimatsu ever found out what he just did to his favored brother. His head thunks onto the table before he realizes he's even drooping forwards and he lets loose a long low groan. The satisfaction from putting down his brothers is comically short lived. He almost laughs. What a blunder.

"So I'm guessing I came over at a bad time." Chibita begins, not allowing the heavy air to keep him from speaking. He's very good at that, Karamatsu observes.

"That's an understatement. It's the worst time."

Standing up, he motions for Chibita to follow him, suggesting, "In fact, let's go. I can't stand to be in this house right now." His prickling shame won't allow him to go confront his brothers again until some time has passed and so he's choosing to fall back on old habits. It's time to disappear.

Chibita looks as if he wants to refute him but he sighs and nods, eager to escape the house as well.

After retrieving their shoes nearby the front door, Karamatsu leads them quietly out through the back, sticking close to the house and the blind spots from the sextuplets' bedroom window until they can safely walk to the street. Automatically, Karamatsu begins down a path to the park, zipping up his jacket and keeping his hands in his pockets. The air isn't too cold out but his illness has him debilitated in other ways. At least the pounding at his head has receded to manageable levels, he can stay out all night if it doesn't get worse. He might have to buy his own painkillers, maybe look into purchasing a few other things for himself and his brothers, something he can use to apologize without words...

"What was that about waking up this morning? Is this... part of the dream stuff? You seem really on edge, not that I think what you said to your brothers was wrong. That shit was bound to come out but man, what pushed you over?"

Beside him, Chibita is speed-walking to keep up with his pace. He slows down, not even aware that he was rushing to place distance between him and the house, driven as if he was being chased or followed.

With a quick check behind them, finding nothing but other random people milling around, he faces forward and looks somewhere ahead, unfocused and not needing to see where he's going. His legs know the way to the park, and Karamatsu is so used to speaking to Chibita like this, as they walk anywhere, that he speaks without needing to force himself.

"I had a Looping Nightmare and woke up early this morning. I found myself alone with Osomatsu... You've read my terms. I just couldn't deal with him prying so soon after waking up. Things got out of hand."

"Out of hand, right. Seriously though, how does that end up with that." Chibita motions to Karamatsu's face.

"...I'm not fit to be around other people after those kinds of nightmares, or any type of nightmare really. I may have provoked him. It's not his fault, he couldn't see where he was aiming, it was dark. Believe me, we fight all the time without injuring each other like this, you know that."

He doesn't want his friend to think he's some sort of victim of physical abuse, it's the last thing he needs on top of his already tenuous and failing relationship with his brothers. Besides, he used to be involved with much worse outside of his brotherly spats, Chibita should know that for a fact. The bruise is nothing, he'd be able to cover it up if he had his glasses... But his last pair is either still with Osomatsu or lost to time. One more thing to pick up later tonight.

"I only know how you guys act when you come over to my stand or when I see you parading around like crazies on the street. Who the hell knows what you all do stuck together in your house. But fine, I get it, consider it dropped."

Chibita waits a moment before continuing on and Karamatsu's heart begins to race. Again, he feels like he should be running, but he stays walking at their slow and sedate pace towards the park. He can already see the dark outline of the trees from here.

"I finished reading your dream. It's a 'Dream,' right, not a 'Nightmare?' Cuz' for anyone else, that'd be one really fucked up nightmare."

He nods, glad that Chibita has started off with something easy.

"Yes, what you read was something I've defined as a Dream. I don't think I could write about my Nightmares. Luckily, they happen very rarely, but when I do have them..."

He places a hand gingerly over his face before detailing, "Usually I do everything within my power to be alone upon waking. I was unable to do so this time. Osomatsu suspects something unusual is happening, but he's nowhere near to discovering the truth of the matter."

"Are you going to tell him?" Chibita stares up at him with a frown that could mean anything set on his face.

Eyes on his shoes as he walks forward, Karamatsu resolutely shakes his head.

"Absolutely not. Please don't tell him either. I'd rather work on handling it myself before getting anyone else involved. It's... why I told you. I needed someplace safe to store my writing and I can't do that at home. You're the only one I'd trust with this, my first and last choice. I'm sorry I'm depending on you once again... Is it tiring?"

He needs to know if Chibita will even tolerate him anymore, they've had years of friendship between them but Karamatsu feels like everything has been skewed towards him and his needs. He can't remember another time when he helped Chibita.

Nearly imperceptible, another part of him he barely acknowledges knows it'd be advantageous to steer Chibita's train of thought away from the dreams and nightmares and onto something else. He needs to deflect as much as possible, he cannot allow his friend to figure out just how severely they're affecting him.

The look he gets is one of fond annoyance as Chibita grouses, "Some things don't change, huh? You're always like this. It's fine, I'm the one who offered. You wouldn't have actually asked for all of that upfront. You keep trying to get by without leavin' much of an impact on anyone. Meanwhile..."

As they reach the park, Chibita steps in front of him and takes the lead, going down a winding path. Karamatsu can't see his face from behind him and the light grows faint the further they go.

"Everything that's going on in your head is so wild. I gotta wonder even more now, just how much of what you say to me, or to anybody, is legit. Maybe you've been holding in things that you shouldn't be. But an explanation like that would be too simple, wouldn't it? I'm no professional, and I think you should see someone, but... This stuff you have going on. How much is it fucking you up? How often do you Dream, Karamatsu?"

Panic is snuffed out before it can begin to live in his chest, and he swallows down hard on the cobwebs that seem to be perpetually stuck in his throat thanks to his illness. This is his moment to either come clean or lie.

But he already knows what he always intended to do.

"Not often. A few times a month, for Dreams."

A blatant lie, he Dreams every time he falls asleep and doesn't have Dreamless Sleep or Nightmares.

"The rest of the time, I usually dream of nothing. Nightmares happen very rarely. A few times a year."

The latter half is true, but he's already had two back to back Nightmares of both types within the same week. Writing seems to come with risks but he can't be sure until he writes more and observes what happens next. The only real thing he needs to prevent is Time Loss, everything else can be dealt with even if it wears him down for the rest of his life. He's resigned to that.

"As for how I'm faring... You saw what happened just now. I'm not doing well. The Dreams and Nightmares are intense, powerful enough to cause harm while I'm awake. It's... unsettling. But I'm working on it! My hope is that writing will help me focus and attain closure, allow me to put them aside."

Chibita would immediately attempt to enlist more 'help' if Karamatsu told him the truth. No one can ever know that he feels like he's lived a hundred different lives as just as many different people. He feels old and tired and jaded sometimes. How can he care about anything when it's all been trivialized for him somewhere down the line? All he's got left are his brothers, his parents, his friend. And even those connections are waning.

"Please allow me to attempt to deal with it on my own first. I can't burden my parents with this... Bad news. They're already supporting an inordinate number of adult children. I... feel..."

The depression is real, he doesn't have to fake the way his throat closes up on him or the way his legs stop moving him forward.

Real life, Dream lives, it doesn't matter which. He's never able to solve his problems.

Chibita's in front of him before he notices he's been stopped for a while. He looks uncomfortable in the low light, worried and unsure.

"Hey. It's okay. I gave you my key for a reason, you can come over whenever. Your stuff is safe there, no one else is gonna be able to read it. We'll deal with getting your head in order before touching any of that other shit. And really, your brothers are their own people, they can handle themselves without you for a while. I mean Todomatsu is doing fine aaand ah shit."

He croaks out, "Todomatsu?"

"...ah, fuck it. If it's you, it's fine, just don't tell your other brothers, alright? Todomatsu got hired at a new place thanks to his buddy Atsushi. Guy knows a lot of people, but through him your brother ends up getting in touch with tons more. He actually helped me set up a website for my stand, it's why I can close and open whenever I want to now, I just need to update my hours."

Chibita rubs the back of his head and smiles crookedly, revealing, "I'm kind of in demand now. They might be snobbish people with too much time on their hands but Todomatsu's directed a lot of 'foodies' over my way. I'm preparing to do some catering too. Staying small actually helps me out by feeding into their crappy elitist mentality of rarity."

Effortless praise falls from his lips as the greater part of Karamatsu's mind goes blank.

"Your food speaks for itself then, my friend. I'm ecstatic for your success! All you really needed was a wider audience to shine brilliantly. Will you 'stay small' or do you plan on expanding someday? What about a restaurant? You've said in the past that you've wanted to share the glory of oden all over the world."

Ducking his head, Chibita gives him a friendly shove that almost topples his limp body over. His friend doesn't notice as the praise embarrasses him.

"Nah, I'm not looking into doing anything big any time soon. I have a lot of time to do that sort of thing when I'm older. I'm still learnin' how to deal with smaller jobs and I gotta test out how much I can do by myself first. I've never cooked with anybody else since my trainin' days and you remember how that went, I was never satisfied workin' with other people. I think I was too much of a perfectionist back then, and before you make fun of me I know I still am, but you know what I mean! I mighta been too harsh in the past..."

All that he hears is that Chibita and Todomatsu will be fine with or without him. It's reassuring.

The youngest sextuplet always promised that he'd leave first and pave the way for the rest, that he'd return to drag them up the social ladder himself if he had to. Quietly, Karamatsu had always wondered if Todomatsu would leave and never come back, he thinks that they all had the same thought, which is probably why they yank their youngest brother back to them every time he tries to hang out with his female friends. They publicly embarrassed him so severely, so many times, that Karamatsu wouldn't be able to fault Todomatsu if he ever did leave them all, dropped off the face of the earth without warning, just to escape.

But he needs to find something to say to his friend.

"It escaped my notice until recently but you're quite a meticulous person, aren't you Chibita?" The inside of the man's fridge comes to mind, the neat and perfectly orderly dishes, even his handwriting. Karamatsu's name...

Shrugging, his friend waves him over, saying, "Yeah, I guess? But I've always thought everyone else was just bad at keeping things lined up. Forget that though, come on, let's keep going."

Shaking his head, Karamatsu takes a seat at a bench. Whatever Choromatsu gave him, correction, whatever he blindly swallowed, is making him drowsy. He can easily force himself to stay awake but he has an idea on how to milk his condition. Lying with the truth... He's been getting a lot of practice in lately.

"I'm running out of time before I need to begin heading back. Whatever I took is calling me to sleep."

The mention of sleep wipes away the lingering joy on his friend's face, replacing it with inquisitive concern.

"I've been meaning to ask about that. What you wrote about Dreamless Sleep... Did you really test it?" He sounds disapproving.

Leaning back and resting his head on the bench, Karamatsu looks upwards and confirms, "Yes. Early on, before I acclimated to the Dreams, I felt so poorly that I tried to ensure that I'd always be worn out before sleeping. I thought that if I was incredibly tired, I could avoid dreaming entirely. But as I already stated in the book, it didn't work the way I thought it would. Exhaustion lead to my first Looping Nightmare. After that I attempted to learn how to trigger lucid dreaming, but that too failed in the same manner. I haven't tried to control my Dreams since then, which is to say I haven't turned to drugs, before you ask." He doesn't mention his bout of illnesses.

Chibita's immediate response is, "Good, don't start testing shit like that again."

After receiving a tired shrug in response, Chibita worriedly asks, "Are you tired all of the time? If you're having mostly Dreamless Sleep, doesn't that mean you always feel like you're only half rested? That can't be good for you."

He suppresses the urge to laugh and gets by with only a single lifeless, "Heh." The undelivered mania stays trapped, frothing in his chest. He'll let it out later.

Wishing he had his sunglasses, he runs a hand through his messy hair, not caring if he's fixing it or making it worse as he discloses, "I feel tired, yes, but my body is fine, it's only a mental affliction. Not to say that I think it's unimportant! I'm just aware of my condition and its physical consequences. As long as I get some sleep, I can still stay awake for a normal period of time."

Whether he dreams or not, he's still always tired. His answer is mostly true, except for the physical ramifications. He can stay awake, but his body definitely can't stay active the entire time. And before he began writing, his mental faculties were fraying, and even then he would have let it continue if he 'only' spaced out and had things slow down around him. Time Loss was where he drew the line. Being unaware of what his body was doing without him, completely disconnected and running on some sort of imperfect autopilot...

It was like being dead and leaving behind his living corpse. Purposeless survival of a thing that isn't him or 'Karamatsu.' Too far. He won't allow the body he's in to frighten all the people he has left. He'd rather die fully than to leave them such a Thing to deal with. It's too awful.

Unable to understand with only a fraction of true knowledge buried within false information, Chibita peers down at him and asks again, "So you really are tired all of the time? Karamatsu... Shit, you never feel alright? You never feel well rested?"

Sensing that he's encountered something annoying, Karamatsu pulls back, "Not never, of course not."

He should have realized 'never feeling alright' was a thing everyone else would be unable to comprehend. He's tired all of the time but he's just dealt with it because there is no alternative, there's literally nothing else he can do except to suffer through it or collapse. Maybe this is how Ichimatsu feels about... Suicide.

What had he said?

His brain supplies him with the auditory memory, set to the still image of his brother on the roof, in an odd but not unwelcome method of recollection.

"I just feel like shit all the time but it takes more than that to push me over the edge."

Yes, that. Ichimatsu might understand.

"Forgive me if I over embellish things. I'm... Heh, I'm tired right now, I should go home soon before I fall asleep here. Anything else you'd like to ask me? This would be so much easier if I had a phone... sorry for the inconvenience, my friend."

"Shut up, we're halfway to my place, you can always drag yourself there. Tonight, tomorrow, whenever. I promised didn't I? That we'd do this slow? There's a lot of shit I wanna know but if you're not feeling up to it, I'm not gonna rush ya." Even as he consoles him, Karamatsu can see the burning curiosity in Chibita's stance.

Feeling guilty for planning to hasten his friend's departure, he unwisely wonders aloud, "...come now, I know there are things you want to ask me. Maybe about your character? How the Chibita in my Dream died? How I felt..."

Chibita takes a seat next to him and he struggles not to jump away. Shit, why did he bring it up? He knows what it feels like to be guiltless thanks to that particular dream, he can't utilize the mindset but he wishes he could just to avoid this.

"...Alright. But I'm not really worried about the story of your dreams. I'm more worried about you. I don't understand how they can be intense enough to fuck with you this badly, but since they are, maybe I should ask this instead. How real do they feel, when you're having them?"

How real?

That's it, they just feel Real, more real than his waking life, his 'real' life. His boring, albeit still terribly unha—

His endless, purposeless, meaningless real life. Days pass and nothing changes here. But in his dreams, there is a beginning and an end. Definitive. Even if it hurts him, things come to a close and he knows. Everything.

In his real life, he knows nothing except what he observes, and even then all he knows is that he could be wrong about everything. He doesn't even know his brothers anymore. Todomatsu...

Within his dreams, he feels like he's on tracks, that every event is driving him towards something more with a goal in mind. Real life has no such structure, he's just drifting without going anywhere, thinking constantly without getting anything done. It's like a dull Nightmare. His only goals are unattainable, he wants to help his brothers somehow, he wants them to break out of the loop they're stuck in. But how?

"Karamatsu? Are you spacing out?"

"...I think I'm nodding off. I'm sorry, what was your question?" He makes a show of sitting up in his seat, shaking his head as if to clear it. He's such a fucking liar.

"Actually, I think I'll save it for some other time. You know if you want you can just sleep at my place, whenever. Just tell me how to deal with you if you zone out on me. That shit was scary. But... getting to read what you wrote cleared up some things for me. You worked all night and all day on that, huh. It's kinda... surreal? I wanna say I liked reading it, but then I remember hell, you dreamt of it and it messed you up, so I can't really say that. Tch, what I mean is... I hope the writing thing works out for you, if you ever make that book you were fibbin' about. It's miles better than the stuff you used to show me, even if it's fucked up."

As Chibita begins to stand, Karamatsu can't allow the thought to go unsaid. He lies and tells the truth.

"It felt entirely real, for a short but very intense period of time. Your death... felt real to me when I woke up. Can you imagine that? Pretend for a moment that you dreamt of me instead. Have you ever had a nightmare that made perfect sense to you while you were asleep, but made no sense once you woke up? Pretend that the latter part never came, that it stayed real in your head, that you understood it perfectly. Imagine if I was dead in this world and that you woke up in another. No sextuplets, no six brothers at your stand, no guitar playing at your ear, no notebook. But you can recall everything perfectly, you can remember it so well that you can write about it in a book of your own. You could write my short story inside of your short story, a nightmare about a childhood friend having nightmares. You'd be writing about a friend that never existed, all the while wondering how your sleeping brain could ever come up with such a thing. Sextuplets, really? Can you imagine?" His mouth snaps shut. He's said too much.

"That's really fucking creepy, I don't even want to think about it—" He curses and rubs at his eyes.

"—and that's exactly why you're asking me to think about it, huh? Shit. That's too much... Is every Dream like that for you?"

He lies again, intertwining it so closely to the truth that no one will ever be able to pick the two apart to tell where the divide is.

"Yes. I wake up from every Dream feeling as if they just happened. I can usually recover from them within the same day, but the emotions they bring are so strong that I... Even the memory of them is enough to revive some of those intense feelings. And before you ask, don't. Don't ask about my Exceptions. It's too personal, I don't have the right words to describe it yet. I'm just... emotionally vulnerable, I suppose. Even my dreams can pierce my heart, you must think it's silly."

As time passes, he goes further along both ends of a spectrum, having moments of high emotion and moments of nothingness, a dead stop to all feelings. He wonders on which end of the seesaw he'll end up permanently landing in as he slouches in his seat. He's beginning to feel like this entire conversation has been a mistake. He feels that way about all his conversations lately.

"You just asked me to imagine a world where you're dead, and I'm the only who knows and remembers you in a different world where you don't even exist. If the dreams are that intense, they're not a fucking joke." The severity in Chibita's voice, while not aimed at him, still makes him jump.

Chibita picks up on his jitters and rushes to apologize, "Sorry. I'm not mad at you."

Karamatsu breathes out a nearly silent laugh and answers back, "I know. Frustrating, isn't it? I wonder which deity I spited to be cursed in such a way. And before you tell me I'm spouting nonsense, believe me, I know. My jokes are running dry these days."

Heaving himself up from his seat, he stands weighed down by his invisible burdens, not bothering to go the extra mile to pretend to stand tall in front of his friend. It'd be pointless after everything he's blurted out thus far.

"I think I want to go home now. Thank you for everything, Chibita."

"Don't say shit like that. It sounds like you're saying goodbye forever, you drop out drama kid..."

He says nothing but grins at his friend and poses for him, one hand in front of his face, covering his bruise even if they're in the dark, other hand placed over his heart.

"Yeah yeah, grand exits. Ask your brother about getting a shitty cellphone, I'll bug him about it too. He can probably weasel his way into getting a good deal with you on his phone plan. I bet the only reason he hasn't done yet it is because he doesn't want to suddenly have four other people whining for him to do the same for them. And remember, I gave you my key for a reason! You can get into my apartment literally any time of the day. Your book is under the couch cushions, waitin' for ya."

He drops his pose as Chibita awkwardly stands in front of him, debating on doing something before finally reaching up to punch him lightly in the arm.

"I'm serious. I feel like I've said it too many times already but you can be as dense as a brick so I gotta hammer it home: Come over if you feel like you can't stay at your house. You've been... Well I guess I know why now, but you haven't been around much. I'm used to you pestering me every day. It's not a big deal, it never was. Besides Iyami, you're the person I've known the longest. I don't know what it's like to grow up with five brothers but I know what it's like to have grown up with you. You're my best friend, ya know? Jeez..."

Turning away with embarrassment, Chibita waves his farewell and leaves with final parting demands.

"Don't disappear on me, Karamatsu! And if you get a phone, ask Todomatsu for my number."

Chibita is a ways away from him before he manages to answer back with a whispered Sure that even he barely hears. It doesn't sound very convincing.

He turns away before he ends up watching Chibita's retreat until he can no longer see his friend, aiming to head into the parts of town that are still well lit, lightly jogging to keep warm even if his body protests.

As he gets closer to the town proper, he encounters crowds of people, groups of friends, and more than a few couples, all heading somewhere to spend the night out. A few people catch a glimpse of him and he can feel their eyes track him, immediately jumping up to his face and predictably turning to their companion to comment on it. He's already gone by the time their friends think to look around for the guy with the black eye.

Taking refuge inside a dinky little store he knows, he pulls out his wallet as he walks through the tight, one person aisles. Checking how much he's still got, he's surprised to find that no one has stolen anything from him while he was asleep last night. He attributes it to pity but decides he needs to be more careful with his spending anyway. He'll have to go out busking again sometime in the near future, it's an activity he's been doing ever since he started refusing to accept his mother's 'allowance.' And boy was that an embarrassing conversation, she had been so excited, immediately jumping to conclusions, wondering if he had secretly gotten hired.

He'd had to let her down before any sort of rumors could spread to his brothers, and she had looked so disappointed for a fraction of a second before covering it up by giving him a generic pat on the back comment, praising him for 'taking a step forward as an adult.' He had been absolutely mortified.

Since then, he's been unable to be alone with her, he could live his entire life without seeing that look again, as short lived as it was. The true feelings of a parent with six NEET sons...

Grabbing a shitty pair of sunglasses he squeezes his way over to the counter and jams them onto his face, heedless of his bruise and paying afterwards. The guy who runs the store knows him well enough as a regular to ask how he's doing without expecting a real response. Karamatsu shoots back his usual, "Glamorous, thank you! And you?" before receiving the expected grunt and flip of a magazine page.

Unexpectedly, tonight it's followed up by the perpetually tired looking man tossing him another pair of identical shades along with a business card.

"You getting into fights again? Been a while. Ya look sick too, kiddo, like you got a lot on your mind. If someone's givin' you a hard time, you take that card. It's good for one call. Been meaning to give it to ya since I owe ya one."

On high alert, mentally reevaluating everything that's happened with dread and wondering if he fell asleep in the park, he takes the offered glasses with a bow of his head but declines the card, saying, "H-heh, I have no idea what you mean by 'owe me one.' And I just had a spill, very unfortunate! You know how clumsy I am, I do come by here for these all the time." He raises the glasses before tucking the extra pair away into his jacket pocket.

Looking up from his magazine, the man's gaze sharpens as he leans forward, picks up the card, and pushes it into Karamatsu's petrified hands.

"Better to have options you're never gonna use than to have nothin' to rely on." His voice reminds him of an even gruffer, older, legitimately dangerous Ichimatsu. Even his hair is scruffy and his eyes are dark. Karamatsu can't tell how old he is other than 'adult' aged and definitely older than him, considering how long he's been frequenting this shop.

Slouching in his seat behind the counter, the man disappears behind his magazine and flips to the next page. The magazine is about flowers.

Karamatsu slowly backs away until he can slip out the entrance and dart into the street. He has no idea what just happened, he's been going to that hole in the wall store for years since he came upon it in high school and nothing of the sort has ever happened before. As far as he can tell, the owner has never changed or deviated from his standard brief greetings and no-word replies. The card is burning in his hand but he doesn't stop to take a look at it till he reaches a convenience store nearby.

Under fluorescent lights, he notes that the front of the card is printed with embossed lettering, seemingly for an office of some type. But the back of the card has a scrawled out phone number, which he supposes is the actual 'one time call' number he's supposed to use. There's nothing else on it except for a little doodle of a skull in a corner that coincidentally looks like the one on his belt buckle. Or perhaps it's signifying that the number is specifically for him, the man with the skull belt?

This is too bizarre.

But he very carefully slides the card into his wallet anyway. What the hell, right? The man had even said he could choose to never use it.

It's probably nothing... Maybe even a practical joke... Yeah.

Yeah.

Walking through the much more spacious aisles of the regular store, he snatches a tiny bottle of pain killers before heading into the snack aisle. It'll cost him a little but he picks up something different for each of his brothers because the easiest way to bribe them is with food, booze, or money. He's able to quickly decide on foods he knows they'd enjoy but hits a bit of a issue as he considers Osomatsu.

Ever since they regrouped, Osomatsu has been avoiding certain favorites of his. Karamatsu has a rather depressing suspicion that the foods he's turning down are things their parents might have tried to offer him while he was alone in the house. From what he was able to glean, out of a rare one on one talk with his father one late and sleepless night, Osomatsu had, as Ichimatsu said, "sat in his room for literal days."

He wonders if they ever found Osomatsu sequestered in the closet. It would have been empty enough to comfortably fit a person inside.

After careful consideration, he decides to get a type of hard candy he knows Osomatsu prefers. Maybe his brother will accept it if it's from him, despite... everything. Or maybe he'll be further driven away from something he used to enjoy.

...Karamatsu wishes his brother didn't have to know what that feels like.

At the counter, he picks up a pen he can use to write on the various types of packaging and pays for his items, handing over the bills and coins to a very bored looking girl he's never seen before. She doesn't seem to judge his odd purchases of candy, sweets, chips, and pills. Food for his brothers, drugs for himself.

Taking the offered receipt and change, he decides to do something he knows is probably stupid, but the girl just seems so tired, reminding him of the man at the dingy shop.

As she turns away from him, he quickly takes the opportunity to enact his inane tribute to foolishness. Folding the receipt paper and uncapping the pen, he draws out a quick blue flower and writes on the other side For Good Luck! He slides it over with his change to her while her back is still turned and leaves before he can find out if she thinks it's too strange.

He already knows it is, he probably just freaked her out. Well, it could be worse. She could have received a business card with a phone number and a skull on it instead of sparse money and a drawing.

Regardless, he runs away as if someone will chase him down for being... Him. He only stops once he's in a quieter part of town, only a few streets away, finding a lamppost to stand under.

Pen back in hand, he goes through the items and writes out a simple Sorry and chooses to draw skulls instead. He doesn't sign his name, it's obvious there's only one person who would do such a thing and in shiny blue ink. Hopefully the draw of food will keep them from outright rejecting his crappy attempts at an apology for... Whatever he's managed to do this time. Everything he's said and done wrong. All of his poor decisions. All the things he's going to continue to do.

Dropping the last item in the bag after checking the ink won't smear, he sighs and caps the pen. He almost wrote his name on his hand but decided against it. Either he'd be reminded of Ichi's grave marker or the slip of paper he cut in half this morning. Not to mention, it'd be ridiculous and unexplainable to walk around with a name printed on his palm. But maybe those two words suit him perfectly. It certainly feels that way.

Adjusting the bag in his hand, he almost doesn't catch it over the plastic crinkle, but a noise just loud enough to be heard comes to his attention.

A cat?

Standing still, he waits and listens for the noise again. It comes a little bit louder this time. It's definitely an animal, but it sounds pained.

It really isn't his problem, he should be either heading home or checking around bars looking for his brothers, and his dreams deal with the deaths of people, not mere animals, but...

He walks around and stops intermittently, listening for where the mystery animal might be. It doesn't take him long at all to trace the sound back to a cramped space between two buildings.

He doesn't like it one bit, it reminds him too much of the fight he nearly forgot, but he remembers enough to know that this isn't the same alley, it's barely wide enough for a person to hold out one arm away from themselves. There are only trash bins at the entrance to the space, but he can clearly hear the wailing cries of a cat behind them.

His headache grows the longer he stays standing in front of the trash bins. What is he even going to do with an injured cat? Ichimatsu would know where to go, possibly even how to provide immediate help...

Tightly tying his plastic bag closed and affixing it to one of his belt loops, he moves the bins out of the way. The crying stops as the cat most likely assumes he's a threat come to harm it further. Eyes already well adjusted to the dark, he removes his glasses and stays at the mouth of the opening, trying to see where the poor thing might be if it hasn't already run off.

Oh, oh no.

He backs away from the space and hopes the cat has died because he doesn't want to check. He saw enough of it to know it wasn't going to make it. Checking the ground around him more carefully, he spots the little drops of blood he missed before.

Someone intentionally hurt it and tossed it away. Its lower body was horribly bent and...

Something internal must have ruptured for there to be that much blood from such a small sized cat. Its mouth was covered...

The silence of the street presses in and he realizes it hasn't cried in a while despite him standing still and making no noise. He came just in time to hear it die.

At least... he sincerely hopes it's dead. He doesn't think he can handle having to kill it out of mercy. Oh god, he should check. He should definitely check, every moment he wastes is another moment of agonizing pain it will endure but he's afraid—

"Karamatsu?" A hoarse voice startles him.

He knows it's Ichimatsu before he even turns all the way. Opening his mouth to ward his brother away, he's interrupted before he can say a word.

"Did you find a dead cat?"

Something is wrong with his brother, he's panting as if he's been running around and his posture is stiff as if he's coiled, ready to throw a punch, angry. Karamatsu nods anyway.

Cursing, Ichimatsu snarls, "God damn motherfuckers... I've been finding cats around town, either dead or dying, and none of the living ones will come near me, I barely see them before they run away. They're all too spooked to come near anybody, I had to leave them food in different places than my usual ones because that's where I've been finding the bodies."

A sudden harsh cry pierces the air in between Ichimatsu's last word and the breath Karamatsu sucked in.

Wasting no time, his brother sprints into the dark little space. Karamatsu watches from the sidewalk, afraid of two things. One, that his brother will think he willfully lied to him and two, that he's about to see something he can't forget.

The second thing happens at once and he immediately turns and opens the lid to one of the trash bins, vomiting without even knowing if the trash bag inside is open or tied closed. Quite frankly he's beyond giving a fuck at the moment.

How could he, how could Ichimatsu just do that to his favorite animal? Maybe it's because he loves cats that he could, but Karamatsu could never...

He heaves, thinking of his brothers and the people that wore their faces.

"You should have looked away."

Slamming the lid shut over the bin and the foul mess inside, he coughs out thick strings of spit onto the concrete before seeing Ichimatsu's legs next to him. Groaning, he shakes his head and shamefully admits, "I thought it was dead but I was too scared to check. I'm sorry, I'm so sorry."

"I'd push you but my hands are kind of gross right now. Don't apologize, just shut up, stop crying, and tell me if you've got another bag on you."

At least Ichimatsu doesn't sound pissed at him, just incredibly pissed in general.

Shaking his head again, he offers instead, "I can get a bag if you need it. W-What kind?" He slowly straightens out and gets a look at Ichimatsu's face.

It's tightly drawn, as if he's seconds away from breaking out into a full blown teeth-baring scream. Karamatsu has never seen Ichimatsu this upset, more shaken than angry now that he's seeing him up close.

Through a sneer he hisses, "Something big enough for that cat. I just want to bring it someplace else until I can bury it."

Given directions he can easily follow, Karamatsu swiftly replies, "Wait here for me, I'll be right back." and runs off before he loses his nerve.

He finds himself stumbling back into the hole in the wall shop, mildly startling the owner into asking why he's back so soon and commenting on how he looks like, "extra shit."

Karamatsu shoots back with, "Yeah I know, I've heard that a lot recently." before diving into the back to grab a few bottles of water and returning to the front to pick up hand sanitizer. The only thing available is scented and in a pink bottle but he doesn't care, slapping down his money on the counter.

"Ya look like ya found a dead body." The owner comments as he bags his items much too slowly.

Before he can think better of it, he blurts out, "I have. But. Cat, it was a cat. Just a cat. I need to go, may I have this double bagged?"

Holding his goods hostage, the owner nods and slides his change over while inquiring, "I'm guessin' the cat you found wasn't roadkill?"

He shakes his head, pushing the change into his pocket, not noticing how the man barely charged him anything.

"Only freaks go around killin' animals like that. You be careful now. Come into my store a third time tonight and I might be convinced into goin' out myself."

He hands over the bag and Karamatsu rudely snatches it, bursting out the door before the man can even pick up his magazine again.

Ignoring the stitch in his side and swallowing down the urge to double over and heave again, Karamatsu sprints back to find his brother right where he left him. The fear that he might have returned to find no one at all dissipates and he quickly hands over the spare bag to Ichimatsu, informing him, "When you're done, I can help you clean your hands. I'm sorry if I made you wait, brother."

"...You didn't." Ichimatsu gruffly answers before walking further into the dark, tiny alley. Karamatsu turns away this time.

He hears the crinkling of the plastic and winces at the thought of the sound being forever tainted by this moment. It's too late now to push that unpleasant idea away and it's further solidified as his brother comes back into view with the tied bag in his hands, heavily weighed down by the dead animal inside.

Pulling out a bottle of water and the hand sanitizer, he wordlessly shows Ichimatsu what he's brought and his brother silently nods back and holds his hands out. They get most of the blood rinsed off before Ichimatsu attempts to pull away but Karamatsu insists on removing everything with a hard, brittle stare. His brother seems to acquiesce just to make him feel better, which is exactly what he wanted. Afterwards, he hands the hand sanitizer over and gives Ichimatsu an unopened water bottle too.

Looking down at the items in his hands, Ichimatsu murmurs, "Thanks, Karamatsu-niisan."

He shrugs back and takes the last bottle for himself, silently holding out the now empty bag so Ichimatsu can double bag the corpse.

What a thought that was.

Chugging the water as his brother handles the plastic wrapped body without a hint of aversion, Ichimatsu asks, "What are you even doing out? Did you sneak past Choromatsu or something."

He downs the entire bottle before answering back, "We're not ignoring the dead cat or your story about dead cats, Ichimatsu. What in the world is going on?" He isn't scatterbrained enough to let this slide.

Tensing, Ichimatsu scowls deeply before stiffly walking away, advising, "If you want to know, follow me. We're dropping this off and then I'm taking you home."

Catching up to his speed-walking brother, he hotly argues, "You're taking me home? I'm not going home unless you're staying home as well, brother. What have you been doing, are you actually trying to find the murderer by yourself? Don't, alright Ichimatsu? Do not go hunting for some deranged lunatic alone! At least bring Osomatsu and Jyushimatsu with you if you intend to do such a thing..."

He knows better than to dissuade his brother from seeking vengeance. Most likely he'll never find the culprit anyway, which is terrible but ultimately safer for his brother, and that's all he truly cares about.

Voice uneven with rage and possibly fear, Ichimatsu claims, "You don't understand. The spots where I found them were all spots where I've fed cats before. I checked places I don't usually go to and didn't find anything. Someone is fucking with me personally."

The night drops several degrees and grows darker around them. Karamatsu's fists clench in response and he sheds the residual disgust that was unsettling his stomach, revealing steel beneath it.

"Are you positive you're being personally targeted, Ichimatsu? A cat killer would go to places where there are many cats, and where you go, there are many cats. They might not be sending a message to you, but merely using your haunts as an opportunity for their sick pursuits. Regardless, you aren't going to see your cats alone anymore. You will be taking at least two of us with you from now on."

In response he gets an annoyed click of the tongue and a mocking scoff as Ichimatsu quickens his pace, leading them away from town and closer to a wooded area.

"You're sick enough for your voice to sound stupider than normal and you're telling me what to do?"

Grabbing Ichimatsu's arm and turning him around, not giving a single shit now about the body in the bag, he leans up close and says, "Yes. That's exactly what's happening. I'm not telling you to avoid going out completely, I'd just appreciate it if you'd take two of us with you when you do inevitably go because I know you care more about those fucking cats than you do about yourself. But you know what, I care more about you and I'm sorry if you need this spelled out and I'm sorry if I'm coming off a bit too strongly, but either you take my advice or I'll be the one following you around and you. Do not. Want to see what happens if we run into someone who attempts to attack you."

Sneering, he shoves Karamatsu off and wonders, "I don't know, with you hyping it up, I sorta want to see now. What could you even do, Karamatsu? Blind them with your tacky sequin pants? Stab them with your shitty plastic glasses? At least your shoes might be good for stomping on people, but I don't see you being able to kick someone you aren't related to."

The reminder of Osomatsu forces him to pause long enough for Ichimatsu to turn around and continue walking without him, stomping into the woods.

Karamatsu follows and catches up just in time to see Ichimatsu stopped by a small pile of other tied bags. It would be very bad for someone to catch them out here like this, with this tiny grim mountain of dead cats.

He waits to speak until Ichimatsu gently places the bag over with the rest, not tossing it or dumping it over the others.

"...I'd be more than pissed if someone physically hurt you. I'm already incensed that some monster has done all of this. How many cats are there? Is this all from today?"

Half turning to stare at him, Ichimatsu succeeds in freezing his blood as he answers back, "Yeah, I found them all today. This last one makes six."

The world tilts and the next thing he sees are the trees looming overhead, taller than they were just a second ago, pitch black against the backdrop of a hazy, cloudy night sky. They bend inward to stoop over him as he hears someone call his name.

His name.

He immediately rights himself from his place on the ground and checks to see if he squashed his other bag, thankfully finding it intact.

"Karamatsu!"

Grabbing his little brother by the wrist, he marches them out of the woods before coughing and choking out, "We're finding Osomatsu and then we're going home."

Ignoring Ichimatsu's empty insults and protests to let go of him, he holds on until they're back on the street he started his evening on, standing safely under a lamppost.

Persistently yanking on his arm, Ichimatsu growls out, "Don't fucking ignore me shitty-matsu, what was that? Why did you collapse? Did you literally just fall over and pick yourself up?"

"It happens sometimes, I'll explain it to you if agree to my earlier terms. In fact, I'll tell you what I do when I go out alone too, if and only if you agree."

Without waiting for an answer he unties his bag of meager offerings from his belt loop and pushes it into Ichimatsu's arms, detailing, "There's something small in there for everyone, including you. Hold onto it for me? I'm going to check the pachinko places, will you please check the bars? We can skip Chibita's, I already know he's not running the stand tonight."

Chibita, he needs to alert his friend to the odd 'serial murders' of those cats as well. And through him, he needs to warn Todomatsu, who he hopes is surrounded by other people wherever he is. At least he knows for a fact that Todomatsu wouldn't be out alone in the dark. Not again, not if he wasn't out to pick up Karamatsu.

Leaving Ichimatsu behind without paying attention to what his brother is snarling out at him, his eyes are already focused on what's ahead as sound drops away from him. Without it he feels unbalanced, and the streets take on a dream-like quality to them as he pushes past people with no regard for spouting apologies to excuse his rude behavior.

A figure is tossed out onto the sidewalk before him and he very nearly stumbles over them, but someone else grabs the nape of his jacket from behind, yanking him back. Ichimatsu's voice breaks through the soundless barrier that was building itself around his head, shattering it as easily as a cat batting a glass off a table.

"Asshole! I wasn't done talking to you, shit head. Are you even supposed to be walking around after almost fucking fainting like that?"

"Whoa, you're never this loud, why are you so loud all of a sudden, Ichimatsu? Who are you even—"

On the ground in front of him is the very person Karamatsu wanted to find. Worry overcomes awkwardness and he doesn't hesitate to hold a hand out to his only older brother, quietly demanding, "You need to go home, aniki. Please, help me take Ichimatsu home."

He very rarely pulls out the little brother card, but being out after everything Ichimatsu has told him is giving him a prickling sensation over his arms that's growing worse over time. He has only bad feelings about this.

Osomatsu gapes up at him before his eyes flicker past him to glance at Ichimatsu, giving him a once over. Clapping his hand into Karamatsu's not a moment later, he's immediately hauled up.

"Okay, let's go home. Someone gonna fill me in on what's wrong?" He speaks with a smile that anyone else would interpret as lazy but Ichimatsu goes rigid and places himself on Karamatsu's other side, keeping him as a barrier between him and the eldest.

"It might be nothing but a bad coincidence, you can get the details from Ichimatsu." He pushes his little brother to Osomatsu and includes, "There's also something in the bag for you. I'm sorry but I must go to Chibita's, he has a phone and he has Todomatsu's contact information. I need to warn him too, you understand? I'll see you later, and I'm sorry about everything that happened this morning."

Sprinting away before Osomatsu can grab him, he feels the whoosh of air past his face and it propels him forward, ignoring the angry yelling that sends shocks to his heart. He leaves his brothers behind and quickly finds himself back in the park, running through and taking shortcuts, slipping on the grass and righting himself before he can fall. Belatedly, he remembers he forgot his pills in the bag, his brothers will find them.

Whatever, he has bigger things to worry about, seeing as the world is beginning to stretch and warp around him again. It might have been very tame but it's still worrying, especially with an unknown threat on the horizon. He can't afford to have his surroundings become inconsistent again now of all times.

Pushing himself to climb up the stairs to Chibita's apartment, he reaches the correct floor and struggles to catch his breath as he fumbles through his pockets, searching for the key. He finds it and nearly drops it from his shaking hands, prompting him to thunk his head on the door to take a few moments just to breathe. It swings open as he holds the key up to the lock, and his body tilts forward. He catches himself with a heavy step at the same time he hears his friend's alarmed shout.

"Karamatsu? What happened to you?"

He leans into the wall and shuffles in before sliding down it to rest on the floor.

"Chibita, can you ask Todomatsu where he is? It's a bit urgent. Please tell him to come home as soon as possible and barring that, to stay with his friends tonight. Ichimatsu found six dead cats in places where he commonly feeds the neighborhood strays. I didn't see them all, but I saw one and it was enough to last me a lifetime."

Shutting his door and clicking the locks closed, Chibita mouths out What the fuck before pulling out his phone and sending a text his brother's way.

Karamatsu closes his eyes for a moment but in no time at all Chibita is shaking his shoulder, trying to get his attention.

"Come on, get up. Don't conk out on the floor. I don't know if you heard me earlier but your brother is fine, Todomatsu is hitching a ride home from that friend of his I told you about. I also told him you might be hanging out at my place because you were crashin' just inside my door. He said he'd tell me when he gets home and uh, some other stuff. The gist of it is that he's freaked out and kinda pissed at you, you might find yourself getting a phone glued to your hand and signing a contract with the devil."

Pushing himself up off the floor, he haphazardly kicks his shoes off and drags himself over to the familiar couch he was just on a day ago. His notebook is here, somewhere underneath the cushions, and he feels like some sort of odd, unheard of mythical being seated over it, guarding an artifact.

Frowning at himself for his strange, sleepy thoughts, he speaks before he forgets, "Thank you, Chibita. It's been a weird night, a very unpleasant, unnerving night."

He almost mentions the business card but he stops himself in time, placing an arm over his eyes and groaning.

"...I think I can't stay awake."

The muted response he gets back is too soft and indistinct for him to pick out words among the droning noise. He closes his eyes and opens them to pitch black darkness.

No longer on the couch, he finds himself once again on a futon, somewhere. It takes him a moment to remember just what he had been doing prior and he sits up, groggy. After some fumbling and blind feeling around, his hand hits a light switch and illuminates the cramped living space.

At the kitchen sink, he washes his face and wakes up a bit more, checking the time. It's well past midnight, far later than when he arrived at Chibita's. He should be good to stay up for a while, although his head feels clogged up and his throat seems to have something blocking it every time he swallows.

It doesn't matter. He pushes that away and looks around until he finds a pen. Black this time.

Stumbling his way back over to the futon beside the couch, he pushes his hand under the cushions until his fingers come across the hard surface of his notebook. Gently slipping it out, he flips it open and stares at a blank page, tiredly blinking back tears as he yawns.

Whatever is going on in this world, his 'real' world, he needs to be ready. Writing another dream should help him hyper focus on the task at hand, and his illness should combat any side effects of the Nightmare variety. There's only one way to find out.

Pen to paper, he begins to write a story of ghosts.

Chapter Text

Gently falling sheets of rain unknowingly disturb his rest just as he had finally managed to fall asleep, wishing to use the temporary oblivion to hide from the constant pain of his condition. The only upside is that the view from his crystal clear window is lovely, it's one of the amenities he's afforded through a mix of pity, sympathy, and guilt of the people around him.

How lucky of him to be the second born of the Sword Arm of Stillwater.

Were he anyone else, he would have surely been drowned in the ocean the moment it became clear that he was not going to recover. The terminally ill are only a future threat to his people unless they are drowned in the waters beneath their city, to ensure their permanent deaths, to halt the creation of a vengeful ghost. It's one of the many odd properties the waters of Stillwater, formerly known as Brightwater, displays.

He rather prefers the second name, but it's been deemed an ill omen for centuries.

And yet, as he props himself up with a wince to stare out his window, he must admire the light.

Along the flat coast, over their city built above 'unmoving' ocean water, the rain seems to slow down at a point far above the low domed roofs of their dwellings. Even with their slowed descent, each drop still pierces the surface of the water and the movement generates a short lived flare of colorless light that brightens the spot before easing into a soft glow. However, the drops create no ripples, they breach the water in a perfect dive, every time. That, or the ocean seeks to actively consume the rain, add it to itself, preventing even the smallest spray of water to bounce away regardless of its doomed to fall nature.

Even heavy rain falls slowly enough for a human to track the descent of individual raindrops, but because of this, the water is stirred for hours upon hours, rendering it bright.

Too bright.

The ocean under Stillwater is known for being able to display Ghostlight in both humans and ghosts if either being comes into contact with it.

However, the Shadows on watch today will be unable to detect the presence of any ghosts that may drift over the water, not unless they're particularly keen to changes in color among the overpowering neutral white light. They'll likewise be unable to perform their usual returning ritual gesture. Shadows typically pass their hands through the water upon coming home to check one another for signs of possession. If the color of their Ghostlight is off, they may have a ghost on their hands, a problem which is easily solved by being dunked in the water to forcefully separate ghost from host. But sometimes, a powerful ghost can be too tenacious, refusing to exit their host.

He's seen more than one Shadow willfully drowned by their comrades.

It's an inglorious death, but it's protocol. Better to die with a one-hundred percent chance to leave no ghost behind than to create a second problem.

But the water has other, more benign uses too.

Children have their light tested early by being asked to smack their palm against its unnaturally still surface. The brighter the resultant flare of light, the greater their chances of becoming a mage or a Shadow when they're older.

Or a ghost when they're dead.

Bright Ghostlight is seen as both boon and bane. And he has bright light.

If not for his illness, he would have resolutely continued training to become the next Sword Arm. Before he fell ill, he had even chosen a sword to be his focus...

Nowadays, he's merely a mage with foci that were scoffed at before he proved himself to be useful, even highly sought after, thus granting him his elevated status and upgrade in living conditions. No one is rallying for his drowning anymore, but if not for his darling little brother he might have given in at once to the traditions of Stillwater.

In the beginning, the people had loved him due to all the potential he seemed to possess. The more grim and superstitious adults had attributed his early showing of bright light as a gift from his deceased older sibling, the first born who died as an infant due to illness, too young to leave behind a ghost in their passing. But a few years after attuning to his first focus...

He too fell ill. And the rumors swiftly changed, calling it an ill omen, claiming his sibling was lonely and reaching out for their little brother. Everything that he'd been praised for was flipped on its head, his light now meant that he'd most likely become a very powerful ghost.

Most had wanted to kill him out of 'mercy,' a long agonizing illness over the course of many years would surely guarantee that a ghost would be created. Drawn out deaths, prolonged suffering, swift and unexpected deaths, all of these things are common precursors to the rising of a ghost.

Instead, a counter argument had arisen from his guardian wishing to preserve his life for as long as possible, stating that if he died he would pull the last born, his little brother, to an early grave as well, ghost or no ghost. The general public had relented, pinning their hopes on a different boy despite his light being disappointingly average.

And so he lives on now, as a young adult with not very many years left.

He never expected to live this long, to reach his twenties.

Constant radiating pain assails the joints in his legs, at his ankles, knees, and hips, rendering him mostly immobile, especially so on rainy days. But he's grown used to staring at the light while his pain-free hands deftly use his foci to imbue his own light into select Shadows' gear. He's done some of his best work to the sound of the rain striking his low roof and the light of the shifting glow outside his window. He keeps his room dark on stormy days to appreciate the full effect of the light show, even if the brightness is tantamount to the presence of death.

There's a saying among the hunters of Stillwater, of which every able bodied citizen strives to be.

Where there is light, there are shadows.

In harsher words, where there are ghosts, the Shadows will hunt them down to snuff out their light, doggedly tracking wherever the ephemeral abominations go to eliminate them all.

He'd been trained to think of them as imprints of the true people they rose from, false copies, reprehensible monsters meant to be extinguished. But after being on the wrong end of public opinion for so long, after having an entire city readying their foci and waiting for him to die, after years of attempting to prove he can still be of use to the living...

He doesn't think that anymore. If he does become a ghost, and he is still marginally himself, he'll try to flee Stillwater, unless the pain of living follows him even as an undead. He'd let them annihilate him if that were to come to pass. Fuck that shit.

Reaching for his needles, he again has the urge to stab his damn aching legs until he can no longer feel them, but it's a tired old thought that he easily bats away. Seeing as he's awake now, he might as well get some work done instead of being maudlin and reviewing his cursed life for the nth time. Pity that his pain killers would numb his entire body, otherwise he'd happily never stop taking them. He's already addicted and no one is going to tell him no... No one except for himself. Even his little brother wants him to choose comfort over work but the last born doesn't understand that he needs to feel useful to keep on living.

There are some days where he wants to drag himself out onto his little porch with no rails to slip into the water and drown himself. His legs are too weak to be of any use to swim or keep him afloat, no one would jump in after him, it'd be so easy to drown...

Grabbing the edge of the sleeve he left hanging out of an open drawer against his bed, he tugs a long coat over his lap and continues where he left off, embroidering electric blue light into the high collar.

It costs him nearly nothing to imbue light into cloth that already exists as a physical object and his successful augments to Shadow gear, not to mention their sterling reviews of his work and its effectiveness, have made him and his magecraft popular in the last few years. He may have even invented a new occupation for Stillwater, whose citizens have been solely obsessed for centuries with only combat oriented foci. But with the advent of 'ghost proof' clothing, an extra defense against up close encounters for those who rely on melee range foci, lesser mages and mages who have been retired or permanently injured are now looking into attuning to similar foci that can be used to augment others' gear.

He thinks it's rather stupid no one ever thought of it before, but then again, he made his first augmented piece of cloth by mistake as a gift for his little brother. All he'd done was sewn his brother's sigil into a shirt, which had later saved him from being possessed by an overzealous ghost aiming to dive straight into his chest. The repelling feature of his imbued work had bought his brother enough time to shoot his derringer at close range, instantly destroying the ghost with a conjured bullet right in the Ghostlight of their eyes.

Passing his needle through the cloth, he guesses there's at least one other reason why no one has ever thought to imbue light into an object. Mages, although common, are always immediately pushed into deciding upon a combat focus with conjuring in mind. And conjuring is different from imbuing.

To conjure is to use a focus to Create an object out of one's personal Ghostlight, while imbuing sinks light into an object that already exists.

Back when he had been training to become the next Sword Arm, his focus had been an empty hilt which held a conjured blade. It had looked impressive... But he had to relinquish the hilt in order to attune to something else.

Most humans can only attune to a single focus, rarely can a person attune to two foci, and those that have two foci are always mages. And only mages can imbue and conjure, everyone else who intends to fight ghosts has a more limited range of suitable foci and must carefully maintain it or risk its destruction, which would set them back the weeks it would take to attune to a new focus.

Unfortunately, his needles count as two foci. Luckily, his brother was able to have them custom made for him so he could use them for both stitch work and knitting. His magecraft handles the rest, his light always does what he wants of it, blade-form or not.

As he puts the finishing touches on the collar of the coat intended for Hashimoto the elder, he recalls his other, secret project that he only just finished in the early morning before the storm rumbled overhead.

Normally, conjured items exist for a very short period of time. Bladed weapons are usually dismissed after an encounter or once the mage depletes their stamina to keep the conjured blade up, and any type of conjured ammo need only exist until it hits its mark. But he had toyed with the idea of creating something with permanence until he finally figured out a way to 'build' light around a physical object. By combining conjuring and imbuing techniques and after several months of failed attempts, he'd made a breakthrough with his theory and created a stable keystone on which to anchor further additions of light.

Long story short, he knitted a long blue scarf, with a single cord of real thread hidden inside the conjured material, for his brother. A very special, very obnoxiously bright, hopefully very powerful scarf. He even designed it to have 'hands' on both ends for grasping. In theory, anyone should be able to attune to his creation, without giving up their current focus, to have it move based on their needs. But there's no one else he would hand over his prototype to than his beloved brother, who needs all the protection he can give.

It had taken him three years to have something to build on and half a year to craft the scarf itself, which altogether took up quite a chunk of his life. With his short life expectancy in mind, he had diligently documented his progress to have a record of the process in the hopes that other mages could learn and expand upon his invention, if it works as intended.

Even in a worst case scenario, he's still made a long lasting conjured item, taking the first step towards something more. If other mages could create enduring rather than ephemeral conjured weapons, then the foci restriction could be lifted for everyone and anyone would be able to fight like a greater mage against ghosts and other undead...

He might have a bit of a complex to be proven worthy in a historical sense after being so thoroughly shunned by Stillwater's citizens and seesawing between fearing for his life and not giving a damn.

Setting his distaste for his own people aside, he's excited to hand over his ultimate gift to his brother the next time he comes to visit. His only regret is that he couldn't figure out a way to dye it in his brother's color. No matter what he tried, the scarf retained its original appearance, refusing to shed light in any color other than his own electric blue.

At least the hidden keystone cord is pink, the most vibrant pink he could acquire at the time, before his rise to popularity.

Finished coat in his lap, he shifts in place in his seat, silently sighing at the prodding flare of pain at his hip. Now that he's no longer deeply engrossed in his work, awareness of his body is making him miserable again. But now that he's done, he can chug more of his powerful medication and try to sleep the day away.

Lately, he's been losing more and more time to bouts of hypersomnia. Wary of his passing in his sleep, a constant guard has been placed outside the door to his little solitary living space, his tiny but well made house. His quarantine zone. He understands but he hopes that if he leaves behind a ghost, Iyami will be the one outside of his home. Out of all the guards, he's the one most likely to allow him to flee as well as lie to cover up his escape.

Hurried knocking interrupts his faint hopes and the door opens before he can even call to allow anyone in. It would have only been an empty gesture of courtesy though, it's not as if there are locks on any of his doors, and even if there were he wouldn't be able to walk around to reach them.

The door opens to reveal the very man he was thinking of, his most relaxed guard popping his head in to check if he's awake.

"Your brother is here to see you, I think it's important news so I'm going to let him in, but I better not get in trouble for this! If everything goes south I don't want to be involved, you hear? I had nothing to do with anything, that's my story." Iyami says nervously with a shifty look to his eyes before swinging the door open all the way.

A hand harshly shoves the anxious man to the side as a familiar commanding voice grouses out, "Yeah yeah, we understand you're only out to save your own skin, but you work for me so you're protected from most things. Act with some authority why don't you? Now do your job and signal me if another guard attempts to change shifts with you."

Dismissive as usual, Todo steps in and slams the door shut before Iyami can get a word in, setting his umbrella to the side. Unconvinced whining sneaks through the door, drawing forth an ugly face from his normally cute little brother, who pounds his fist against the wood exactly once to silence the skittish guard.

Muttering under his breath, "Grow a backbone already you garbage-man..." Todo drops his irate expression and adopts something softer to ask his usual, "How are you feeling today, Kara?"

"The same as yesterday but worse than last month," is Kara's honest response before he quickly dives into baiting, "but set aside your worries, my dear brother, and allow me to bestow upon you my greatest creation!"

Face falling flat, Todo's heel clicks on the hardwood floor as he asks, deadpan, "Really. Alright I'll bite, what is it this time?"

Drawing forth his most mysterious grin, he points over to the far end of the room and bargains, "First, retrieve that lovely box for me, then you shall be handsomely rewarded."

As his brother rolls his eyes but turns around to do as instructed, Kara swiftly reaches down to pull out a plainly wrapped package from underneath his bed, ignoring the pain the movement costs him, far too happy to finally be handing over his gift. It might as well be a literal piece of himself, one that will continue to shield his brother even when he's gone, should all his work come together the way he expects it to.

Dragging his usual guest chair over, Todo returns with the ornate box and takes a seat beside Kara's cramped bed and work drawers set-up, knowing better than to jostle the bed's surface. It's been years since he could sit beside his brother without causing him to wince at the shift, but Kara wouldn't mind if Todo would start doing so again. He might even prefer it, he doesn't like the distance between them, arbitrary or not.

"Second," Kara grandly requests, ignoring his brother's tired groaning, "please neatly fold this coat and place it in the box. Do so and I'll forever be in your debt." He holds the long coat out with a sparkle in his eye.

Snatching the blue embroidered coat out of his hands, Todo complains, "You can just ask like a normal person would. Who is this one for anyway? We can deliver it together today, get it out of the way before I take you see my new... Friend."

At the odd tone, Kara curiously asks, "A new friend? You know, I don't quite like any of your old 'friends' to begin with—"

"Greatest creation first, Kara. Then we'll talk about some potentially illegal activities I may or may not involve you in later today. So who is this for?" Todo reiterates, folding the coat to perfectly fit the box. How reliable.

"Hashimoto the elder. After this one is delivered, I need to start working on another for the Younger." He clarifies, watching as his brother tenses and dumps the coat into the box crookedly. He silently fixes it before adding, "Totoko won't be so easily beaten by Hashimoto. Your future Shield Arm is still up for debate."

"You're assuming I'm even going to be the next Sword Arm." Todo automatically retorts before shaking his head and insisting, "Forget it, that's not what I'm here for today. Now, where's my gift, niisan." With a sickly sweet smile in place, he folds his hands over his lap and waits, exploiting Kara's weakness to his repelling cuteness, the counter to his older brother's overbearing 'charm.'

Throwing the package at his little brother's face with an indignant cry of, "You're doing that on purpose!" and receiving a reply of, "You're one to talk." his brother deftly catches the small gift and turns it around in his hands before poking a hole in the plain brown wrapping paper.

Blue light escapes through the opening and Todo's false smile drops at once, replaced with shock and raised brows. His brother wastes no time in tearing the rest of the paper away, revealing the bright blue scarf. Picking it up to verify if it truly is made of what he suspects it's made of, Todo quietly commends, "This is incredible... How? How did you even make something like this? How long will it last?"

Enthusiastic at its positive reception, Kara launches into explaining, "It should exist independently of me so long as its core, what I've been calling a 'keystone' remains intact. There's a hidden cord of physical thread inside that acts as its anchor. As long as the cord isn't completely destroyed, the scarf as a whole should be fine! As for how I made it..."

Reaching behind his pillow, he pulls out a basic looking orb, darkened with hundreds upon thousands of inky black words swirling beneath its glassy surface. Expression dropping into something a bit more somber, he holds it out to his brother as he takes a moment to gather his words.

"...I have copies of this, just in case something happens to my paper documents. But this one contains details on everything I've done so far, failures and successes. Will you sneak this into the library for me? Drop it into the well? It's my legacy, Todo. I won't be starting anything new from now on, there's just not enough time."

The awe on Todo's face drops away as his expression hardens. Gently picking up the orb and pocketing it, he refutes, "There will be, I'll make sure of it. That's actually why I'm here, I think there's someone who can help us prolong your... Life expectancy, and by decades, Kara. He's who I want to get in touch with in person today, but he's a foreigner so obviously I've had some issues even getting him into the city. And the rain isn't helping, either he's stuck at the gates or he's managed to get in but is trapped in a holding cell until the Shadows can perform their possession checks. You know how anal they are, only other Shadows are being allowed inside... Which reminds me, Hashimoto should be back by now from their reconnaissance mission to Swamp Sea. We can do a quick meet and greet, drop off the box and politely welcome them home. Just let me call—"

With a startling bang, his poor door is kicked open, striking the wall and almost bouncing back closed if not for the deceptively dainty hand that catches it in a splintering grip. Kara winces in sympathy for the wood as Totoko strides in, catching a glimpse of a shaken Iyami through the doorway before she kicks the door closed behind her with a heeled shoe.

Fuschia hexagonal glass in hand, she directs her infamous fiery glare at Todo, silencing him before he can even begin to speak.

"I've been trying to contact you for the past half hour, Todo-kun." She snarls, stomping her way over, pointed heels leaving behind shallow dents in the wooden floor.

Holding the scarf behind his back, Todo hastily defends, "Ah, Totoko-chan, but I was just about to call you..."

Noting with some alarm that Totoko is equipped with her knuckle-dusters, Kara sits up and reaches a hand out as she does the same to his little brother. Before she can grab him to no doubt throttle him, the scarf behind his back becomes active, one end wrapping around his shoulders in a defensive stance as the other holds its 'palm' out to Totoko in the universal gesture for Stop.

As Totoko holds her ground and grits her teeth, Kara rushes to plead, "Please refrain from laying hands on my brother while he's wearing my latest prototype, miss Totoko. As far as trial runs go, I'd rather not have it go head-to-head with someone of your caliber so soon."

Eyeing the blue scarf with reluctant admiration, she crosses her arms over her chest and scoffs, "Fine! I don't know what that is and I don't care, but if you're going to keep it on, hide it. We have massive problems on our hands and you're lucky I'm even bothering to stick my neck out for you, Todo."

The scarf becomes inactive again as Kara lowers his hand, allowing Todo to stuff the long 'arms' under his clothes as he shoots his older brother a worried look.

"Today is kind of an important day, Totoko, you know that. What sort of problems are we dealing with, does it have to do with our friend?"

She gives them both a hard stare before her face drops and she shakes her head in defeat.

"Hashimoto the elder is dead. Their unit just came back with half its members alive. They're saying they saw a suspicious man in the swamp who fits the description of our friend. He's suspected of being a necromancer and the cause for the casualties. Something big is happening in Swamp Sea and all the darker Shadows are going to be assmebled after Hashimoto's burial, which we need to attend."

Turning away to root around Kara's things without his permission, she adds, "If you're really going to do this, Todo-kun, you need to do it now before our friend ends up dead. We both know he came from the South, not the West, but no one is going to care about some strange foreigner unless they're a ghost hunter like us. He's already been labeled a cultist too, the general public wants someone to blame right away and every single Shadow from Hashimoto's unit swears he looks exactly like the stranger in the swamp. Not to mention, they say he looks like you. The story is that they originally thought the suspicious man at Swamp Sea was trying to trick them by pretending to be you, that he might be some sort of new type of undead, able to disguise itself. But before they could trap him, he vanished, and then everything went wrong."

Looking between his pale brother and their childhood friend, Kara's hands tighten over the box he would have given to Hashimoto the elder. There's no need for the distinction anymore, as there is only one Hashimoto left. He'll be handing it over to Totoko's bitter rival at her guardian's funeral.

"I can't believe I'm saying this," Todo begins, walking over to grasp Kara's hand, "But it's now or never."

From Kara's closet, Totoko tosses a few formal looking clothes at them both, turning her nose up at them and sighing, "Then get ready, we have a funeral to attend and you don't want to be late. Does Kara-kun even want to go through with this?" She asks, throwing him a pitying look.

He has no idea what's going on.

"Dearest brother—"

Todo releases his hand to squeeze his shoulders, looking straight into his eyes.

"Niisan. Listen. I'm bowing out of the running for Sword Arm and giving my spot to Totoko, because she can do more with the power than I ever cared to do. With Reika left as the last Hashimoto, she'll probably inherit the position of Darkest Shadow today after her guardian's funeral, which can only help her standing to be appointed the next Shield Arm too. And you know the Hashimoto's are the prime example of Stillwater intolerance. If you die and become a ghost, I don't care, as long as you're with me. But if that happens, you know we absolutely cannot stay here. We're leaving this fucking city even if I have to carry you out. If there's a chance I can save you, I'm taking it."

Leaning forward, he wraps Kara in a tight hug and whispers, "You know I love you. Will you let me do this for you, for the both of us?"

"But what about our guardian?" Kara asks, breathless. How long has his younger brother been planning to uproot them from their entire world, the only place and people they've ever known?

"They'd let us leave, Totoko might as well be their daughter and I've already spoken to them about giving up my place as a runner for Sword Arm. It would have been disputed anyway, my light isn't strong enough for the people to support me as a legitimate candidate. My ranking among the Shadows doesn't hide the fact that I still only have one focus that's a short range ammo weapon. Even Atsushi would have an easier time if he were to run just because he has two foci. Who the hell even needs two pistols, that show off... But his range is longer than mine. It's 'proper' for an ammo weapon, whereas mine is just sad, in everyone else's opinion."

The look on his brother's face tells Kara where 'everyone else' can shove their opinion but he doesn't comment on it, smiling instead and hugging his brother back.

"...Let's leave then." He says with no fanfare, but he follows up with his usual grandeur, announcing to the room, "What fortuitous timing the cosmos has, lining up the creation of my gift for you with your daring escape plan like stars in the sky! Ah, but if we are to flee today, then I have a favor to ask of you, miss Totoko, future Sword Arm of the realm, deadliest fist among the Shadows, goddess of fury—"

Shaking her aforementioned fist at him, she growls out, "Ask me quick and get dressed and ready to leave. Take this seriously, people have died today and more people might still die, yourself included."

Reaching into Todo's pocket to pull out his orb, Kara tosses it to Totoko with a grim smile.

"But I could have died any day of this week, or any day for the past several years for that matter. Sorry if I'm a bit blasé to current events, I wasn't on the good side of Hashimoto the elder until literally every other Shadow in their company vetted my work. Perhaps they'd still be alive today if they had simply waited for their coat to be done, hmm? That aside, the orb contains my life's work, and that isn't an exaggeration. Please discreetly drop it into the well, for the sake of our mages and their future. I may hold no great love for Stillwater's ideals but the people can change, can they not? Hopefully the work of a man long ago written off as fit for only drowning should sway some opinions."

Todo looks shocked before breaking into a satisfied grin while Totoko runs her thumb along the palm sized orb. Nodding, she pockets it instead and slams a fist in her hand, fired up.

"About time you stopped being a chump, Kara-kun. You can count on me to beat everyone into submission, this entire city will bend to my will once I'm the next Sword Arm!"

Clearing his throat, Kara disputes, "That's not quite what I asked of you, Totoko..."

Pulling out a rolling partition to hide them from view, Todo hushes him and starts picking apart the outfit Totoko chose for him, frowning only a little before deciding it's good enough. Kara reaches for the shirt, because he can dress himself thank you very much, but Todo slaps his hand away and yanks the covers off of him, revealing his thin legs.

"Drugs first, then clothes, then needles. Where are your needles? You're going to have to bring them with you, obviously. Is there anything else you want to take? We can hide a lot under your baggy clothes, they're coming in handy for once, even if they look hideous." Todo comments as he digs around in his inner coat pockets, retrieving a tube that's designed to mimic the appearance of a simple pen.

Slipping his needles out from his shirt pocket, Kara shows them to his brother and assures, "They're always with me, no matter what." Motioning to the 'pen' he asks with some trepidation, "Is that...?"

"For you? Yes. Leg please." Todo doesn't wait for him to move, knowing well enough that he can't easily shift his legs. Hiking up the hem of his shorts and exposing his thigh, Todo looks to him for confirmation.

"Wait, will I be capable of fine motor control after that?" He worriedly asks. He never figured out where Todo was procuring his more potent medications, but his brother has many 'friends' he knows nothing about.

"No, but you won't have to be. If you really need to though, you'll still be able to stab someone with your needles." And with his reassurance delivered, Todo stabs the pen down and it clicks, delivering whatever unnamed chemical mix was hidden within.

The effect is immediate and Kara tightly grips his needles as he feels a cool numbness spread like frost most noticeably at his lower half and more subtly throughout the rest of his body. When the sensation dies down, leaving him chilled, he finds that Todo has already yanked his shorts off and has his pants halfway on. Wordlessly, he glares at his younger brother for the lack of a proper warning and explanation but he shifts his body when prompted so he can get dressed and be done with it.

As Todo straightens out and buttons his shirt, he quietly chides, "Stop being embarrassed. You're going to have to deal with a lot of this in the future until our new friend can help us. Besides, we're brothers. Relax. I know you have an older brother complex but I want to be able to do something, anything for you too. I mean, you already saved my life without even being there and all the things you make are incredible. I can't compete with that, all I've got is a gun that shoots at close range..."

Scowling, Kara secures his needles away in the pocket of his new shirt and vehemently denies, "No. If I'm not allowed to be embarrassed, you're not allowed to feel ashamed of something that is untrue to begin with. Stillwater places too much emphasis on light, a light which they then vilify the moment it's no longer useful to them. How many others have drowned for being sick? It's a secret everyone is aware of but refuses to openly speak about, that our light and Ghostlight are most likely one and the same. I didn't make what I made for them, I made it all for you and happened to gain their approval. And I hate it, you know I do, but it gave us the opportunity to exploit my popularity. So do what you have to do to get us out of here, use everything at your disposal, ignore my bad moods. I'm just... tired of feeling vulnerable."

"Me too." Todo admits, handing over a packet of what appears to be ink inside thin clear tubes with pointed tips at one end.

"These are 'refills' for your new 'pen.' Use them whenever you need to, don't worry about side effects for now." He tacks on with a tight smile, holding out a second 'pen' as well.

Watching as Kara takes both items and hides them away on his person, Todo adds, "I have my own supply on me too, just in case. If anyone asks, they're just pens and ink, because you're a very busy genius, right? Always thinking of new ideas! In fact, take a notebook with you and one of your copy orbs. What else..."

He does as suggested while Todo retrieves his rarely worn shoes and puts them on for him. The partition rolls aside to reveal Totoko with his wheelchair.

"Are you two finally ready? Here's the plan." She waves her hexagonal glass and details, "We attend the funeral, I drop the orb off at the library while on the way to the meeting afterward, and Todo will announce his stepping down and my candidacy as his replacement. Hashimoto will probably make a fuss, but you let me deal with her. If things are as bad as the news is reporting, Stillwater will push for new management, a new Sword and Shield arm to lead a larger company into the swamp. During the debate, you two will leave and head to the holding cells nearby the gates, Chibita will meet up with you there to unlock the door to our friend. After that... Just go anywhere but the swamp."

Totoko's eyes are bright as she clasps hands with Todo, ending with a parting, "Good luck. I'll be going now, I need to at least pretend to be sad and show up at Hashimoto's place before the funeral starts. When I become the Sword Arm of Stillwater, I'll contact you again, Todo-kun."

"You say that like it's already decided." Kara comments with a grin.

Shaking her fist at him with mock annoyance, she replies, "Hmp, I say it because it is, and don't you dare doubt me! I won't lose to some silly cat girl." With a confident smile directed at him, she waves goodbye and turns to the door.

Kara lifts himself into the wheelchair as Todo watches Totoko draw her hood up and walk out into the rain. Hearing the wheels moving around behind him, Todo turns and frowns but lets his minor act of rebellion be, choosing instead to ask once more, "Is there nothing else you want to bring with you, niisan? This is really it, we won't have time to come back."

Looking around his little room, decorated in blue and pink, all things Todo picked up for him throughout the years, he shakes his head and places a hand over the spot where his needles are hidden by his shirt.

"I have everything I need. I know you don't want to hear this, but I've been ready to leave everything behind for a long time now. Not that I don't treasure the things you brought back for me, this room would be empty otherwise and I'll dearly miss your every gift, but you're the greatest treasure of all and the only one I need."

Predictably, his little brother groans and drops the box for Hashimoto onto his lap, but the action is painless thanks to the mystery drug he's been thoroughly supplied with.

"Is it true, are you both leaving?"

Peeking in through the open doorway is a dripping Iyami, appearing fidgety.

Todo yanks him into the room by his tie and shuts the door behind him, sighing with annoyance, "Do you have a problem with that, Iyami?" He asks with one hand below his coat, presumably at his holster.

Flinching, he shakes his head in denial and exclaims, "No, and put you damn hand down you trigger-happy squirt! I want to go too! If you're leaving then I'd be stuck here with Totoko, and her ambitions are a bit too high for my tastes."

With a dry chuckle, Kara hums, "In other words, you wish to flee before Stillwater marches a campaign into Wightlight. Are you afraid they'd enlist you? I'm not even sure what your focus is, Iyami."

Stepping down with his foot at an odd angle, something clicks as a tiny knife springs out from beneath the toe of Iyami's shoe.

Kara raises an eyebrow as his brother releases Iyami and blatantly laughs at the taller man's expense, asking with disbelief, "A boot knife? Really? Why that out of all things? Even Chibita's cleaver is better! Are you some kind of idiot?"

Retracting his knife with a disgruntled Sheeh, Iyami hotly reminds, "I was put on guard duty before you started drawing me into your messes, which means I could have handled the ghost of your brother if I really needed to!"

Todo's derringer is up and aimed between Iyami's eyes before Kara can even catch the movement of his draw. Wiping away his tears of laughter, Todo smiles his cat-like smile with his finger on the trigger.

Kara knows that Iyami is safe, there's no telltale pink glow coming from the double barrel of the tiny gun, but judging by the man's wide eyes, he's too frightened to notice his safety. Unless... Todo also carries around real, physical bullets? Unfortunately, Kara can't see from this angle, though his fingers itch to wheel himself forward. This is the ideal range for his brother's derringer, unavoidable up close and one-hundred percent deadly.

"And what about now, think you can handle us both? Go on, spit it out. Why do you want to come with us?"

Pale and beginning to sweat, Iyami quickly answers, "I don't want to be sent into the swamp again! You've never been forced to go, it's terrible, there are wights everywhere, and they're not your average wight either! Something is very wrong with that place, extremely wrong, the things from Wightlight are abnormal, worse than typical undead. And Stillwater's been waiting for a chance to rally enough Shadows to decimate the entire area piece by piece but they don't call it Swamp Sea for nothing, it's huge, a death sentence! But now that your brother's invented a new type of armor against Ghostlight and possession, they'll say we no longer have an excuse to not march in! I don't want to die in an endless crusade against a ghost biome, I have my entire life ahead of me!"

Running a hand over the engravings on the box in his lap, Kara sighs with dejection, "He's right, I have been an unintentional catalyst for the heightened fervor of Stillwater's Shadows. Other mages are already experimenting in my craft, soon every Shadow will be equipped with light imbued gear. Even if Totoko becomes the next Sword Arm, she won't be able to keep the Shadows from throwing themselves into the Swamp Sea. It's like being in possession of a gun that shoots itself, she can only aim it, not stop it from firing."

"Thats not our problem anymore." Todo swiftly cuts in, holstering his gun. Shoving past Iyami to retrieve his umbrella by the door, he points the tip at the man's face and warns, "If you're coming with us, let me handle the talking, the fighting, and the directions. I'm guessing you eavesdropped on our entire plan, right? So I'll tell you now, our friend is from the Southern Bluffs, and that's where we'll be headed. They do things differently in the South, very differently. Over there, they have exorcists who get rid of only aggressive ghosts, understand? The Southerners make a distinction between ghosts like they're still people. Get it?"

Nodding, Iyami readily agrees, "I got it, no ghost hunting, I'll do that for free! But the Bluffs? You mean Doomridge? That's so far away and that place is just as much a death trap as the swa—"

His whining is rudely interrupted by Todo's brief dismissal of, "Take it or leave it, your choice." said with a sweet voice and a perfect smile.

Yanking the now crooked door open, scraping a line against the floor, Todo snaps open his plain black umbrella and walks out first, waiting expectantly for them just outside.

The image his brother cuts in the bright storm outside sets Kara's heart to beat at double time, but his musings on leaving his little home are halted before they can even begin as Iyami mutters from behind his wheelchair, pushing him forward.

"Your brother is a dry monster. Are you sure the two of you are blood related? I've seen him walk past dying Shadows without a hint of concern."

"Heh, you mean like this?" Kara says as he looks behind him to stare at Iyami, adopting his brother's blank face, the one he uses when he ignores the plights of others, the one that clearly says I can't help those who don't exist.

At the man's recoiling cringe, he laughs and gives a reminder to the poor guard.

"Never forget, we're all a product of Stillwater."

With nothing left to say, Iyami stiffly wheels him forward and through the threshold of his home where Todo silently waits, lifting the umbrella to shield them all, though heavily favoring Kara over Iyami and even himself. Kara says nothing, for it isn't safe to speak now that they're heading into the city proper, but he does give his brother a wry grin as if to say It's only rain.

The rain can't kill him, but nearly everyone on the docks could.

As each of their steps takes him further away from the room he had grown attached to, even if he sometimes thought of it as his coffin, he clutches the box to his middle and takes one last look around. This might be the last time he'll see Stillwater in person and not through a window.

The rain hasn't let up at all, still falling as sheets from rolling bright gray clouds to land into a glowing ocean that flares white at every drop. The day around them is active even if the city itself seems sluggish and languid, its people slowly marching towards a common destination, dressed in black, not for the funeral but simply forever in uniform as a Shadow. But every so often, Kara can spot a trace of his own electric blue adorning more coats than he thought he augmented, easily distinguishing the darker Shadows from the lesser ranks.

He himself is dressed in gray, the color relegated to non-hunters as well at the predominant color of the city itself. Gray wood that doesn't burn easily, but burns colorfully and bright when it does, makes up most of their docks, buildings, and boats. The wood is lined with black veins that he's always thought were moving very slowly, constantly, worryingly. Occasionally, the wood grows, but the growths are always cut away before anything can come of it.

In his own home, he noticed a tiny budding growth on the floor and had his bed placed over it before anyone else could see it. He wanted to observe what would come of it, figure out why it was growing at all, wondered if it had anything to do with light being actively used in the same space so often...

He stopped checking when the black veins the growth was splintering off from began to resemble a face, an open mouth with closed eyes, a twig growing out of their head like a horn. Fearful reflex had him snapping the twig and stabbing his needle into the wood, forcefully imbuing light into it and banishing the black sap into a fine cloud of dust that reminded him of spores. He aired out his room for a solid week and kept a face mask on for even longer.

The living graywood is cut down from the edges of the Swamp Sea, directly West of them, within view from the shore. Old Brightwater myths say that the wood is a natural barrier between their ocean and the tainted swamp, which is why their houses are made of it. He thinks that's a load of rot, but Stillwater has existed the same way it has for five centuries without questioning the decision. But just like the distinction between light and Ghostlight, the growths aren't spoken about, only quietly and efficiently dealt with.

The noisy and bumpy rolling of his wheelchair over an uneven section of the docks brings him back into the present, although he now regrets not letting the growth continue. He won't have another chance to observe the phenomenon again, but maybe if they travel along the coast, he can convince his brother to dig up a sapling for him.

Future experiments aside, he tenses as they reach the more densely populated areas of the city, where the houses actually have more than one floor to them and are topped with flared roofs that cover the dock streets with true shadows. Here, the layout of Stillwater is more convoluted than the structured and grid-like newer additions to the edges, where he used to live. The older sections were built coiled like the internal organs of a body, with one common open path of water from the shore to the end of the city cutting straight through, aptly named the Spine.

In its entirety, it's a man-made city built on stilts, as if someone began construction on a dock and never stopped, extending in all directions but over land from the shore. At first glance, the wooden sprawl of dock streets and tightly packed cabins seems haphazard and liable to be swallowed up by the sea that sits just beneath the structures, but the living graywood is sturdy and never rots, and their ocean is unnaturally still.

He can only imagine what would happen if their graywood city was left to grow unabated and wonder at how many years it would take for it to lose its 'shape' as a human construct. If he could swim, he'd have checked what the submerged supports of the city look like. Are they also growing?

Shuddering at the thought of a face-bearing coral reef made of living wood hiding just beneath him, Kara twists in his seat in further discomfort as he notices they've reached their destination.

The 'backbone' of their city is the final stretch of water all their sea burials take. Beginning at the shore a progression will march down its length for funerals of the noteworthy, a gathering of Shadows to see one of their own off into the horizon, watching as the funerary boat sinks before it drifts out of view. They have it down to an art by now, crafting unique boats specifically for each funeral to ensure it sinks at the right pace.

He's only ever been a part of one march, when it was still safe for him to be out in public before he fell ill, for his guardian's counterpart...

Their Shield Arm, Choro.

His boat had been more like a casket, they had said the body was too mutilated to show. As Kara and Todo grew older, their guardian would often comment that the two of them looked just like Choro, though they both chalked it up to bittersweet longing for a dead friend. Neither of them were comfortable with being compared to a dead man and their guardian eventually stopped speaking of him.

Now that he's an adult, Kara regrets forcing them to stop mentioning their companion altogether, but he had been a teenager under very... unique stress, and the mention of death in any form of course aggravated him.

"Would I still look like Choro if I were to set sail down the Spine?"

Cringing at the memory of the snide comment, he quietly groans into his hand, drawing Todo's attention.

"Are you okay, niisan? If there are too many people around for you, Iyami can take you to the library and I can deliver the box to Hashimoto myself." His brother quietly murmurs, keeping an eye out for any aggressive Shadows. Kara is still a bit of a pariah to the older ones who remain combat worthy, even if he has won over the general public with his invention.

He softly answers back, "It's not that. Just thinking on some old regrets, forget it."

They have neither the time nor ability to leave behind a message to their guardian. He'll have to contact them some other way once they're out of the city to relay his apologies.

Todo gives him a pensive look for a short moment until a voice announces the start of the march. As people cluster together and line up, the three of them stay in the back of the progression, although they briefly catch a glimpse of Totoko right next to Hashimoto at the very front, on the other side of the Spine. A gentle pink glow from Todo's pocket catches Kara's eye and he reaches in to pull out his brother's hexagonal glass to dismiss the light.

Keeping it close to his chest, his brow furrows at the message and he angles it so that Todo and Iyami can read over his shoulder.

Something is wrong with Hashimoto. She's not acting normal. Skip the meeting altogether, leave now, I can handle it myself. Make sure no one is watching when you break away from the group. Already messaged Chibita, now go.

The glass slips from his fingers as Todo casually picks it up and pockets it, face neutral. At Kara's other side, Iyami is holding up surprisingly well, although perhaps the tears that are beginning to form aren't just for show, but he can't tell and so it's a convincing con.

It's only him who can't keep his face straight as his guts seem to twist and grow brittle in his cold, drug affected body. A hand tightly squeezes his shoulder and he eases his posture, eyes naturally searching for something to focus on, landing of course, on the boat floating down the Spine.

Hashimoto the elder looks to be only asleep at first glance, but their bloodstained clothes and neck clearly shout out the truth. They were stabbed in the throat by something intelligent, by someone that wanted them to die quickly and assuredly. It almost looks like the work of a hunter against a living being. No wonder the death is being attributed to a necromancer, a ghost would aim to possess a living or dead body, only someone that was already physical would have wanted to harm them in such a way, but there's no telling what truly happened or why. They won't even get to sit in on the meeting to find out the story behind the shady events that occurred within the Swamp Sea.

But his brother had said that this was no longer their problem. Stillwater and its endless feud against the undead can no longer be their fight, not if Kara dies and becomes a ghost before they can reach their mysterious 'friend' and leave the city behind for good.

As the progression reaches a tight cluster of buildings, Iyami calmly wheels him away, taking a turn straight into a shadowed alley, where the rain slowly drips off of rooftops hanging just beyond the platform of the dry docks. The ocean water illuminates everything beneath them, creating one of many white veins underneath the city. He's never seen this before, and he idly wonders what Stillwater looks like from above, if it truly resembles the anatomical structure of some kind of body.

Ditching his umbrella and drawing his derringer, Todo wordlessly takes point and leads them through back alleys and narrow dock streets, going West towards the shore, the city limits, and the holding cells. It doesn't escape Kara's notice that the gun now has a faint glow of pink at the barrel, prompting him to poke his needles through the sleeves of his shirt instead of keeping them pocketed. The box on his lap grows heavier as every tense minute passes until they turn a corner and Kara can clearly sea the shore. Everyone but himself could easily swim to it, all that's left now is to retrieve their friend.

Above them, the sky has grown darker, the rain heavier, and below them, the ocean's glow stays constantly active.

"You're late." A voice hisses from underneath an awning jutting outwards from the grim windowless building they need to break into.

Without warning, Iyami picks him up in an embarrassing bridal carry, but Kara has no time to dispute the act as Chibita waves them forward and disappears around the side of the building. It becomes apparent to him that the dock is now too narrow for his wheelchair, they would have had to abandon it sooner or later, but he feels like Iyami might tip over at any moment and fall into the sea.

In front of them, his old fellow blade focus friend seems to be in a mighty hurry, and Kara's head begins to pound. Something definitely feels off in the air itself, Todo's stance as he leads them after Chibita and Iyami's solid grip tell him he's not the only one who senses it. The rain water seeping into his shirt doesn't help, and he shivers at the cold from it, the electrified atmosphere, and the drug in his system.

Clutching the box that contains his own light inside of it, he figures someone else should just wear the coat seeing as his chance to deliver it has been thoroughly dashed, but before he can suggest it, they get to a tiny service entrance door.

Chibita swiftly 'unlocks' it by placing his hilt against the door and conjuring his orange cleaver into existence straight through the wood itself, perforating a section around the lock until he can shoulder the door open.

"Won't be able to do that on metal." He quickly whispers as he jumps right into the building, checking the unlit halls.

Raising his derringer, Todo shakes his head at Chibita and motions back to the door stating, "We can take it from here. You should leave unless you're coming with us."

Shooting Kara a grin that he immediately returns, Chibita nods and says, "Of course I'm comin' along. The hell, do you think I'd just watch my old buddy leave without ever knowin' what mighta happened to him?"

"Fine, chef, let's get a move on then." Todo commands, impatiently waving him forward.

Brief interlude ended and straight back to business, Chibita carefully checks around every dark corner for them, growing increasingly agitated based on the tension in his face.

"...this place is empty, are you sure we got the right building?"

Tight voice forced through gritted teeth, Todo harshly confirms, "Yes, definitely. Keep going. He has to be here."

Through the arms holding him up, Kara feels Iyami flinch at his brother's tone, but Chibita is unaffected, made of sterner stuff and quick to keep moving forward.

Finally, they reach a long stretch of cells, but each one is clearly empty.

Kara's first thought is to pity the innocent man who is mostly likely already dead, for he never had enough time or a solid enough reason to truly believe that his human life might be preserved.

The others are far more devastated, and he feels more sorry for them than himself.

At Chibita's harsh curse, they run down the hall to double check, perhaps to look for signs of a struggle or escape, but Iyami trips, sending Kara crashing into the wooden floor, box tumbling away from him. Numb to the pain thanks to the cold drug, the fall doesn't concern him, but as he looks up and spots Chibita and Todo's fearful, angry faces, he experiences an eletric jolt that forces his head to turn around, compelled to check behind him.

Halfway draped over his legs, Iyami is bleeding to death, soaking his pants at a disturbingly quick pace. Instinctively reaching out to check where the bleeding is even coming from, he's beaten to it by a feminine hand that grabs Iyami by the hair and bodily lifts him up to display his pale, scared witless face and his bloodied chest. The wound is at his heart, and before Kara can blink, it's widened by pale green conjured claws, startling him into flinching as a drop of blood hits him just below his eye.

"Oh, is that for me? Why thank you, for keeping it all neat and tidy. What a good boy you are! As a show of gratitude, I'll make your death mostly painless."

Kicking Iyami's corpse to the side to crash into bent cell doors, which he only notices now, Hashimoto frees his useless legs. Behind her is her personal guard, but the three people that stand at her back are hooded and the only color he can see from them comes from Hashimoto's signature green neck ties and—

Their misty glowing eyes?

Years of Stillwater compulsory education on all things undead kick in.

Dead, reanimated bodies, possessed by a ghost either voluntarily or through the will of a necromancer. Stronger, more durable than ghouls. Possessed bodies must be mostly intact. Sign of possession in a corpse appears as a weak misty Ghostlight in the eyes, which are also the most vital and vulnerable part of their being.

Wights.

There are wights in a city of hunters.

Iyami's body sluggishly drags itself up into standing, leaning against the crooked cell bars. A watery mauve color covers his eyes in a misty film that sheds almost no light.

"What did you do to him?!" Chibita screams and kicks off all movement in the hall.

Sprinting past Hashimoto, the three guards engage Chibita and Todo, ignoring Kara prone on the floor and Iyami's standing corpse. Metal clashes against metal behind him and a shot is fired, one that thunks into a meaty body, but his full attention is on Hashimoto and her clicking boot heels as she opens the box beside him and pulls on the coat. His own work sheds blue light on his face, and reflects in Hashimoto's large and unusually bright catlike eyes. On both of her hands are her foci, weapons that appear similar to Totoko's knuckle-dusters, but are actually a base for the traditional claws the Hashimoto's have used since before the founding of Brightwater. For now, they remain empty.

Iyami's body jerks forward as she leans over Kara, pink hair cascading over her shoulder like a curtain cutting off half of his view of the hall.

It's Todo's color, an unfortunate coincidence that irks him to no end. He might die to this as his last sight. All he has are his needles, and he can't stab them into Iyami's eyes if it's Iyami's own ghost that's trapped inside. As for Hashimoto herself, a woman who is up there with Totoko as one of the most accomplished Shadows, it's not a fight he can win.

Watching as he comes to the obvious conclusion, that he has no chance, she gives him a sharp toothed smile and speaks with approval in her voice, clapping her hands together. The metal of her retracted claws clinks beneath the din of a battle that seems so far away.

"I think I'll keep you, if you become a ghost. I'll even let you stay in your own body, as a wight under my control of course. But you'll have to play dead for me, so I can garner Stillwater's anger, their rage at losing such a bright mage. I'll take all their guilt of their treatment of you and turn it into a war machine. You'll come to understand, boy, that I'm doing the right thing."

Kneeling behind him, Iyami's body props Kara up into a sitting position and locks his arms behind his back, gripping with hands that are still warm but not warm enough. Another gunshot fires off and Todo's scream for Chibita bounces off the walls, rattling the steel bars. Running footsteps echo shortly afterwards, signalling the arrival of three more 'guards.'

The enigma that is Hashimoto, the necromancer, stares into his eyes but he refuses to meet her bright hypnotic gaze, his own eyes traveling up to the top of her head and widening as he thinks he spots a faint light.

"You're about to become a part of something much bigger than yourself, isn't that a treat? And just for you, my very special boy, I'll even make the wound nearly invisible. A nice green bow would suit you, right here, to cover it up."

Cold metal from the back of her hand makes him jump as it touches the sensitive skin of his neck, below his ear. Leaping to the forefront of his mind, the image of Hashimoto the elder's body traveling down the Spine comes to him crystal clear, rusted blood included.

The wound, it couldn't be, Hashimoto Reika was in Stillwater arguing with Totoko over the position of the next Shield Arm, nowhere near Wightlight during the murder at the swamp...

But this Hashimoto wants to turn him into a wight and use his death as a political tool.

Breath coming in shallow as she lifts her other hand and places it at the back of his head, drawing him against her shoulder, fully blocking his view now with her pink hair, she speaks at his ear and he barely understands.

"Although privately, I think red would suit you even more. In fact, as the last Hashimoto, I think I'll change the color. Thank you for helping me decide."

Pink and green is replaced with a blazing blue light as Todo's enraged scream drowns out her final words, and the body behind him is thrown aside by a flat cloth arm that never stops moving, protectively winding around him next. Light becomes brighter as shadows grow deeper, and he can now see the fuzzy outline of two twisted rust red horns, twining their way out of Hashimoto's head just behind the fake cat ears of her favorite accessory.

Snarling in fury is Hashimoto herself, holding a hand to her chest as wrong-colored blood oozes between her fingers. Kara never even heard his brother take the shot, but he must have used a real bullet rather than his conjured ghost shells to be able to pierce the coat he augmented. Come to think of it, he can't hear a thing as the scarf he knitted yanks him away down the hall and deposits him into living, human arms.

Ruined faces, bearing signs of being shot at close range by a high caliber bullet, litter the floor as Todo drags him away from the incensed necromancer. At her command, the lightless, faceless bodies rise up again, as ghouls, the weakest type of undead.

They're out of the building before the bodies can even shamble their way to them, back outside and into the heavy rain. But where is Chibita?

Under the sound of the rainfall, a constant droning noise slowly becomes more distinct.

"Kara, stay awake, you have to stay awake, for as long as possible, stay awake! You can't leave me, you can't, you can't, Kara-nii!" His brother wails, an old endearment he often used when they were both younger, when Kara still had a sword hilt in his adolescent hands.

Electric blue cloth is wrapped around his neck, squeezing him so tightly he feels lightheaded from the pressure. The rain feels oddly warm until he glances down and spots normal looking human blood.

He never even felt it, Hashimoto's promised 'mostly painless' killing blow. The drug he took must have kept him from feeling anything, even now...

Todo's boots hit the docks hard as he runs faster than Kara has even seen him run. In the wood of the buildings they pass by, he sees sleeping faces everywhere as the contrast between light and dark grows and grows. In the wood of the docks his brother races over, he swears he can spot budding growths sprouting in accelerated time. In his brother's face, he sees pink light shining behind his eyes, a solid ring around his pupils.

At his neck, he feels lightless blood drain out of him and his intuition tells him he's not fit to become a ghost. His light just isn't there, it's everywhere else, electric blue spread out across the city, draped over Shadows, heavily condensed into the scarf his brother wrapped around him.

Peering into the spaces between the light, looking into his blood as it soaks through his shirt, he stares into the dark until images begin to resolve themselves from the nothingness.

To the warmth and rhythm of his brother's desperate run is set a series of images he can't understand.

Horns, one, then two, then more, sprouting out of a head, intertwining and splitting it open, growing until the body cracks apart.

Inside, a deep set rot, liquified flesh, mold appearing in between splintered bones, replacing marrow, releasing spores.

Underneath, deflated lungs that ooze a runny liquid, upon which many fine, hair like growths slowly germinate.

There, a porous, gray heart.

Squeezing his palm while his eyes are fixed on the image, drops of red liquid bead up through the tiny holes in the petrified organ, wringing blood from stone.

Something warm hits his face just below his eye and he flinches, losing sight of his vision.

"Kara, please... Please, look at me, look at me and stay here, you understand? Stay, I want you to stay, a ghost is fine!" Todo hiccups and cries over him, shedding tears on his face and wiping them away even as they're replaced by the rain.

It's not a heart but Todo's hand that is being squeezed by his own, but his grip is weakening. Opening his mouth in an attempt to speak, warmth leaks out instead of words. He can't explain what he knows and he can only guess at how long his poor little brother will hold onto his dead body for, waiting on something that will never come.

As if reading his thoughts, Todo shakes his head and warbles out, "I'll wait for you, so you have to come back to me... We aren't done here yet, you'll stay because I need you with me."

Wiping the blood away from his older brother's mouth and refusing to close his glassy eyes, Todo rocks back and forth, waiting under dark clouds and over bright water.

Chapter Text

"I need you with me."

A heady rush of victory is the first emotion he experiences.

In his hands, an electric blue thread of light is looped and bound to a pink cloth cord. Twined together, they can never be unbound, he yanked, tugged, and wrenched at them with abandon until he rubbed his hands raw to confirm it without a doubt. Stuck together forever.

Joy, the kind that bubbles in his chest, the kind that makes him want to jump up, punch the air, and shout out his success to the world, seems to brighten the light in his hands. With this light, he can finally begin his ultimate project, to create a guardian for his brother, one that will persist long after he's gone. It's his dearest wish, his greatest desire.

He has to jump despite his legs, the wild exultant energy in his body commands him to, even if the end result will most likely see him awkwardly sprawled out on his bed, possibly even stabbed by his own needles. But none of that matters, he's just so damn happy for once.

Sitting up on his knees and stubbornly ignoring the deepening ache, he tightly clutches the two connected pieces of feeble looking string together in his fist and does his best to bounce up, using all of his triumph-given strength.

And his quaint little house flies apart.

The roof cracks with a groan and lifts away, walls repel one another and hang in the air, buffeted by the wind, planks of wood from his floor break apart and shoot off spinning into a white and gray expanse, and his bed drops out from beneath him. Stomach flipping, he realizes he's the one falling, faster than the pieces of his house that are above him in the cloud covered sky. The world has turned his tiny cabin upside down and shaken him out of it in the middle of heavy rainfall and lightning strikes. Thunder roars and the wind whistles around him as he's pelted by raindrops, body diving down from the sky and into their path. None fall as fast as he does.

Eyes wildly searching for anything he can use to break his fall should he land into the ocean, he comes upon nothing but the twinkling light in his hand. It winks at him and he stares at it with watery wind assaulted eyes as his heart attemps to beat its way out of his chest. He opens his mouth to ask How?

And the light plunges into his arm.

The thread raises a line under his skin until it sinks further into him, squirming and wrapping around his flesh. To his utmost fear and confusion, his legs begin to unravel, turning to thread that whips away from him and into the storm overhead, joining with the blue lightning that dances in the brightened clouds. Competing in a race against time, his creation works to bind him in blue, weaving around and wrapping up his arms, his neck, and his head, keeping him together. But it's not enough, the blinding light seeping into his skin from within is unable to prevent him from feeling the twine of his body become uncoiled and lost to the sky. He's missing and hollowed out from the chest down.

The thread snaps.

Far lighter than he was just moments ago, his descent slows and he falls at nearly the same pace as the raindrops. The cord in his hand wraps around his fingers and tugs, urging him to look below him, squinting into the wind. Hastily wiping away his tears, he sees a drop of rain just out of his reach. In its curved surface is a bloodied face, one that he recognizes as his own and he nearly recoils, but his grip on the cord in his raw palm startles him into reconsidering.

For a split second, he fears that the face is actually Todo's.

As fast as the lightning that strikes the sea, he snatches the raindrop out of the air, ignoring the images in all the others.

Shooting up from the ocean's surface, a mass of black hands reach to grab for him in turn, originating from a blooming dark cloud in the white water. Terror pries his lips open to let loose a scream but the hands pluck him out of the air and plunge him into the sea before the sound can escape. Into his hollow chest, dark water rushes through him and out his mouth as the hands drag him down, longer arms twining around his partially formed blue body. A palm slaps itself over his mouth to keep him from expelling the dark that clings to his insides and begins to stick to his light. The rest of the hands grab hold of his edges and pull, yanking him into shape around a mould he cannot see, blind as he is to everything but his own brilliance.

Stretched thin, his body is being remade as he drowns in an onslaught of memories brought on by the darkness, filling up his empty spaces. The moment his legs are harshly yet efficiently recreated into existence, he's struck with years worth of agony. He remembers this pain. It travels as nails from every joint in his legs scraped up against his bones until they screw themselves into his pelvis and the bottom half of his spine.

Collapsing to his knees in the mud with his hands over his ears, Todo's eyes well up with tears from the echoes of pain he now shares with the fuzzy but strengthening image of his brother. Bent backwards nearly in half and suspended in the air just in front of him, Kara looks to be the picture of torment, experiencing some kind of hell with unseeing eyes. His scream is unending, as breath is no longer a requirement.

"Why is this happening?! What the hell did you do!" He shouts over the ghastly noise, heart pounding at his ears as if at any moment they'll begin to bleed from the ghostly screech.

Pale, shaken, and sweaty, Oso's eyes are locked on the being he pulled into existence, expression one of fear and guilt. Shaking his head with regretful uncertainty, he opens his mouth to offer a paltry excuse, but his head jerks to the side as something foul rises at the swamp's edge.

"Just my god damn luck! Todo, ignore him for now, get your gun up, and shoot them at their brightest spots! The rotten aren't like normal wights!"

Turning in the mud without a single care for the state of his clothes, Todo drops all his fears and slings on his professional Shadow's training, gun drawn with neon pink light ready to fire. But his aim falters and his shot goes wide once the images his eyes report back to his brain kick in.

While outwardly calm, balanced on aching knees and counting the dozen figures coming out of the shallow, oily-rainbow tainted waters, he internally panics, having never seen bodies in this state of simultaneous growth and decay.

Flesh, where it still exists at all, hangs spongy and porous, kept from sloughing off entirely by webs of root-like growths that wrap around vaguely humanoid bodies. The white fuzzy 'roots' seem to grow from cracked bones that peek beneath the ruined meat, and the smell that wafts forward has him gagging and missing his next shot all together.

Refusing to breathe with his mouth open, Todo holds his breath instead and aims for a wight with a cracked open head, bearing a spot of bright, two-colored ghostlight behind teeth set in blackened gums. His pink bullet tears its head off from the top half of its jaw, sending the body toppling backwards. Beside his target, the next rotten thing explodes into cherry red flames that burn even as it stumbles into goopy swamp sludge.

Oso's light operates in a way Todo has never seen before, like fire that refuses to die until it burns away his enemies, breaking them apart into sparkling light that winks out of existence.

Impossibly, the 'rotten' he shot is quickly replaced as Todo spots the same two-colored ghostlight in a new naked, sexless body that crawls up from the opaque water. This time, he has the pleasure of watching it decay in real time, bloated dead skin splitting apart, dropping unnecessary guts onto the ground to be replaced with a writhing mass of ghostly white vines. Deceptively small and delicate in appearance, the hairy roots swiftly crawl all over to bind the body together, growing in size as they spread and twine around one another. Fleshless and uncracked for now, the wight's skull looks straight at him with brightly colored orange and pink ghostlight set in its sockets. The pink is only a few shades off from his own light.

It bursts into flames before he can break eye contact with it and he flinches badly as the wight is consumed in red, his jerky cringe imitated by his sickly pale ally. Oso must be near total exhaustion, his limbs tremble as he throws balls of painstakingly conjured light. Swiftly scanning the area around them, Todo notes with intimidation that the mage has yet to miss, quickly realizing that he can't afford to as the fire appears to be extremely costly to create.

"Don't just stare at them you idiot, shoot! Never stop shooting!" Oso curses, rousing him into firing at the eye sockets of the rotten wight that's already aflame.

Brilliant ghostlight explodes out the back of its skull like a comet and disperses into nothing, proving to Todo that they can be killed. Rallied, he focuses everything on converting his fear into ammo and his disgust into steadier hands while Oso exerts himself to create a ring of red magefire around them, buying him time in the world's most dangerous shooting gallery. The man is depending on his ability to keep conjuring his economical light consuming bullets, but the pressure cracks his fragile resolve and squeezes out an involuntary sob from his tightly closed lips.

Circle completed, Todo strains to see past the light, taking better care to land his shots now that they're down to one method of attack. But among the slouching bodies, a few randomly straighten and dart forward in a dead sprint, throwing him off. The ring of fire won't keep them away forever, and Todo is already pushing his limits to force bullet after bullet out of his derringer. With his limited range, he's restraining himself, waiting until the hideous wights are close enough, but their haphazard and unpredictable pattern of movement is quickly wearing him down, fraying his nerves, hitting him with jolt after jolt of fear-laced adrenaline. Out of twelve, nine remain, proving incredibly difficult to kill without Oso's all encompassing flames.

Their situation worsens as each moment passes and the bodies steadily begin to grow brighter, ghostlight shining through gaps in their rancid flesh, emanating from the growths underneath. It becomes harder and harder to discern where their brightest spots are as the fuzzy white roots seem to sink into what remains of the wights' soft bodies, causing the flesh to expand and then deflate as the organic material is rapidly decomposed and digested. Skin, or whatever tissue remains on the surface of the bodies, is broken by new growth that bears glowing ghostlight in its pulsating roots.

The advancing 'developed' wights give off an overpowering earthy, moldy smell, one that combined with the sweet decay of the other water-logged corpses squeezes at Todo's head once he's forced to take a breath, threatening to knock him out.

If they think to swarm, it'll all be over. The thought kicks him in the stomach and he vomits in his mouth, angrily spits it out, takes aim, and shoots his fears out as bullets. He has a second, regular derringer still with him in his coat. Double barreled, exactly like his focus. If it comes down to it, Todo can kill himself and Oso, should a fate worse than death leap over the fire to meet them. But no, what is he thinking, he can't abandon his ghostly brother before he's even woken up!

"Little Shadow."

His sweaty finger slips and misses the trigger as the most beautiful voice he's ever heard emanates from the most horrific undead he's ever faced. Compelled to stare at the wight that's addressing him, his eye twitches as he bears witness to its every accelerated growth. It speaks nonsense to him as what remains of its corpse-host's eyeballs are pushed out of their sockets, giving way to vines that cling to the top of its head and burrow underneath the mass of tissue that barely hides its skull.

The wight's unmoving, jawless mouth doesn't hinder its speech as it beseeches, "Grow with us. We are the greater Creation, yet we seek to become the greatest. Merge with us as we reach Completion. Come willingly and allow us to submerge you in the truth, cast you into the light so you may see all, know all, feel all. We are, together, all of us, the Outerbody. We—"

At his back, a wave of blue light pulses and a thought drops down onto the top of his head, as cold as rain water. Todo never noticed when the screaming stopped. To his earlier desperation, his older brother's sentiment washes over him, somehow diminishing the rancid smell in the air, replacing it with the fresh scent of rain, repeating his words back to him, We aren't done here yet.

And out loud, Kara snidely dismisses the wight's speech as, "Nonsense and filth."

Ghostly arms, the look of which he's never seen nor heard of before, wrap around his shoulders from behind. The majority of his appearance is pitch black with star-like spots of sparkling blue, but at the tips of his fingers is a wonderfully familiar concentration of obnoxiously bright electric blue.

"I waited for you." Todo chokes out, gun arm slowly lowering into the wet dirt.

"And I'm sorry I made you wait so long." Kara answers back, reaching beside his little brother to pick up a discarded pink cord of cloth from the damp ground.

There will be time later, to question what his brother did to pull him back into the world. But for now, he lances his and Todo's light into the cord, scouring the dirt away as he recreates in moments what originally took him months to craft. With a single pink stripe bracketed in blue, the scarf leaps over the flames, extending far beyond its previous limitations to fling several rotten wights away like toys.

"Stop playing around, crush their light or they'll just keep coming back! Wasting time gives them a chance to grow!" A raspy voice criticizes, drawing Kara's attention to his brother's new companion.

The sight of two maraschino cherry red, curved and branch-like horns atop the newcomer's head nearly goads Kara into wrapping the other arm of the scarf around him, but his trembling body causes him to stay his hand instead.

Collapsing, the red-horned man lands on his hands and knees and gasps, "Are you deaf? I used up nearly everything I had just to shape your ghost ass, the least you can do is have my back here! Or do you want the rotten to drown your little brother in this cesspool of a swamp?"

Tightening his hold around Todo, who feels oddly chilly in his arms, Kara stiffly nods and directs the scarf to swipe at the legs of one of the shambling horrors. Curiously detached, he wills it to squash the wight's soft head in its flat fist, releasing a flare of multi-colored light that fades as quickly as it came. In his arms, his brother gags, urging Kara to toss the body away into the muddy water.

At the display the remaining wights charge forward as one, as Todo feared they might. The spike of alarm he feels from his little brother sets a deep scowl on Kara's ghostly blue features, and the scarf forms a ring around himself, Todo, and the stranger, whom he pulls in closer.

In almost a decade, his light hasn't been used to conjure anything other than thread, but as they say, 'Necessity is the mother of invention.' Strangely or fortunately, he finds that he can recall every moment of his past life clearly, up until his death visions, and he wastes no time using his old conjuring skills to sharpen the edges of his scarf, creating a second circle of death for the incoming wights to throw themselves into.

At the very last moment, as four of the wights jump, the wall of flames surges to life and engulfs them all, at the cost of Oso's full collapse behind Kara. Pushing the advantage gifted to him, Kara expends his and Todo's light to extend the scarf, turning it into a blue and pink guillotine that cuts the wights into uneven halves, allowing the flames to burn more judiciously at their heads and top halves, where most of their brightest ghostlight resides. Around them, legs attached to incomplete bodies and severed arms wither, their vines drained of color as they return to a pale white and shrivel up into gray twigs before finally breaking apart and collapsing as black sand. The cherry red bonfires littering the inside of Oso's diminished ring of fire continue to burn even the smallest remains, sand included, erasing all traces of the aggressive wights.

The remaining four however, have grown during the demise of their brethren. Raising his gun, Todo casts an unintentionally terrified look at his older brother, who drifts to float in front of him, despite no longer being physical. Together, they ready their respective weapons and attempt to determine where the greatest concentration of ghostlight could be in the wights that glow brightly from every flowering vine that covers their now near skeletal bodies.

Apparently unwilling to risk leaping over even a weakened ring of fire, proven to be too deadly, the wights form a half circle a good distance away from them, taking their time, bodies filling out with misshapen swells of growth. The head of one of them cracks and splinters, startling Todo into firing at it, blowing just a piece of skull away and revealing several unfurling stalks of green and yellow something that Kara refuses to compare to any sort of plant life. The wight itself seems unaffected, responding only by planting its legs into the ground as it adopts an eerily still stance.

Detecting the question through their new, as of yet unexplained link, Kara shakes his head and the scarf circling around them twists in agitation. He doesn't know what they're doing either and, just as Todo is trying to do, Kara waits for the wights to move closer to have a better chance at landing a fatal blow rather than wasting light on a glancing one.

This proves to be a mistake as vines of many colors spring up from the ground and aim for Todo. Immediately and without conscious direction, Kara's scarf protects him as that is its sole purpose for existing, but to both their horror, vines have also sprung up through Oso, who screams bloody murder and sets himself on fire, finally forced to drop the defensive ring of flames entirely.

As soon as the circle is broken, the wights rush in, but Todo is trapped staring in horror as the ghostly vines in Oso move even after Kara severs them from their roots. The fire is burning them, but too slowly as the red mage clearly struggles to stay awake, knowing that neither of his companions have the appropriate foci to remove the wightlight from his body.

The fastest wight is about to fall upon their little huddled group when it's literally batted away with an ear splitting crack. Kara turns just in time to witness as the ghost inside the body is expelled by the hit from a metal baseball bat of all things, its surface lined with a hexagonal pattern that glows with yellow light. The color and shape reminds him of bees, as does the bouncing man that has inexplicably come to their rescue. Knocking another wight away with enough force to send its body spinning back into the swamp, the man strikes down at the first un-possessed body that's still at his feet, smashing its skull to nothing and hastening its deterioration into black, lightless sand.

Clubbing away the other two wights and depriving them of their corpse-bodies, the man glances down at the awestruck three and salutes Todo with one floppy yellow-sleeved hand, the other arm bearing no matching sleeve, covered instead by the black shirt he's wearing under his strange, distinctly asymmetrical and non-Shadows styled uniform. The black clad arm, along with the black glove on his hand, are lined with the same pattern as on his bat, although no light shines from the cloth, yet.

"Stillwater sucks! I rushed to get here in time only to get arrested the moment I stepped onto the docks! And judging by your weird Jacket, it looks like I was still too late, but someone managed to help you in my place? So is this your brother? Nice to meet you, whatever you are! My name's Jyushi, and I'd like your help, seeing as my bat didn't really hurt these other things that I've also never seen before. I'll need to make some adjustments! What ever happened to regular ghosts, huh? Your country is weird."

Assuming a ready stance before them, Jyushi looks ahead, eyes trained on the strangely beautiful yet completely unnerving ghosts, throwing out offhand commentary, "At least this way, it's easier to spot their eyes."

Kara would like to dispute that notion, and through their link he feels Todo has the same urge, but he prudently chooses to take a moment to observe the larger than normal ghosts as they begin to circle their group. They barely resemble humanoids, having completely lost any defining human facial features in favor of what must be more 'growth.' Unfettered by a physical body, their light, two colors at the very least, is visibly present in each ghost and is glaringly bright and constantly shifting in a hypnotic display throughout their bodies.

One is hunched over, overgrown with coral like structures over its back that burn orange striped with deep blue, a heightened and splayed crown of the stuff the only indicator of where its 'head' might be. Another is wreathed in violet edged, soft apricot petal like formations that are too thick to actually be confused for real flower petals, starting at the waist up, completely engulfing its torso and hiding where its arms or head may be. The last two still have recognizable limbs and heads, but one is covered in yellow-tipped, green hanging beard like growths, where each strand is much too thick to resemble hair, and the other is plagued with uneven fuchsia and dark yellow bumps of dissimilar sizes all tightly packed together, creating an incredibly unappealing image. Only their vivid colors save them from being as appalling as their wight forms.

Drifting to a halt with a ghost at each cardinal direction, the enclosed group forms a tight knit triangle around Oso in response while the petals of the 'flowering' ghost begin to shift.

Alarmed, Oso burns away the last stubborn vine from his body before curling up on the ground and warning with haste through gritted teeth, "Don't let them touch the batter, he's the only one not protected from their rot. Wraiths aren't normal ghosts, anything they possess, dead or alive, will decay and grow. And if the worst happens, I can't burn them out anymore, I'm runnin' on empty." He ends, glaring ahead at the apricot colored 'wraith' with pain clouded eyes.

The horns that had unsettled Kara earlier now trouble him for a different reason as they've nearly vanished from atop the mage's head, but movement and a voice, the same sweet voice that addressed Todo before, take up his foremost concerns.

A gap between the petals forms as they are pushed aside by a slender hand that's attached to a near skeletal arm, stretched far too long. The hand gently beckons them as another peeks out from below the petals, then another, and another, making four, one for each of them. The way they push aside the thick folds of the mock flower almost allows Kara to see what lies beneath at its center, but the arms shift before either he or Todo can catch a glimpse. Its voice, their voice, begins to lecture them as if they are only unruly children.

"See how we do not mourn our dead." It gestures all around them, petals ruffling, moving in a disturbing way, like thick liquid, or something gelatinous.

"Know that we are part of the immortal Celestial Body, as are all of you." It points to them, with all four hands, and a few of the petals 'drop' away, sliding down and rejoining its body at its legs, fusing them together.

"Come forward, and feel Wightlight's embrace." More petals drop and rearrange themselves at its lower half, folding around each other creating a long, pine cone-patterned tail as something in the top half is formed from within the blooming shell of a brightly shining imitation flower bud.

"Be enlightened!" It commands with all the authority of a god, its four arms tearing away the last of its encumbering covering, giving it a multicolored frill at its waist, one that bears the same luster as the interior of an oyster's shell.

Two people, skeletal from the neck down, lean back-to-back at the center of the warped and elongated 'flower.' Only their faces and their arms retain the appearance of bearing flesh, one colored violet, the other colored in the same apricot as most of the body. But the violet wraithlight, Kara notes with unease, is much brighter than its counterpart and lines every edge of the wraith, similar to his own scarf with its sharpened blue edges. The violet being senses his stare, and cranes their empty torso to face him.

Irate, its skull flashes brightly beneath its face as it motions to itself and its partner, arguing, "Two bound as one, you have already begun your journey to completion! Continue along the path, join with us— " Leaping forward like a snake with a push of its tail, both beings reach for them with claw like fingers, screaming, "—for are we not beautiful?!"

Todo's gun is up and ready to fire as he stands his ground, throwing a shrill mental scream to his brother to have his back. At once, Kara's scarf is up and intercepting the flying snake wraith, slicing an edge along the base of the thing's tail to sever a large portion of its light.

At their backs, Jyushi has his bat embedded in the light of a broken orange coral reef. Reaching out with his black clad arm and snapping away bits to free his weapon, the honey yellow light on his honeycomb patterned sleeve and glove allow him to touch the wraith without any ill effects, just in time to swat away the boil covered wraith diving for Oso.

Target mostly immobilized by electric blue and his own pink light, Todo aims and shoots at the eyes of the too-perfect human faces. In the short amount of time between the death of one and the firing of his gun at the other, the surviving one glares at him with a fury he's seen in living Shadows, ones who've lost a partner. The startling thought travels to Kara and he agrees with Todo, while directing the scarf to wrap around the 'bearded' wraith next, that the pair displayed an eerie approximation of human emotions in their final moments.

The question remains however, if they were ever sane to begin with, and just what were they preaching about? Are the cultists Stillwater despises in contact with these things, or are they the wraiths themselves?

Shoving the mystery aside, Todo's eyes widen in amazement as Jyushi's light imbued bat finishes off the coral wraith with a blow that explodes its crowned head like a watermelon.

Not to be outdone, and twisting his scarf like a corkscrew, Kara cuts his own wraith to ribbons just to observe what happens if he doesn't aim for the 'eyes.' Immediately, Todo mentally reprimands him, shrieking at him not to toy with literal monsters as he shoots to no effect at the disgusting fuchsia and yellow 'blister' wraith, attempting to guess at its weak spot. Meanwhile, Kara instantly receives his answer as the yellow and green bits of light are cannibalized into the final wraith, which begins to grow something in its many boils.

They never find out what would have emerged as Jyushi strikes its deformed legs to bring it down and Todo shoots it through where he assumes its head has migrated to after absorbing the extra light. It goes still and floats in the air for a moment, and they watch as the light that constituted its being fades.

Anger fueled by nerves and the dregs of fear strikes Kara through his link with Todo before his brother can even turn around to scream at him. Taking preventative measures, Kara traps his weakened little brother in a hug, draping the inactive scarf around his neck.

"Don't yell. I believe I was the one who originally alerted those... Wraiths? Wights? To our location, if I understand correctly." Kara surmises, tossing the uncertainty of his 'revival' at Todo non-verbally as well.

Hovering worriedly over Oso, Jyushi eyes the two of them with a question on his tongue but the haggard red mage pipes up first, demanding, "Pick me up. That was one fucking detour I didn't need to experience in my lifetime. Save all your drama and bullshit for when we get to the grove. Just— Ugh, fuck me, everything hurts...!"

The pitiful groan that Oso fails to hold back sparks the remembrance of an emotion for Kara, one that he thought he used to feel strongly. Oddly, he senses that he might need to be reacquainted with something as common as sympathy.

In his arms, Todo's posture stiffens, for their feelings are no longer hidden from one another, and the instinctual response Kara reads from his brother is to keep his emotional deficiencies a secret for now.

During the silent puzzlement and exchange, Jyushi lifts Oso in a fireman's carry and listens as the mage tiredly attempts to direct him.

"We're looking for piles of lichwood branches. They're gray and I stacked them up as triangles. We should be pretty close to a trail. Just follow it all the way to a big fuckin' circle of gray trees. Wake me up when we get there if I pass out on the way. And you two, creepy silent twin act."

Sunken red eyes regard them with something akin to... Guardianship, as Todo sees it.

"...We need to talk about important shit when we get to the grove. And reign in your Jacket, he's already displaying signs of... Yeah, I think I remember what the stiffs called it. 'Critical lack of self preservation.' Typical... common development in newly emerging... among the recently..." Weakly groaning, Oso trails off into indistinguishable murmurs, head drooping down.

Shifting anxiously from foot to foot, Jyushi mock whispers, "I think he's down for the count. Um, so is this the guy who 'helped' you?"

Nodding while already searching for a stack of branches on the muddy ground, and purposefully avoiding looking at most of the area they just fought in, Todo cautiously answers, "...Yes. Oso approached me and offered, said he could bring Kara back. We..."

Floating just behind his brother, arms resting over his shoulders, Kara stares without blinking at Jyushi, testing out all the ways he's different now from what he used to be. Even small changes shock him a little each time he realizes something new about himself that's been altered forever.

"I died." He begins nonchalantly.

Todo's shoulders hitch up and Kara quickly leans in to sooth him, finding that his brother, or maybe his own body, feels permanently cool to the touch, like how his legs would feel after he kept them in the ocean water for too long, on the cloudy but storm-less days when he worked outside on his porch. Spotting an odd formation of graywood branches far from the edges of the deeper swamp waters, for they are certainly graywood, and apparently 'lichwood' too, he points them out to Todo before continuing on.

"We made an attempt to break you out of holding in Stillwater, but when we arrived at the cells, you weren't there." He explains, side-eyeing Jyushi and amending, once the thought comes to him with some delay, "Not to say that all of this is your fault, which of course it isn't. I'm just attempting to begin a recounting of events from well, the beginning, as I remember it. I seem to have lost time between my death and now."

A spike of Todo's fear and uncertainty travels straight to Kara without context. It's disconcerting just how capable his brother is at bearing down on his own emotions to stop them as they begin, and Kara worriedly throws this observation straight back, unbeknownst to Jyushi, who trots forward to follow the path of branches while filling them in on his side of the story.

"They took my bat away from me, but they didn't know my shirt and glove were augmented too. It took me a few tries, but I was able to figure out which concentration of light would be able to interact with the cell bars, and then I bent them just enough to squeeze my way out. I'm very flexible! And strong!" He whisper-shouts, smiling somewhat nervously at Kara with a look about him that says he dearly wants to say something more.

"Incredibly strong, as we've seen." Kara acknowledges with a firm, respectful nod.

"...yeah." Jyushi's lopsided smile deflates a bit.

If he weren't supporting Oso, Kara wouldn't be surprised if the man began wringing his hands, given how uncomfortable he looks.

"So you died in Stillwater? I, um, I'm sorry I escaped before we ever had the chance to meet like we were supposed to, but I'm sure they were going to uh, drown me in the ocean? If that means anything to you, it's what I overheard. The original plan was to bring you both back to Doomridge. I think you guys call it Seaside Bluffs?"

Sensing a stalling tactic, Kara briskly replies, "Southern Bluffs, yes."

Increasing his walking pace, Todo's anxiety rises again although his face betrays nothing but concentration on the task at hand, eyes scanning the patches of muddy ground for the next branch pile. Kara keeps himself weightlessly draped over Todo's back, mildly enjoying the thought of never needing to walk again along with freedom from the chronic pain that plagued his legs.

"All those names are so boring they blend together. But anyway... We were going to get you to Doomridge and pair you up with a ghost, to form a Haunting bond, a Ghost Jacket. It's something we do to extend people's lives when they're born like you, or to help people who end up severely injured or sick and can't recover on their own. Sometimes it can even pull someone back from the brink of death! Um, but it was never part of our plan to let you die... There's no reason for Todo to have a Jacket, really. He's perfectly healthy."

"I needed him with me." Todo finally speaks up, hands balled up into fists at his sides as he strides forward.

Glancing between the two of them, Jyushi looks slightly pained.

Ignoring the foreigner for now, Kara easily answers back, "And here I am, with you. Always, Todo. Perhaps even too closely?" He asks half jokingly, half serious, as he's never drifted further than an arm's length away from Todo since he came to in the middle of the dreadful, color saturated, wight infested swamp.

Shaking his head, Todo pats the ghostly hand on his shoulder and confirms, "No. Stay with me just like this, niisan."

After a moment of silence, Jyushi hesitantly begins, "...I'm not sure what happens when a bond like yours is made."

"Is there a problem?" Todo bites back, the irritation easily felt by all present and awake, no mysterious link required.

Slouching a bit at the Shadow's scathing tone, Jyushi gives them a token smile as he shakes his head.

"No, no! I'm just trying to understand... I've never seen a ghost like Kara before. But I've also never seen or heard of 'wraiths' until today either. I guess what I'm trying to say is that normal Hauntings pair up a sickly human with a regular ghost. The two people have to want to bond, it's like attunement, you have to be invested in it for it to work. You have to want it. If what Kara says is true, then that means he just... appeared? Out of nowhere? And he was already bound to you? Did he not leave behind a ghost when—"

Todo's sniffling stops Jyushi mid sentence and the exorcist's smile drops completely. The tears are just for show, Kara knows, but there's a deep ache in Todo's chest that he can feel an echo of in his own peculiar shadow-like body. It's a strange sensation to experience, when he can't feel or touch most of the plant life they pass by, unless it inexplicably bears faint traces of light or is graywood itself. They've already passed by a few saplings, perhaps they'll reach the grove soon. As for the faintly shimmering, oily-rainbow colored water, he prudently avoids it altogether, as does Todo.

Awkward silence creates a physical distance between Todo and Jyushi, who slows his pace to walk behind Kara, keeping the ghost as a barrier between them as they march single file along the thin patches of ground bearing the trail of odd triangular branch piles. Unconcerned, as he can feel Todo's guilt already begin to weigh heavily on him, Kara starts silently pointing out oddities in the vividly multicolored swamp.

Having never been outside of Stillwater before, the completely new terrain nearly drives him into sensory overload, but his ghostly condition keeps him detached. Were he physical, he'd be cautious of touching anything in the swamp, which seems too quiet while also bearing signs of constant creeping growth. A twinge of irritation comes his way as Todo reminds that he is still physical and does have to deal with the muck and the soft squish of growing things hidden beneath fallen leaves and soft dirt.

With a mischievous grin, Kara directs Todo's attention to a strange clump of jelly-like substance that's growing in a pile of regular dead branches, overtaking everything around it. Largely cloudy white in color, faint hints of teal sparkle within its shiny, almost crystalline inner body, although its outer surface resembles clear goop more than anything. He throws a question Todo's way, wondering if the thing is solid or liquid, daring Todo to poke it as he pokes his brother's cheek.

Slapping his hand away, Todo gives it a wide berth as he walks onwards while Kara only marvels at the sensation and appreciates that whatever bond they have allows him to feel, driving him to hug his brother tightly again just because he can. Todo grumbles out loud but can't deny that he enjoys the attention regardless, taking everything he can get after years of forced distance and the more recent terrifying battle, shying away from remembering the worst moment in his life as he watched his brother die. Kara's heart had stopped and he had felt it...

Behind them, Jyushi follows a little closer and quietly comments, "That's a jelly fungus, a really, really big one. Most jellies aren't poisonous but I've never seen one with light in it before, if that was Light and not just a kind of coloring I'm not familiar with. But so far, everything in your country has been super weird..."

Looking around the swamp filled with eerie swaying lights in the distance and gently pulsing lights all around them, from any one of the thousands of things growing out of the non-graywood trees, fallen timber, low hanging branches, and curtains of leaves, Kara can't disagree. At least the water is still and covered with a film of more bioluminescent growth that would alert them to any movement within.

"What else can you spot that's unfamiliar to your home, Jyushi?" He asks, for the sake of his own curiosity as well as Todo's unspoken interest, even if his brother is more concerned with the light and the possibility of danger around them at every little strange plant, fungus, mold, and mushroom.

"Well, besides everything, since Doomridge is high up in the mountains and we have different forests... This swamp is full of all kinds of fungi, all in the same spot. There's... stuff in the ground, stuff on dead things, stuff in the water, stuff on living trees." He points out above at a thick hanging growth that resembles the bearded wraith from earlier.

Visibly cringing at the sight and size of the gently glowing, giant fungal growth in the hollow of a tree looming just above them, Todo jumps out from underneath it and begins scanning the tops of the trees for more. Kara drifts over his head to shield him, but is alarmed when he spots two little pink thorn shaped horns barely visible under Todo's dark hair. Todo's hands fly up to his head as Jyushi incorrectly interprets the reflex.

"Don't be afraid, maybe? That one's a tooth fungus, and normally you don't see any that big, so it looks more like a huge beard now instead of a rug of little teeth. But it shouldn't be poisonous either, I think? Usually, this kind is edible but..."

As Jyushi suspiciously regards its toxic looking green glow, he shakes his head and decides, "Yeah, I wouldn't trust anything in this swamp. But look! If you focus on just one color, you can spot more of these green ones on... Um, wow, a lot of these trees. I've never... I guess I'll be saying this over and over, huh? But I've never seen this before. There are so many..."

Sensing that Todo is reaching a breaking point, as his fingers pinch his new pink horns while his eyes track the fungus that exists nearly everywhere above them, Kara urges him forward to the next graywood pile, pointing out that nothing grows from it except for the wood itself. Gladly rushing forward to something familiar, Todo takes a closer look and finds that the stacks of graywood branches truly are growing into one another and are rooted to the ground, verifying for himself that nothing else grows in or around them.

Keeping pace with Todo's sudden leap, Jyushi makes a show of looking at the same branches as he asks, "This stuff the red mage called lichwood... Do you know anything about it? Is it really wood, from a tree? Because trees can't usually grow like this. These branches weren't even stuck into the ground, and they're forming roots that... Grow into other branches?"

The exorcist is trying so hard to reconnect with his previously friendly Stillwater 'pen-pal' that Todo finally cracks and speaks, unable to ignore Jyushi's wavering smile as he waits for acknowledgement.

"Only Oso calls it Lichwood. We know it as graywood, Stillwater was and still is primarily built out of it. I didn't know there were graywood groves this deep inside the swamp, though. Even as a high ranking Shadow I was never allowed this far in here, but I guess I know why now..." Todo pouts despite everything, glaring at the fungus ridden trees and wishing that Oso were awake so he could pester the mage to teach him how to burn things with his light. Mentally taking note of the desire, Kara agrees with his brother, that they should discern whether or not it's possible to learn such a thing once the mage recovers.

"As children we were told that the graywood completely bordered the Swamp Sea, keeping it contained, or something like that. The edges of the swamp closest to Stillwater constantly have a growing supply of wood that our city uses, so I've never seen older trees..." Todo stops short, fingers still running over the sharp edges of his tiny horns. Glancing at Kara's oddly dark ghostly hair, he shoots a thought to his brother to check himself for anything similar.

Running a hand through his black, lightless hair and passing the gesture off as a pose with a smirk in place, Kara continues, explaining the strange phenomenon of graywood growth to their new friend.

"It's not openly spoken of, but we are aware that the graywood cannot be treated like normal lumber. It continues to grow even when cut, and our buildings are judiciously maintained by their inhabitants. However, the growth in our city seems to take much longer than whatever natural growth occurs for the trees themselves, in this environment. I've personally seen even less of the trees than my dear brother, due to my illness. This is my first time out of the city, and as a ghost nonetheless... Which reminds me." His hand bumps into a sharp point beneath his hair, just like Todo's. It shocks him less than it should, despite what he saw earlier from the wraiths.

"Just how long were the two of you in correspondence with one another? Without even telling me, at that." He wonders aloud, not accusatory, just with idle curiosity.

Ducking his head down and glancing at a fallen log to avoid Kara's questioning gaze, Todo immediately cringes away from it, spotting a sheet of glowing fuchsia bubble-shaped growths clustered tightly together on the rotten wood. Honing in on the Shadow's startled jump, Jyushi's eyes travel back to the log and the man finally shows some unease with a shudder, presumably remembering the blister wraith. Even the purplish red coloring is almost the same.

"That's... also a jelly fungus. I can't tell if it's growing there because the wood is already rotting or if that one is a parasite that kills living trees and then also acts as a decomposer once the host is dead... Normally I'd think it wasn't a parasite but this swamp is starting to really..." Jyushi trails off, shakes his head with a grimace and hikes Oso up on his shoulders before the man can slip off.

Adamantly nodding in agreement, Todo argues, "We've wasted enough time just standing around here, O-Oso said to save the talking for when we reached this Grove place, right? C'mon, niisan, please let's just go, I don't want to be out in the open anymore."

Below the whining, Kara senses legitimate trepidation and acquiesces, "Anything for you, darling brother. But do remember, even without conscious thought from either of us, my creation will protect you, always."

He doesn't miss the way Jyushi's eyes jump to the scarf, nor the way the man frowns as if trying to solve a puzzle, but Todo's melancholic expression as he lays his hand over the scarf's false fingers draws the greater part of Kara's attention. At his unspoken question of What's wrong? Todo shakes his head and pushes away at Kara's continued inquisitive thoughts, despite knowing he's sensed another hidden chunk of the story that's being kept from him. In a placating gesture, Todo hesitates but ultimately reaches into one of his inner coat pockets and draws out a pair of items that Kara can't help but reach for with hopeful hands.

Successfully curling his fingers around his needles, Kara smiles brightly at his brother and holds them close to his chest. The happiness he could previously only recall in his memories comes back to life.

"I can still touch them and they're still attuned to me! Wonderful, absolutely wonderful, perhaps I can still craft with them as well? Heh, I suppose there really will be time to start a new project after all! Thank you for holding onto these for me, brother!"

Watching him with misty eyes, Todo nods once as if to say of course, I could never leave them behind, and grabs his wrist to keep Kara close as he searches for the next pile of graywood branches. Obliging his brother, Kara floats beside Todo and uses their link to point out the trail when he spots it. Behind them, he can sense Jyushi's stare at his back, and through Kara, Todo can feel it as well. They ignore him.

The canopy above them makes it difficult to judge what time of day it is in the swamp, and the area itself, full of shifting colors and glowing, twinkling, swaying light further confuses Kara's sense of time. There's a sparkling haze above them, almost like clouds, that makes it impossible to find the sun. The only indication of progress they have is the trail and the state of its landmarks. The further they travel, the more grown the branch piles are, sturdy in construction and easily identifiable in shape, which Kara supposes was the obvious intent behind them. He wordlessly asks Todo to explain just who their red mage is, but his brother only supplies him with a confusing jumble of emotions and one clear message.

Oso promised Todo he could bring Kara back, and he did.

Kara lets it go, for now, but he warns his brother that he won't be denied answers forever. Todo merely holds his hand and keeps his eyes trained on the ground, walking with urgency as he begins to spot more small graywood saplings and larger, dryer land masses, eagerly leaving behind the unending pools of murky-rainbow water with their thin dirt trails.

After being ignored for too long on their trek, Jyushi gathers his courage to walk beside them now that there's space and blurts out, "So you're a crafter? I didn't think anyone in Stillwater would attune to tools like we do in Doomridge. But I guess you're a special case and all... Um, I didn't mean... I mean, I think it's great! Are you the only crafter in Stillwater?"

Taking a moment to get a good look at the exorcist, he feels the slightest bit of pity for Jyushi as he looks worn down, and for some reason this strikes Kara as an uncommon thing for the perpetually smiling man. His smiles aren't nearly always happy, just as the one he has tacked on now clearly isn't, appearing more nervous than anything. And yet... none of that detracts from the evident problem Jyushi has with Kara, whatever that may be.

"I used to be, but after my augments for the Shadows were tested and proven worthwhile, other mages began to mimic my work. For Stillwater, it's still all very new, for its citizens are very set in their ways. But are you implying that there are more 'Crafters' as you call them, where you're from? What do they make? Is it a common occupation?" Kara excitedly asks as his curiosity gets the best of him.

After staring intensely at Kara, searching for something in his eyes, Jyushi brightens and eagerly replies, "Mmm! There's lots of people who attune to tools! We call them a lot of things, based on what they make, which is practically everything and anything, but in general we refer to them as crafters. Doomridge doesn't have any of your graywood growing in the mountains, so everything we build has to be made ghost-proof by crafters who specialize in making pathways for other people to sink their light into. That's why Stillwater uses graywood, right? Ghosts can't pass through it?"

Todo interjects before Kara can assault Jyushi with a barrage of eager questions on what he means when he says, "make pathways."

"Didn't I already explain this to you? Ghosts can't phase through graywood, why do you think our entire city is built out of it and built over an ocean that can detect ghostlight? What are you trying to pull, why are you so interested in my brother?" Todo harshly demands to know, coming to a stop at a small graywood tree, pivoting to glare at Jyushi.

Appearing burdened, and not by the grown man over his shoulders, Jyushi quietly pleads, "I just don't want anyone to get hurt... We were friends, weren't we?"

Ignoring his question, Todo's face twists with anger and Kara quickly places himself in front of his brother, but his presence is ignored in favor of an accusation thrown at Jyushi.

"And who are you to say he's going to hurt me? What's your problem!"

Standing there on the verge of tears, Jyushi's eyes dart around to look anywhere but at them. Eventually, he speaks, choosing his words very carefully.

"...Ghosts always rise on their own, Todo. Always. Hauntings h-have to be consensual or else it's possession, which puts strain on both people, but mostly on the host. Pair bonds only work because the two people are linked up together, forever, in s-symbiosis. And your Kara... He doesn't look like a ghost, he's not made entirely out of light. You remember what I told you, don't you? In Doomridge, what you call ghosts with hatred are just people to us, they're just in a different stage of life, we consider them as being alive. I never told you this but do you know why the moutain people don't like to associate with you ocean folk? Besides the mass murder and the crazy military life enforced on everyone and the genocidal tendencies? It's your name. The Shadows. Where I'm from, the dark is... It's death, Todo, it's a sign of final death. Light is life, light is in every person even if you can't see it, light makes up a ghost's body. When that light is gone... And you, you hunters, you obsess over destroying light with light, you never even figured out how to use light in other ways until now! Everyone's afraid of you, no one wants to come down from the mountain. I came here because you and Totoko-chan seemed almost normal. I thought if I could help, if we could show you ghosts can save people—"

"You think he's not real." Todo cuts in, staring at Jyushi and betraying no emotion on his face, but Kara can feel it all, his every fear.

He sees it now, through Todo's eyes, a memory of his own empty stare, having died with his eyes open, facing skyward. As Kara suspected, his ghost never appeared for his little brother. The memory lingers on a little further, Todo holding him close and refusing to get up until, instead of a ghost, a man appears, looking hollow yet fervent, only able to drag Todo away from Kara's body after he whispers into his ear. Oso's promise was the only thing that kept Todo going all this time, until Kara's reawakening in the swamp.

Not real?

Surely, the notion is preposterous.

Kara places a cold, shadowy hand over his brother's cheek, asking to be acknowledged, saying Look at me. It comes to his attention, with a tiny jolt of apprehension, that Todo's eyes have only become brighter since the last time he looked into them, back when he was dying. The pink ring that was present around his pupils has fully replaced the color of his irises and shines bright and neon, just like his bullets.

Seconds tick by as his request goes unfulfilled, and Kara feels something weaken and fray in his chest as Jyushi continues on, heedless of his rising panic.

"I never said that! He's... thinking and acting like he's alive. I just don't think he's a ghost, I don't know what Oso did, but Kara isn't normal, you can't say I'm wrong. He's doing things a ghost can't do, he's still attuned to Kara's tools. And the dark— he's mostly made up of something that is... Doomridge was founded by s-someone who... Who taught us how to live with each other, but also... They were known for wielding something no one else could use, and Kara looks like that darkness. He looks like—"

"I don't want to hear it!" Todo cries, drawing his derringer and aiming around Kara to point it at Jyushi.

Needles slipping through his hands and falling away, Kara wraps his light-tipped fingers around Todo's wrist and presses his flickering body against the gun, panic tugging at the thread he knows isn't inside of his chest but can be imagined in full detail regardless, recalling his confusing and painful creation.

"Todo, I don't feel well at all, Todo, please look at me, brother, I need you to—"

Voice giving out, he desperately throws the request down the link between them. Now that the seed of doubt has been planted, he needs Todo to do a number of things, to look at him, to hold his hand, to touch him at all, to confirm that Kara exists, please, please, please, Todo, brother, brother, brother, little brother!

Kara's holding on so tightly to his wrist that he can't holster his gun, but Todo has a free arm, one that he uses to press his brother against him as tightly as he can as he murmurs apologies and withdraws his light from the derringer.

It takes a while for Kara to calm down, but as soon as he relaxes his grip, Todo puts his gun away and snatches his brother's precious needles up off the ground before they get lost.

"I'm sorry..." Jyushi says softly, very slowly making his way closer.

Todo doesn't have the energy to physically ward him away, and so he verbally strikes.

"If you ever do that again, I'll kill you, I swear I will! Just look at what you did, dammit! His light is pale and the rest of him is faded. I don't care what he is, alright? As long as he's with me, I don't give a single shit! Don't you take my brother away from me, Jyushi, don't you dare. You know I was willing to give up everything for him, that I was going to drag him out of Stillwater and down to the other half of the world just to try to save what I could. What you don't know is every other fucking thing, all the ways I had to struggle just to get into contact with you, all for nothing! Or this, having to get all of this just so he could stay awake without being crippled by pain!" Yanking a fistful of contraband from his pocket, Todo hurls Kara's old, now obsolete medication at Jyushi's face. To his credit, the man barely flinches, but he looks down at the plastic casings as if he wants to collect them, pick them up, and hand them back.

Teeth bared, Todo derisively scoffs, "Hah! It must be nice for you, to pair up people and save them as a job. But my job, the job I was born into, the only thing I know how to do, is to hunt down every damn ghost that I see. You can't possibly understand what it feels like to be told as a kid that you should be the one to kill your brother, send him off, drown him before he turns into an abomination. All as an act of mercy and duty and obligation!"

Jyushi pales in the face of Todo's scorn, but he takes another shaky step closer even as the Shadow hisses and spits at him, snarling out old grievances and hidden shame.

"Don't you ever, ever fucking tell me again that he's not normal! I know that! I've always known that, no one would ever let me forget. The only reason I'm ranked just below the top Shadows is because I needed to make those connections. You don't know how many other hunters I've sabotaged and crippled, how many people I pushed out of my way, all to get to a position where I could be compensated enough to fund my brother's half-assed, medically unsound treatment. All the smugglers I had to bribe, on top of paying them, for drugs I wasn't even sure would work, all the threats I had to make to keep mouths shut, all the other secretly sick people I used to test everything out before I'd give anything to Kara... People don't stay sick in Stillwater, they either suck it up and fake a recovery until they can leave and never come back, or we take care of them. He's the only one, the only one who was allowed to live in our shit city, and every day I was terrified that some fanatic would steal into his place to drag him out and toss him into the sea. He can't even swim to save his life. Couldn't. He couldn't swim." Todo's voice cracks.

Leaning against the graywood tree, he clutches Kara's wavering form to him, pressing at his arms and shoulders and stroking his head, trying to get him to move again by constantly reaffirming that Todo can touch him, that Kara is real. He keeps talking, hoping that his brother is listening, that what he says will garner a response. He reveals another secret he was too ashamed to ever talk about before.

"I'm the one who set up the guard around his house, and I had to lie to do it, I had to pretend like I was absolutely positive he would leave behind a ghost just to get those miserable old hunters to agree with me, to 'waste' Shadows on a pointless job, but it worked and I was able to choose who would be on duty because it was my idea. Mine. With a straight face I had to convince killers and murderers that he was close to death and should be carefully monitored without pushing too hard, otherwise they would jump at the opportunity to argue Why don't you just drown him already? It's cruel to let him live. I debated that his usefulness outweighed the risks, described him as a tool we couldn't afford to not exploit, because the only way to deal with the soulless is to speak like them, think like them, and act like them. Our guardian couldn't publicly support me without looking biased, they already used up all their political sway when he first got sick and never got better. I did it alone."

Tears stream down his face as Kara doesn't respond. He doesn't get any better, but he doesn't get any worse either. As long as Kara is with him at all, Todo will take everything he can get. He pushes the needles into Kara's hand and waits to see if they'll close around them. His voice is quieter now.

"He couldn't even have things for himself in his room at first. How was he supposed to get his hands on anything, how would he even know what he would like? He only knew about swords and conjuring because he grew up wanting to be like our guardian, wanting to put himself out there to help people the only way he was taught how, the hopeless idiot... I couldn't even sneak him trinkets in his color because people would know, most of my gifts to him had to be pink or a completely different shade of blue. I don't even know if he liked any of the trivial garbage I sent to him because he'd always say he loved it all. I couldn't even visit him regularly because I had to pretend like his existence was a burden, just so I could keep protecting him... I couldn't have this, we couldn't be close, we grew up together for the first half of my life and then one day he was gone and everyone was telling me to let him go."

The hand closes, and Todo sobs in relief. He keeps his arms wrapped around Kara as he pushes off from the tree, heading back on the trail. The grove has to be nearby. He says one more thing without looking back.

"I'm never letting him go. I need him with me."

Following right behind him, Jyushi stays silent, though Todo can hear his hiccups.

Todo doesn't care.

Without Kara to act as a bridge between them, Shadow and exorcist walk without speaking until they reach the grove Oso described as, "a big fuckin' circle of gray trees."

Seeking comfort, Todo squeezes Kara's non responsive body to him as he swallows down hard at the sight. His brother seems to stir from his fugue state at Todo's distress, blinking past bleary eyes. A tiny voice ekes its way out into the open.

"...our red mage friend missed quite a few details, didn't he?"

Eyes wide, Jyushi nods at Kara, keeping his mouth closed at Todo's piercing glare, but the man looks overjoyed that the 'ghost' is with them again and attempts to convey that with enthusiastic body motions.

After Jyushi's jumping and waving ceases, the three of them silently take in the sight of the graywood grove as Kara wakes and his body becomes more distinct.

Larger than anything Todo's ever seen before, the roots of the trees alone are massive, being both numerous and thick on top of easily being waist high, and in some areas chest high or taller. They're spread far and wide, and nothing else but more graywood grows around the giant circle. The dirt the roots are sunk into is dark, nearly black, but it smells fresh somehow, clean, unlike the rest of the swamp which stinks of earthy rot.

It's almost too pristine even for Todo, who values cleanliness and prefers it, even if he does spend most of his time outdoors. But the dirt doesn't seem like normal dirt. Kara seconds that notion, so at least Todo knows he's not being unreasonable. The dirt Kara had for the potted plants in his little house never smelled clean.

But the roots pale in comparison to the most unnerving thing about the trees.

Packed together, but never quite touching one another on the trunks and branches of the trees, are growths drawn in lumps and bulges, twisted and knotted sections of bark, oozing black sap and dark stains.

There are life-size people in the wood, clearly defined by the trees themselves, all appearing to be asleep and of all different ages, sexes, and stages of development.

Some, like the snake wraith, appear as having normal faces and skeletal bodies that are slowly being covered as the trees grow. Other bodies seem to be half revealed, leaning forward, head and shoulders out of the main trunk of their tree, arms and hips still attached, legs either skeletal or unseen. Kara even spots organs in one body, slowly being 'filled in' to better represent the abdominal muscles over them, and further, the skin over that.

There do not seem to be any fully completed bodies, but the trees grow so tall that it's possible that they're just not visible from the ground. Looking again and in greater detail, the more skeletal bodies are closer to the roots, and the more complete bodies are further up.

Although he can't actually detect visible growth in real time, Kara assumes that the graywood, or lichwood, will continue to grow in the shape of these hundreds, or thousands, of human bodies.

Whispering as if the wooden people could wake and open their eyes, Jyushi asks, "...What now? Do we wake Oso? He still looks kind of... In bad shape."

Having set the mage down to recline against a nearby tree root, Kara peers over Jyushi and Todo's shoulders as his brother kneels next to their mysterious benefactor. Strangely, Oso doesn't appear to have physical wounds from the vines that Kara definitely did not imagine piercing through the man. His clothes however, which upon further inspection look like a blend of Shadow's uniform and Jyushi's type of colored cloth, do have holes in them, yet not a single singe mark.

With a mild wry hum, Kara points out, "He looks like us and we look like each other. But I gather that you mean our dear mage friend looks most like me, sickly and pallid."

Nodding, Jyushi smooths out Oso's hair, having been disturbed after being awkwardly carried for so long.

"His light isn't showing yet, as far as I can See. Someone this strong usually has light poking out from their head unless they're completely drained. We could hide in the roots of the trees until he wakes up by himself, I think there's enough space. And there are no weird fungi around..." Jyushi politely decides to not bring up the creepy human figures in the trees that Stillwater apparently uses for their entire city.

"Is that what those horns mean? I've never seen them on people before, not until..." Kara tenses and looks to Todo, hurriedly casting the memory of what he saw on Hashimoto back at the cells to his brother.

Cursing, Todo bites his lip and turns around to face the direction Stillwater resides in, as if he could somehow run back to warn Totoko, but his face pales at what he sees and he reaches for his gun as fast as he can.

Too late, solid green light in the form of sheets and sheets of paper glue his arm to his side and further pin him to a root before he can even touch his derringer. The scarf lies trapped between his chest and more green light, unable to cut through it while plastered flat against him, while on either side of him Jyushi and Kara are likewise immobilized. Oso remains unconscious, chest gently rising and falling. The exhausted man isn't about to wake up to save them again with his flames.

Nearly blinding violet light suddenly springs forth in the form of claws from the second of the two Shadows who have them cornered. The first holds a book in their hands, the source of a seemingly endless supply of pages of light.

In unison, the hooded Shadows step forward until the violet one looms over Oso and the green one reaches Jyushi.

Fearing he's about to lose a real friend to the Shadows after all, Todo instantly regrets not making peace with the exorcist, who traveled all this way only to get tangled up in a disaster. He fiercely struggles to get a hand on his gun as Kara's eyes hone in on the only bit of color on their uniforms. Tied at their arms is a ribbon in his exact color, obnoxiously bright electric blue.

Respective green and violet light is pressed at the throats of their two targets as the second Shadow speaks.

"Which one of these bastards killed Hashimoto? Which one murdered Kara? Which one is the necromancer? Tell me, whose throat do I have to slit to free you both?"

Chapter Text

Flurries of thought swirl through Todo's head as he furiously thinks up and discards disputes he can shout out to the Shadows to stop them before they kill either of his companions, one his friend and the other his brother's savior. Appealing to their honor would be worthless as he's already well aware that they wouldn't hesitate to kill an unconscious man. Freely telling the truth would only work if he were to be believed, but the Shadow's questions were clearly rhetorical as they no doubt suspect both he and Kara are being controlled by a necromancer. They wouldn't hear him out, the milliseconds are ticking down, and he's coming up blank at the worst possible time. If he does his best to beg, will they listen?

He's beaten to action as a mental push washes over him like an ocean tide and the scarf trapped between him and the jade green pages extends itself from where it was looped around the back of his neck. In an instant a flash of dazzling blue and pink light shoots over to the Shadows, binding them together.

That's right, Todo recalls as he pants from a wave of dizziness, Kara can manipulate his light without warning. An apologetic thought swims into his head at the same time as his vision blurs from the sudden expenditure and maintenance of light but he shakes it off without concern. At least one of them was able to act quickly, and his brother continues to do so, attempting to shock their captives into compliance.

"Hashimoto Reika is being possessed! And I have reason to believe that the ghost possessing her killed Hashimoto the elder. Our murders were identical, what was done to us was the same as what you were about to do to two innocent people. If you truly value her life and mine, you'll go back to Stillwater and leave us be!"

As the Shadows turn their heads sharply to one another in lieu of fighting, a dangerous thought flies by Todo's way. Without a moment's hesitation he hisses his displeasure and refusal to Kara, but of course his brother is already releasing them from the scarf's grasp. Something in the violet Shadow's speech roused a foolishly noble part of his brother's spirit.

"Rust red," Kara details, staring down the Shadows who keep their eyes trained on the detracting scarf as it gently floats through the air back to Todo.

"The ghostlight I saw on Reika was rust red and not her own. Her pale green light was still there the last time I saw her, right before I was fatally injured. She may still be alive, there's time yet to end the possession if you leave now. Please. None of us had anything to do with the demise of Hashimoto the elder and their unit."

Only a few tense moments pass until the air is disturbed by the violet Shadow's rancorous cursing. Beside them the green Shadow snaps their book shut, dispelling their light in a shower of green sparks, releasing everyone before tossing their hood back.

A jarring sense of déjà vu sends Kara drifting sideways into Todo as they all come face to face with yet another lookalike who contemplates both brothers with a somber expression.

The tired man before them looks just as Oso did while awake, bearing dark circles under his green eyes as well as a certain sort of wary battle-readiness in his stance. Both Todo and Kara glance at the man's head, but find no traces of green light 'horns.' Their check doesn't escape the man's notice and his eyes narrow, but his sharply downturned mouth betrays worry rather than suspicion. Casting a cursory look to his raging companion, the man sighs and shakes his head before eyeing them up and down, assessing their condition like a guardian would. After judging them to be free of any outside influence, his tense demeanor shifts into one of dismay.

"We're about a day away from Stillwater this far into the swamp. Taking into account the day of Hashimoto's funeral, Kara's funeral, and the day it took to get us here... The chances are low, very low, that we could make it back in time to help Reika in any way. If what you're saying is true, then we're already in a world of trouble and rushing back wouldn't help matters. We came all this way to find the necromancer... To think that they've been inside the city since day one. Dammit..."

Turning to place a hand on his companion's shoulder, he quietly murmurs with defeat, "Ichi... I'm sorry. I'm so sorry. But we need to decide how to move on from this. What are we going to do now? If the necromancer has already infiltrated Stillwater and is possessing the Sword Arm..." He trails off, conceding to some sort of inevitable loss before his features harden and he resolutely suggests, "We're already here. We can put a stop to things before they have a chance to march the Shadows into Wightlight."

The green Shadow's words rattle both Todo and Kara, but the other Shadow, 'Ichi,' reacts first, retracting their violet claws and shoving their hood back to give their partner a glare that could ignite wet kindling. Impossibly, the face Ichi bears is another mirror image of theirs, and Kara finds himself reaching for his brother's hand at the same time Todo reaches for his. A pair of violet colored, thorny horns are present atop his head almost in the shape of a halo, far larger than their own but smaller than Oso's had been. Unnoticed by everyone, Jyushi stays crouched over the red mage as wisps of cherry red light solidify into two small curved horns, each one made of two twining branches.

Rounding on his own partner, Ichi bitterly snarls, "Fuck! So that's it? The Hashimoto line has ended and you want me to just move on?"

Sarcasm heavily coats his words as he shoves the other man back a step and jeers, "And what about you, ehhh? Here they are, Choro, forever altered, but at least your charges are still alive. We can't send them back to Stillwater looking like this, do you wanna tell them to just fuck off to the other half of the world? If this shit blows up, it blows up for everyone, and that'll be it, there won't be anyone left anywhere! You're asking me what now? What now?! I don't know, I don't fucking know. Give me a minute or two to have it sink in that I've failed my job after cen—"

Slapping his hand over Ichi's mouth, Choro shakes his head with a grimace and mouths out, Don't. Ichi likewise slaps the hand away and looks about ready to throw a punch before he thinks better of it, keeping his balled up fists at his sides.

Not about to go without answers, Todo shouts, "Hey! Did he seriously just call you Choro, as in the Choro, our guardian's former Shield Arm? Aren't you supposed to be dead? And what do you mean the necromancer is possessing the Sword Arm?That's insane, it's impossible! How can no one in an entire city of ghost hunters not know their Sword Arm is being possessed?" He demands to know, one hand tightly gripping Kara's, the other on his holstered derringer. In the short interim during the Shadow's squabble, the two have placed themselves in front of Oso and Jyushi.

Working in tandem, Kara digs for information as well, asking, "And what do you two know of the foul growth that is thriving in Wightlight? What is there to stop? Why were we never told of the wraiths and the rot they bring? The Shadows cannot afford to march blindly into this putrid swamp!"

Struggling to keep the fear for his guardian's safety from overtaking him, Kara focuses on Choro's guarded expression, but the man betrays only concern aimed at them both as he glances at their clasped hands and follows the shadowy arm up to Kara's blue facial features. He stares sadly at the only part of Kara, besides his fingertips, to shine with concentrated electric blue light, as if he personally failed the ghost somehow.

Behind Choro, the anger in Ichi's face slowly drains away as he regards the two brothers before them with something that resembles pity. Nudging Choro in the side with his elbow, Ichi wearily advises, "You might as well explain before we go, not like an hour will make a difference anymore, tch. I'll leave it up to you since you probably have a lot of personal shit to say to them. Do you want to talk to them alone? I can watch over the other two." He glances past them and nods towards Jyushi, who looks startled at finally being addressed.

"Did you guys multiply or am I hallucinating?" A voice from behind the batter groans.

All attention, much to Jyushi's worry, is drawn to the red mage as he yawns and fondly pats the root he's leaning on.

"Didn't I tell you to wake me up once we got here? Ah well, whatever, at least you all made it and I didn't wake up out of my body..."

Standing and scrubbing his eyes, Oso releases a deep sigh from his chest before leveling a rather piercing look at Ichi, mouth quirked up into a tilted grin.

"...Hey you. You're here for the same reason I am, aren't you? I wonder, how much do you know about what's goin' on here? Lemme tell you though, before you go starting any shit, let's head inside so we can sort out the kids and get down to business, yeah? And yes, before you ask, I'm pretty sure we're around the same age, if you get what I'm saying."

Hopelessly lost, Todo, Kara, and Jyushi all stare as the twin Shadows react poorly, Choro snapping his book open with a hand readied over it as Ichi throws an arm over Choro to defend him.

"What the fuck are you then, freak? Do you have something to do with what happened to them?" Ichi accuses, jerking his head towards the brothers.

Rolling his eyes, Oso lazily motions to everyone to follow him, saying only, "Inside," before turning his back to them, heedless of the double threat behind him as he walks around the perimeter of the grove, searching for something among the giant roots.

Baffled and with no other choice, Jyushi quickly follows Oso to guard his back and the haunting pair trail closely behind him to guard his, exchanging questions and worries through their bond as Kara keeps his sight locked onto their two new additions, staring unabashedly.

Notably, Choro hasn't withdrawn his book, an unheard of choice for a focus but one that has been proven to be effective. Kara had never known the former Shield Arm to wield such a thing, but this man certainly fits his description in every other way, what with his identical face and green eyes. How many other same-faced people could they possibly meet anyway?

Sticking together, much like Todo and himself, Kara watches as the duo follows a few paces behind them, looking to each other as if communicating without words. Todo poses the question first, and Kara narrows his eyes and observes them a little more closely before answering yes, they do appear to share some sort of link. Amongst all the other oddities they've seen so far, it wouldn't be a stretch to assume some sort of bond that reaches beyond kinship exists between the two Shadows.

As he keeps an eye on them, Kara easily drifts behind Todo, as if he were a balloon tethered to his brother. He can feel it, almost, a physical tug at his hands that he can choose to grab hold of to return to Todo or slacken if he wished to float away. The sensation seems to go only one way, but Todo informs him that he can sense where Kara is without needing to see him. They'll never be able to separate from each other without knowing where the other has gone. While Todo feels reassured in the knowledge, Kara can only wonder why his brother isn't a little more worried about the lack of privacy in both the physical and mental sense of their new bond.

The answer that comes to him is simple, Todo doesn't mind it at all.

But why, Kara thinks to ask, but all he gets back is a rush of cold pain, like having ice water poured into his chest before he's harshly cut off from the sensation as his little brother shuts down whatever else he was about to think of.

Reluctantly, Kara drops the issue but in retaliation his thoughts become distinctly yellow and honey scented. Todo shies away from Kara's push to reconcile with the exorcist but he pointedly shows Todo an image of the two Shadows behind them, Ichi clearly irritated and Choro with his open book pressed to his chest, remaining lightless for now. Their situation being what it is grants them no time for procrastination, and Kara knows for a fact that Todo felt regret when he thought he was about to watch his friend be killed right beside him.

Flying away from Todo, one end of his scarf lightly smacks Kara in the face with its bright blue hand as Todo mentally projects out feelings equivalent to the words Enough already, I'll do it.

Too smug to take much stock in the stares he and his scarf are receiving from the Shadows, Kara shoos the hand back to drape itself over Todo's shoulder as he sets his pace to walk side by side with the exorcist.

Tensing as he notices Todo beside him, Jyushi nearly stumbles into a waist high gnarled root, but he recovers and smiles sheepishly, saying nothing however, waiting for Todo to speak first. Eventually, Todo finds the words he wants to say to the exorcist while idly scanning the dark ground, devoid of all life except for more gray roots. The fresh smell of the black soil becomes calming.

"...How did you even find us in the swamp, Jyushi? Are you crazy or what? Well, no, I think I already know the answer to that. You did come down from the bluffs just to try to help me. Help us. Only a madman would try to change Stillwater after like, five centuries of ass backwards idiocy."

"You're right." Jyushi says with another one of his many multifaceted smiles, this one bittersweet.

Not expecting such a blunt agreement, Todo's mouth turns down in shame and he hurries to amend, "I didn't mean—"

"It's okay! I'm used to it, to that sort of thing. People back home called me crazy too, for wanting to come here at all. And they thought I made crazy choices, back when I was still training to be an exorcist and a specialist Haunt Bonder. But they were all wrong in the end, I'm just crazy good at knowing who will pair up well, and all the people I've helped have gone on to be really successful! But you know what? I don't care all that much about that part, it's just a nice bonus. What I really like the most is when I can do something to make people happy again. It's the best part of what I do. That's why I came here in the first place, because you seemed like you needed the most help in the world."

Todo's mouth goes dry and he stays silent, fully aware that so far he's been nothing but awful to his friend since their very first meeting in person, and in a death trap of all places to make matters worse. As the corners of his eyes prickle, he knows he shouldn't cry at the slightest tap to his ego, having weathered far harsher dealings with the Shadows of Stillwater, but Jyushi is one of the very few real friends he's had in his life. His older brother doesn't count.

Kara's immediate prod through their link asserting that he most certainly does count nearly brings a smile to Todo's face, but Jyushi interrupts his thoughts after he's gone quiet for too long and unintentionally burdens him with watery eyes as he speaks.

"I'm not mad at you, Todo. I just wish I got here sooner or maybe I wish I didn't rush into the city after all the stuff you warned me about. I should have waited outside for you to come to me, or I should have waited for you once I got arrested. Maybe everything really is my fault..."

Todo vehemently shakes his head but Jyushi just shrugs it off and smiles more sincerely, moving on.

"I can't change any of that now, but I promised to take you and Kara to Doomridge. Remember all the places I wanted to show you? All the people I told you about? I think you two would really like it there, and there are lots of other Haunting pairs so you'll fit in real fast, even with how Kara looks. They'll accept him as quickly as I have especially since he's a crafter, I'm a hundred percent sure of it! And after whatever is going on here is over, since you definitely can't stay in Stillwater, I'll take you guys home with me. Until then I'll stick with you both, and afterwards we'll go back together, because a promise is a promise."

A snort from the man eavesdropping on them ruins the moment for Todo, who glares in the direction of the red mage as he comes to a halt.

Without needing to look behind him and continuing to keep watch over the two Shadows, Kara can tell his brother has clasped hands with the exorcist in a show of solidarity, renewing whatever strange friendship his brother secretly forged with the batter. Sensing his slight irritation at having been out of the loop, Todo silently apologizes for years worth of secrets kept between them, and Kara immediately brightens up again, needing very little in the way of reassurance this time.

In front of them, Oso leads the group down a narrow path between gray roots thicker than his body, commenting with a guffaw, "Wow, how old are you again? Are you really Choro's age? Don't actually answer that, I already know." Kara can hear the smirk in his drawling voice as Oso continues after laughing to himself over his own inside joke.

"While your speech was pretty lame, going back to Doomridge would be a good idea, normally. That place has been around for as long as Brightwater has, and judging by Mr. Sentimental over here they've been doing miles better overall with ghost-human relations. Around five hundred years of cohabitation by now, right? Congratulations, congratulations, ahaha! Your founder must have been a pretty smart guy, so forward thinking, wouldn't you say so?"

Jyushi opens his mouth to speak but is beaten to it by Choro, who spares a glance at Kara before stepping in much more closely, shooting off a terse inquiry.

"And how exactly do you know how old I am? I think I'd remember seeing your face in Stillwater." He motions to his own with an agitated frown.

A short silence passes as they walk further down the hidden path within the roots, which arch higher overhead, creating the beginnings of a spiral-walled tunnel as the roots weave closer and closer to one another, blocking out natural light. Silently Kara bids farewell to the oddly colorless twinkling mist that blocks the view of the sky over the massive trees.

Oso is leading them under the grove and into a hollow space beneath the tree trunks. The black soil makes it difficult to discern where the ground is, but the growing darkness allows for Todo's augments and scarf to shine brighter as well as for the blue parts of Kara's body to appear more distinct. Oso's horns seem to regain their original stature before their very eyes as he ducks underneath a twisted root, now raised just above their heads. Kara notices that the electric blue ribbons at the Shadows' arms shed no light, however.

"I never liked hanging around Stillwater, or this fucking swamp. Man, they give me the worst sort of headache like you wouldn't believe! And it takes too long to sort everything out, you have no idea how confusing it gets... Shit's quieter by the lichwood though." Oso rambles, confidently striding into the dark tunnel without looking back.

The rest of the group looks at one another, united in questioning the oddity that is the red mage, uneasy as Oso's cherry red horns bob in the gloom and suddenly disappear, as if he's just plummeted into the earth. They rush to follow him, ducking into the tunnel of twisting graywood that's barely large enough to stand in. The steep incline and the uneven ground make it difficult to walk without tripping over roots in the dark, but Kara has no trouble illuminating the way for at least Todo with the light from his scarf, directing it like a shimmering blue and pink striped snake hovering over the ground.

After only moments of silent yet hurried stumbling they quickly catch up to Oso, finding him quietly waiting for them with his back turned, standing still and holding a small red flame in his palm. It barely does anything to push back the encroaching dark.

To Kara and Todo it seems unnatural, almost as if the darkness in the tunnel is actively nipping at the edges of their sources of light. Todo quickly asks if Kara is alright, sending his worry down their link, but Kara responds that the only discomfort he feels is from how perturbed he is, the same as everyone else.

Directly behind Kara, Choro's voice grouses out, "You never answered me! And don't just run off like that. Where the hell are you leading us, you lunatic..."

Oso turns his head to glance behind him, a motion that Todo can only pick up on thanks to his red horns swiveling in the heavy darkness. Walking away, he drones with evident boredom, "You're thirty-three years old, the exorcist is a year younger than you, the brothers are in their twenties, and Ichi is the only one who comes even close to my age. Do you wanna know your lifetime record for murders? Cuz I know that too. You've been a busy boy, haven't you? And you're callin' me the lunatic here? At least my death count is proportionate to my age. Ichi though, he kinda blows my record outta the water. You're a freak yourself, aren't you? I can see why the two of you paired up. Though I gotta ask... do you even know which strain you are?"

Brilliant green light floods the tunnel as pages hurriedly swirl around the group, affixing themselves to the roots, sticking onto the graywood like paper seals. Todo isn't the only one to gasp at what is suddenly revealed.

Solely skeletal forms in the roots, completely darkened by black sap, twist and twine around themselves, packed tightly together. Whereas the bodies bulging out of the trunks and branches of the graywood trees from the outside were clearly separated, the skeletons within the roots are growing out of and dividing from each other, connected in every feasible way. Not a single one lies untouched by at least one other. Shared wrists clasp hands, a single spine grows two sets of ribs, and a pair stuck together at the hip embrace one another even as Kara spots a different pair that are slowly growing apart, arms still outstretched towards their partner. Each body is positioned in such a way that they're trapped mid gesture trying to escape the wood, giving the illusion of movement in the already dizzying tunnel of spiraling roots.

The skeletons seem far more awake than their sleeping fleshed out counterparts, and Todo is supremely glad they have no facial features to read, afraid of what sort of expressions the bodies might have.

At Oso's side, right next to the hand which cups his cherry red flame, is a skeletal hand grown out of its source root like a branch. Kara swears he sees a wooden phalange twitch in the direction of the red light before Oso snuffs it out, closing his fingers over his palm.

Todo distinctly becomes aware of a low hum of noise that he slowly comes to realize has been around since they went underground. Shying away from the sides of the tunnel, he clutches both hands to the scarf that has returned to wind itself around his shoulders. As it places its hands over Todo's ears to act as makeshift ear-muffs, Kara and Jyushi closely bracket either side of him, equally disturbed.

Passing their huddled group, the two Shadows stand between them and Oso, who huffs as if he's been inconvenienced. Todo is the first to notice the sweat that's forming at the back of Choro's neck, and to that observation Kara adds his own, pointing out that the green pages light the tunnel all the way back to where they came from, in case the group must flee. But how can he continually conjure pages without bearing horns, the sign of strength Jyushi informed them of? Although the previous Shield Arm was not a mage of such tremendous reserves of light, Choro never disputed the notion that he was their guardian's former partner. Kara is hesitant to consider that this is what the man is capable of while nearly drained.

"CB4I2." Ichi announces in a nonsensical answer to Oso as violet light spills out and adds to the green in the tunnel, claws having been drawn. "Now give me a reason to go any further down this hell hole before I decide you aren't worth the trouble, freak."

Ichi shifts his body, adopting a stance Todo is highly familiar with, having watched years worth of weekly disputes between Totoko and Hashimoto Reika.

Eyeing Ichi's nearly blindingly bright claws with disinterest, Oso complains, "There you go with the name calling again! You couldn't wait to have your fit until we reached the main event? And don't insult this place, it's gonna end up saving your life, Stonebound."

Ichi's claw arm twitches at the name, but the Shadow stays his hand as Oso continues speaking conversationally, doing nothing to defend himself.

"So CB4I2, really? Strain two? I'm surprised you know your own designation, and you kept your original name as well? Was it always Ichi? That'll help me connect some missing links on you, thanks for the info. As for me... I was never a project like you, or a manager, or a priest, or a real part of the Seminary at all. I was more on the science end of things, but they really only kept me around as a tracking device. For me, everything started and ended the day I joined the search team that would eventually find the first chunk of CB remains."

"Ichi no!" Choro shouts but the man has already leapt forward like a wild feline, tackling an unresisting Oso to the ground.

Todo draws his derringer with an expert's speed but Choro's pages fly away from the tunnel walls as fast as light, forming a partial wall between them. He intentionally leaves clear gaps to show he doesn't want to fight them or block them entirely from view, but the wall of light is still comprised of enough pages to restrain them all at a moment's notice.

In response Kara settles himself eerily behind Todo like the floating specter he is, arms wrapped around him in a possessive manner. Resting his head on one of Todo's shoulders so he can face Choro directly, Kara blankly stares him down with the brightest light of his body, the two swirling epicenters of his being. In his bottomless eyes there is a storm of electric blue that Choro cannot stand to look directly into.

As the Shadow flinches, Todo pointedly keeps his derringer up and readjusts his aim, ready to shoot through a gap in the wall if he absolutely must. His scarf begins to unravel itself from around him but otherwise stays close, though both he and Kara know that it can move just as fast as Choro's conjured pages to slice through the slips of paper if need be.

Jyushi is the only one who hasn't drawn his bat or shown his light, but he walks right up to the green barrier and motions for Choro to close his book, wordlessly pleading with him to allow them through before Ichi can harm the red mage. Beyond the incomplete wall of light, Ichi's voice travels down to them as he screams his pent-up wrath.

"This is all your fault! Everything, everything that's gone wrong since then, everything that's permanently fucked now can be traced back to you! You should already be dead, I should kill you right now you scum! You're lower than shit, lower than the fucking wraiths that have been drowning people in this filth for centuries! Without you they would have never existed, without you Wraithrot would have never happened!"

A laugh, the sound of a man unhinged, interrupts Ichi before he even finishes yelling and the trio behind the glowing jade green sheets hear a fist collide with a face. The mad laughter is interrupted by the sound of someone choking, but that too ends quickly and Oso's uneven panting becomes the only sound to be heard in the tunnel.

After the breathing evens out, an involuntary sounding laugh burbles out of Oso before he chokes it back and speaks with a heavily slurred voice.

"Tell me somethin' I haven't thought to myself every day for the past seven centuries."

Through a wide space in between pages, they see Choro's back stiffen before his head tilts down and the hand wielding his book falls limply to his side. The wall is dispelled in another shower of green sparks that fade like dying fireworks and the tunnel dims. Although the pages left on the wood remain, they look to be crinkled and curled at the edges, as if slowly being sucked up and eaten away by the roots they cling to.

Jyushi sticks close to the haunting pair and the three of them put a hold to their questions as Oso's exhausted words, spoken from his place in the dirt, only add to their immense confusion.

"We didn't know what we'd find, of course. It was only supposed to be a big dumb creation myth, something people cling to because they need shit to believe in, higher powers and all that bull. But the Seminary was strong back then, powerful. Ehhh, but I don't really need to tell you all of that do I, Ichi? You should already know firsthand. And I bet a project like you hasn't forgotten that they had loads of money too, they were the only ones crazy enough to fund such a fruitless scavenger hunt for evidence of a Celestial Body. Ah shit, excuse me, the Celestial Body."

Craning his neck to peer at the others, Oso cracks a wry smile despite bearing a split bottom lip and adds, "To you kiddies who don't know what I'm talking about, the Outerbody Seminary is the centuries old source of the cultists that live in the swamp nowadays. And by the way? The CB is real. God is real."

Throwing his head back into the dirt, Oso kicks his feet and breathes out a humorless laugh.

"God is real and we killed it. Not only that, we—"

Yanking him up to his feet by the collar, Ichi scoffs with distaste, "Don't feed them that bullshit, you'll only confuse them and they don't need to know." He shakes Oso like a cat with a mouse, growling out, "Got it? They don't need to know any of that. It's an unnecessary burden."

Staring past Ichi with a wide-eyed and mockingly innocent expression, Oso looks and speaks directly to the younger three unwitting, unnerved, and unintended members of the group.

"Knowledge is an unnecessary burden? That's one way to put it, sure. But shouldn't we let them decide on their own if they wanna know the truth? How about it kids? You too, blood sucker!" He heckles Choro. "Do you wanna have your mind blown, or in this case, rotted from the inside out? C'mon, I know it, I can see it in your faces, you're all curious aren't you? Eh, ehhh?"

Tilting his bruised face close to Ichi, who recoils immediately and shoves Oso away into the tunnel wall, he mock whispers, "I'll let you in on a secret. I did try to stop the necromancer from getting into Brightwater, but those fucking Shadows jump at the chance to kill everyone who ain't one of them. I even tracked them down all the way to the shore, but they slipped through my fingers. Almost makes me wish I never got involved to be honest, but it was worth it. You wanna know why?"

He points to Todo and Kara as his black eye visibly changes colors and heals in a matter of moments. The only evidence of his busted lip is the blood that remains on his chin, though that too disappears, flaking away into nothing.

"The pink one is a natural. Someday he's gonna be just like me, the single most cursed being in all of existence! And just so you know, our type beats yours, Stonebound. We're CB strain free."

Waving to the brothers, Oso laughs happily and for once he doesn't sound entirely mad, which only inspires further unease in everyone. Jyushi's yellow sleeved hand jerks in an aborted motion to grab the handle of the bat strapped to his back.

"Todo, Kara, and I might as well be related! I always wanted little brothers you know. Heck, everyone here was cast in the same mould, so let's make it official. I'm the oldest of course, which means you should listen to me. And you know what I think? I think you should let oniichan finally lead you into this fucking excavation site so he can teach you all how to get rid of a dead Body!"

"You're insane." Todo breathes out before holstering his derringer to point at the deranged man. "Tell me I'm not wrong, tell me he's crazy!" He stares wide-eyed at Choro, searching for answers.

Floating behind him with an arm still wrapped around his little brother and a hand on Jyushi's shoulder, pulling him close to them, Kara levels an equally expectant stare at the man who should be dead.

Laughing as neither of the two Shadows can say a word, Oso walks away and disappears into the darkness of the tunnel, leaving them with an echoing call beckoning his, "cute little brothers," to follow him. The fading sound of cheerful whistling belies the gravity of the impossible information he has just unveiled.

"...Go on ahead Ichi. I think it's time I talked to them. We'll catch up." Choro quietly sighs, running a hand across a page in his book, calling back the diminished sheets of paper from the roots. The group becomes submerged in pitch black darkness that is broken only by pink and blue light and violet horns that dip forward in a nod before silently and quickly darting off after Oso.

Kara can sense eyes on him in the dark as a gaze that must belong to Choro alights on his face. He and his scarf now shine the brightest in the tunnel, and through Todo he finally sees what everyone else does when they look upon him.

Recalling the dark waters his vessel of light was filled with, he appears as the body of someone that drifts in a sea of ink with only their face and part of their hands visible above the gentle waves. There's a faintly shifting boundary that runs along his jaw made up of darkness that is occasionally pushed back by the ghostly blue light of his face, but it never fully reveals much more of him. His body, including his neck, is a shadow, one filled with pinpricks of twinkling blue light that mimic the appearance of the night sky, creating constellations out of his own being that separate him from the rest of the persistent dark of the underground. The greatest concentration of his electric blue coloring lie in his eyes, then his fingers. The rest of his face is less vibrant and his hair is completely devoid of light, it's the only part of him that seamlessly blends into the dark.

Jyushi was right of course, he looks nothing like a normal ghost. If he were normal, his entire body would be made of the same light as his face and his fingertips would not be nearly as bright as his eyes. Upon closer inspection of his silhouette, the edges of his body are indistinct, shifting from one form to another slightly different one. He thinks he might be 'dressed' in two different outfits that his body refuses to decide on, but he can't be sure of it and it hardly matters. The last thing he ever wore was funeral attire. It'd be fitting if his appearance settled on that, but ultimately worthless seeing as there's no way to distinguish the clothing aside from his vague outline.

At his sour thoughts, his brother tries to rally him and wonders if Kara could create more items of light like his scarf. The idea of a disguise comes to mind, and he nearly snorts at the thought of crafting ghost clothes but he reigns in the absurdity as he remembers he's being watched.

"Is there any chance you could ask your... Exorcist? Friend to go on ahead?" Choro asks, deeply unenthused at the prospect of bearing his soul in front of a stranger.

"Hmm, nope. He's with us now." Todo declares with zero sympathy.

Kara can feel Jyushi's happy grin as the batter ducks shyly, attempting to escape the hand on his shoulder to silently acquiesce to Choro's demand. Made aware of his intentions, Todo refuses to let him sneak away in the dark by having his scarf wind one of its arms over Jyushi's shoulder.

To repent for his inability to escape, Jyushi exclaims, "Sorry Choro. But hey, I can light the way so we can keep going forward while you guys talk. You must be tired but I've still got a lot left in me. I'll try not to listen, promise!"

Faint yellow light begins to glow gently in the dark before it pulses down the length of Jyushi's baseball bat and becomes a lovely honey colored beacon that radiates waves of glittering light. The sight of it nearly tricks Kara into believing it could also generate heat, but he knows the light bears no warmth except for the kind granted to it by virtue of its hue.

It's the most beautiful showing of a person's light he's seen to date.

His own colored light is just like its name, electric, obnoxiously bright, and far too strong. It would only be pleasant if it were to strike and disappear like a true lightning bolt. Todo used to wonder how Kara could stand to look at it while working and often complained that he risked being blinded by the light. Kara would argue right back that his brother's own light, in the same vein as his, was similarly bright and just as flamboyant as far as colors go. Any shade of pink much less neon pink, he pointed out, was highly uncommon, much more so than his own shade of blue.

In contrast, Choro's light is softer than both of theirs, bright in a glossy way while also bearing a deeper color than anything they could create. And Ichi's, from what he's seen of it, is blinding, almost aggressive in nature and furiously vivid. It's a type of light the Shadows would adore and he uses it the way a Hashimoto would, Todo reminds him through their link.

But Oso's light...

Oso's light is almost multicolored, like a real flame. While the majority of it is a strikingly bright and heavily saturated cherry red, they've both noticed flickers of darker and lighter shades of red within, something neither of them have ever seen in anyone's light before. It's almost a bit unnerving how his light, which closely mimics natural fire, can appear more unnatural than the regular light they're used to seeing, light which refuses to explain itself through the laws of physics.

The irony of the observation is pushed to the back of their minds as Choro regards the baseball bat without amusement before nodding his acceptance of the offer and slowly shuffling forward, careful to never brush past any of the skeletal figures in the roots spiraled around them.

"...I guess I should begin by clarifying that I am the Choro that was your guardian's Shield Arm for a very brief amount of time. Long story short, I entered the deeper parts of Wightlight unprepared and was nearly drowned in the swamp. The only reason I'm still alive is because Ichi saved me, and the only reason he did that was because my light happened to be green, similar to Hashimoto's. From a distance he thought his precious Hashimoto was in danger, so he swooped in to rescue them but found only me. Luckily he wasn't about to just watch me die. Unluckily... I was fatally injured in such a way that it would take hours of excruciating pain before I'd perish. I practically fought Ichi to stop him from mercy killing me, screamed at him things that I... Well, I won't repeat it. I just wasn't done here, that's all. After all that, and as I was dying in his arms, he offered me a way to recover but he warned me that I could never go back to my old life if I took him up on it."

Slouched over with one hand in his pocket and the other hovering over his middle, Choro stops his slow forward march to consider the brothers. Jyushi ducks behind them and turns away to face the wall, but Choro has eyes for only Todo and Kara.

"You can guess what I decided on, of course. I faked my death with Ichi's help. And his claws."

His hollow gaze travels down to stop at the dirt.

"...Must have been shocking for my old friend, your guardian. The body we sent back."

Choro stays quiet for a long time, almost long enough for Kara to interrupt the silence, but he speaks with a strained, wavering voice and Kara forgets all that he was about to say.

"There were so many moments, these past years, where I very nearly broke down and just... Wanted to see them again. Tell them everything I've learned about everything. About us, what we are, where we come from. About this forsaken continent we're isolated on. But Ichi would always stop me. He had his reasons and I... I had to listen to him. We came to a compromise, however. Ichi's been living incognito in Stillwater for almost as long as the city has existed, watching over his descendants, the Hashimoto's. They were one of the founding families of Brightwater, did you know that? Stillwater's history has been purposefully muddled, but that's something that's better explained by Ichi, the old bastard."

Giving up on his avoidance of the roots, Choro leans back on the tunnel wall behind him as he's unable to stay standing. The man looks at the untitled book in his hands for a moment before continuing.

"This is probably going to sound incredibly creepy, but I found out where you lived, Kara, after you got sick. I was terribly, disgustingly, inappropriately happy that I had a chance to look after you when they dumped you on the far edge of the city, but I was also so fucking upset and angry, so sick of Stillwater's shit that they call policy. And it wasn't fair. Out of everyone, why did it have to be you to fall ill? Before my faked death, I never had time to get to know either of you, my best friend's children. I never made the time. And after, I thought I'd never get the chance. It was horribly ironic that your illness let me get as close to you as Ichi would allow. I was practically your next door neighbor, though I never let you see me."

He hides his face behind the book, breathes in deeply, and exhales a self deprecating laugh.

"I should probably drop all pretenses of not being a stalker, because that's essentially what I was from the moment they forcibly moved you into that tiny cabin. I wanted so badly to go over to you and... But I literally couldn't. Ichi wouldn't let me, though I think I was wearing him down with my constant nagging. We had one hell of a back-up plan that we were going to offer you, once your condition deteriorated to Ichi's fucked up standard of severity. It was only ever meant to be an absolute last resort, but Ichi caught wind of Todo's plan and we both wanted you to succeed. The bluffs would have been a good place to escape to..."

He slowly lowers the book and Kara is mildly shocked to see tears running down Choro's face. Out of nowhere, he chokes out, "I'm sorry."

He shakes his head and slides down to sit on the ground, book dropping from his limp hands.

"I know I saw something I shouldn't have. I know I spied on you during your most private moments. It's unforgivable and I'm sorry, but I have to tell you. I watched you each and every time you'd sit out on your porch. Not even Ichi could or would have stopped me if I saw you push yourself off the edge. I want you to know that I would have dove in after you in an instant! You should have never had to even think for a moment that... That was the your only option. It's obscene, what Stillwater does, it's downright evil, I can't believe...!"

Clutching his head in his hands, Choro breaks down and cries, "I can't believe I was a part of it! I drowned so many people but none of them were my friends or my family so it never hurt me. The only thing I felt was a hideous sense of self-righteousness for doing my duty, that's how normal it was to me, like following standard procedure, it was just a service that had to be done to protect people, to keep the city safe. But that's not what it is at all, there's nothing righteous about it, it's just a twisted tradition we have to cull anyone whose life becomes too inconvenient to preserve... It took the second born of my best friend developing a god damn terminal illness to make me understand! Before Ichi, I was nothing but an unfeeling sycophant, a career ladder climber at damn well near the top of Stillwater's chain of command. I think I wanted to punish myself by being close to you, so close yet never allowed to show myself, and it's sick that I couldn't even look after you without an ulterior self-serving motive, sick that I was still trying to make myself feel better that way. Thinking that the pain would give me absolution..."

Words break down into gross uncontrollable sobbing and Kara honestly couldn't care less.

Logically, he knows he should be reeling from the knowledge that someone was watching him as he contemplated his own suicide on the days where he felt his worst, but all he feels now is a distant emptiness. Choro's words are drops of water in a bucket with a rusted open bottom. Now that he's a ghost, or something other if he takes Jyushi's word as law, none of what the green Shadow has said truly matters anymore.

Kara wants to ask Todo for help on what he should do for the crying man, but through their link he can feel his brother's pity, contempt, and revolted understanding. The memory of old guilt brings with it empathy and sympathy, something Kara himself doesn't comprehend. Everything that happened in the past within Stillwater is irrelevant, is it not?

For a split second, Todo's eyes dart to him and he feels a double does of alienation, one stemming from his brother, the other from himself. But the feeling is swept away and disappears like smoke in the wind once his brother reaches for his hand. Kara gladly offers his but is startled when Todo grasps it and tugs him down with him to the ground. Awkwardly, Jyushi is forced to follow, still connected to Todo by the scarf that refuses to let him go. The exorcist swipes at his eyes with his long yellow sleeve while Todo shoots a distress call to Kara, asking for help as he clumsily tries to console a man several years his senior.

At that thought, it comes to his attention that Choro oddly doesn't look older than Todo.

But Kara sets the mystery aside as something to solve later, when the man in question isn't a complete mess. Choro only cries harder at Todo's brief attempt at trying to speak with him, admitting in a quiet voice, "...I know, I get it, I understand."

"I don't understand," Kara says loudly, putting a dead stop to Choro's sobs. He quickly follows up with, "Having been pulled out of Stillwater's rigorous form of training, education, and... Well, let's call it what it is, shall we? Brainwashing, I can never truly understand what it means to have sunken so far deep into the ingrained mentality of our shared society. However, being experienced as a social pariah and near hated 'enemy' to public safety, I am aware of the fervor of Stillwater's citizens to follow protocol. I cannot and will not hold it against you, dearest friend of my guardian."

Picking up Choro's discarded book and brushing the dirt off of its cover, Kara casually holds it out and unexpectedly remembers something as the ornate filigree on it shines under Jyushi's light. The memory of warmth and wonder bloom for him in his hands and he accidentally drops the book onto Choro's lap.

"...Heh, I had always assumed they were from Todo." Kara drifts closely to the green Shadow whose face suddenly reddens at something other than distress.

Body effortlessly hovering over the ground and angled in a way he could never achieve while solid, Kara easily comes face to face with the man as he surmises, "But it must have been you. The books with these sort of trappings," he taps at the gilded cover of the untitled book, "they were from you, weren't they? In the beginning they were adventure novels, but later they became books on mage craft. I'd always find a bookmark in my color hidden somewhere between the spine of the book and the pages. It had seemed like something my brother would do, so I never questioned it when another book would appear at my window. My, you're a veritable reverse thief, invading my home like that." He places a hand over Choro's shoulder to assure the man knows it's a joke.

Choro's shoulders hitch regardless but he doesn't break out into tears.

"The guard I set up around Kara's place was completely worthless, they never caught wind of you." Todo complains, seating himself more comfortably at Choro's side. Beside him Jyushi takes a seat too, a twitching smile plastered onto his face as he no doubt still feels like he's imposing on an incredibly personal conversation.

"But it took me years to set that up. Are you saying... You protected my brother since the day he was isolated at the edge of the city?" Todo asks, looking directly at Choro as the man clutches his book in a white knuckled grip before stiffly nodding.

Groaning into his hands, Todo lets loose a few mirthless chuckles.

"...Oh god. So all the things I did, or at least a good chunk of it. Was all. For nothing. Kara already had someone like you guarding him and... Ugh, we're both idiots. Guess that makes us the same. The product of Stillwater brand stupidity." Lifting his face from his hands, Todo growls out, "I have a lot of questions for that damn Ichi. We could have known about each other sooner, it didn't have to be like this. It would have saved us all a lot of pain. Why would he force you to keep your distance? Why didn't you ever just... Show yourself to Kara at least?" He stares at Choro, uncomprehending.

Hunching over himself under the pressure of Todo's searching gaze, Choro murmurs, "Ichi is over six hundred years old, paranoid as hell, and was fighting a secret war all alone until I forced my way into his life. The only two things he cares about are destroying Wightlight itself and the Hashimoto family. It's shocking that he didn't march us back to Stillwater the moment you told us about Reika..."

Choro suddenly straightens out and anxiously looks between Todo and Kara.

"There's more I need to say, things you need to know about what's going on in Stillwater. Hell, so much has happened in just a couple days..."

Cracking open his book and staring down at the blank pages as if there are words written on them that only he can see, Choro begins his recounting of events, uninterrupted as Todo gives him his full attention and Kara sinks a little closer to the ground, remaining directly in front of the Shadows. Jyushi, unable to help himself, scoots closer and completes the circle of unlikely companions within the dim tunnel of spiraling roots and intertwined skeletal figures.

"But before I tell you everything from the beginning, starting from the day of Hashimoto the elder's funeral, you should know why Ichi was so pissed earlier, why it actually wouldn't be... prudent to head back to Stillwater even to attempt to expose the necromancer."

Steeling himself, Choro stares up at them and reveals, "Your guardian stepped down as the Sword Arm on the day of Kara's funeral. And Hashimoto Reika... was immediately chosen as their replacement."

Chapter Text

Guilty relief fills Todo's lungs as he sucks in a breath at Choro's 'good' news. Although he bears no true ill will towards Reika despite her rivalry with his childhood friend Totoko, there's no competition in his mind as to who he actually cares about in life. His guardian will forever be the second most important person to him, both for preserving Kara's life and for masterfully keeping Stillwater in check for as long as they did. No one person could change every foul ideology of the city's citizens, but they had done a damn good job at damage control, quelling the fervor of patriotic zealots while doing their best to keep as many people alive as possible.

But apparently even Akatsuka had a limit to how much they could bear.

"Why did they resign? Was my death the only deciding factor?" Kara inquires, far less pained than his younger brother at the news.

Due to his illness and the inability to shy away from the inevitable, it had always been at the forefront of his mind that all things must end. Silently, Kara shares his positive opinion on their resignation with Todo, explaining that he long ago suspected their guardian had overstayed their welcome as the Sword Arm. At the prickling sensation of his brother's disbelief traveling through their bond like static shock, he further divulges that in his darker and more cynical moments he'd contemplate the likelihood of a violent coup ending with the death of their little family of three.

Covering pursed lips behind his scarf, Todo hides his unease at such a grim scenario as Choro keeps his head bowed towards the open book. Jyushi's warm colored light casts deep shadows on his face, making him appear older, or perhaps his correct age seeing as the man looks a decade younger than he should. Then again, even Jyushi looks unusually young for a man supposedly in his thirties.

"Before I answer that, exactly how sure are the two of you that Reika is being possessed by a necromancer? The story she, or they told played a large part in instating several new... Incredible changes to Stillwater society. There's been a massive upheaval of numerous backwards practices, so I'm struggling to believe a necromancer would be behind the political game Reika is playing." Confusion and the barest hints of hope glimmer in Choro's red rimmed eyes as they reflect Jyushi's glittering light.

The batter himself hesitantly speaks up, asking for clarification on the matter with hunched shoulders, hoping that he's not about to make an enemy out of his friend again.

"You definitely think she's being possessed, right? Possessed by a ghost? I've never heard of a ghost necromancer, or um, a necromancer that is also a ghost. I always thought necromancers had to be humans who still had their bodies. At least that's what all the old stories described them as, even up in Doomridge. If someone with that kind of power could potentially exist forever as a ghost... It's too scary!"

Neon pink eyes land on Jyushi without casting judgement and Todo nods in understanding.

"It's roughly the same as Stillwater then. For us, all the stories of necromancers portrayed them as cursed humans, born traitors to the cause. But historical facts on them are rare to come by, any real necromancers were probably executed without a trial the moment they were exposed, dealt with the Shadow's way to make sure they would never have a chance to linger as a ghost. What I personally know about them is limited to what they can do, not what they are. Then again, it's not like I had time to be a book worm and the well in Stillwater only has information that's available to the general public. If there were ever any information on necromancers that includes more that just details on how to kill them, they'd be on paper and hidden inside some old hunter's walls. It'd be too dangerous to have that sort of thing laying around, even accidentally coming across that kind of stuff is liable to get a person 'disappeared.' Either that or... If neither our guardian or Choro know anything despite being the former Sword and Shield, it might be information known only to the top rung of the Darkest Shadow's inner circle. I could never associate with them because Hashimoto the elder and their company were out to get me, like it was a crime to be related to Kara, have average light, and use an uncommon focus! Pricks..."

Flinching, Choro warns, "Don't shit talk the Hashimoto's in front of Ichi, especially not the dead ones. He's not completely oblivious to how ruthless they are but he'd do anything to keep them alive, and their attitude is something he approves of. In other words, their vicious disposition has preserved them and he came to terms with it a long time ago. But Ichi himself is different, I swear my life on it! He saved me after all... He could have betrayed me the moment I let my guard down as I was already dying, but he didn't. And the nature of our bond is... Well, it's complicated. One thing at a time."

Eyes narrowed with distaste, Todo scoffs but holds back any ill remarks he has for Ichi, knowing full well the cruel advantages of being heartless. Although the thought brings with it the sting of shame, he can't fault anyone without being a hypocrite. Not out loud at least.

In front of him, Kara indulges in exploiting his ghostly nature to float in the air as if lying on his back. While outwardly flippant, he affirms to Todo that he cares not one bit about what unsavory acts his darling brother has been a part of in the past. Stormy bright eyes from an upside down face lock onto pink ones and his gaze insists that he will always protect Todo above all else, no matter who or what may stand in his way.

The sudden wave of cold, heartless certainty is so unlike the genial brother that he is used to dealing with that Todo is startled into grasping his scarf by its hands. A jagged grin appears on Kara's blue features as the ghost is amused and pleased at his brother's instinctual reaction. He should always rely on the guardian Kara crafted and created for him.

Slowly turning his head, he stares at Choro next while he keeps his body adrift in the air like a corpse floating face-up in the sea. The man should be familiar with such a pose.

"Getting back to the matter at hand, I'm positive Reika was possessed by a necromancer. Her guard was comprised of wights, which then became ghouls after Todo and one of our companions fought them and eliminated the ghosts within. She even actively commanded one of our fallen, turned him into a wight right in front of us, trapped his ghost within his own corpse. She threatened, no, promised to do the same to me, and with the arrogance of a being who feels assured of their own victory, she revealed her plan to use my death as a means to rally Stillwater to war. There is no doubt she was being possessed by a necromancer. I spied an alien light upon her head as I was dying..."

Unable to look directly at Kara, Choro angles his head down and back to his book as his pale face shows signs of minor tremors. Kara almost laughs at his uneasiness at the mere mention of his demise, but he rights his posture instead and places a hand at the man's shoulder, nearly at his neck. Choro's eye twitches but the rest of him goes deathly still.

"Be at ease. Am I unnerving or is it the dire situation that has you upset, friend? Or should I say brother, as Oso is wont to do? You'll have to excuse my behavior, I haven't been able to enjoy this much freedom of movement in years! Being this way... Heh, feeling weightless is liberating! The pain is gone..." He sighs and the sound is much louder than it should be, almost musical.

Stroking Choro's cheek as Jyushi and Todo stare wide-eyed at the ghost, Kara's voice rings through the air, attaining a multilayered pitch a human could never imitate.

"Being freed from the constant pain, the bright hands of death that wrapped around my neck, squeezing until my vision would swim... Escaping what I thought was an assured fate of a life half-lived, of projects left unfinished, of time left unspent with my beloved little brother... This existence is euphoric. Do you understand? Can you understand? Can any of you understand what this means to me?"

"...Niisan?" Todo's quiet, wavering, human voice breaks through the airy and clear reverberating ring.

The twinkling constellations within Kara's form now shift and swirl like spinning galaxies as the ghost himself stares ahead into nothing with blazing eyes of electric blue. Grabbing Kara's wrist Todo reels his brother to him like a balloon, anchoring him with arms wrapped around Kara's torso, his chest kept flat against Kara's back. Frightened at the bond that has turned to an ethereal rope made of wisps of smoke, Todo desperately seeks guidance from Jyushi, the expert haunt bonder.

Meeting Todo's distraught eyes Jyushi quickly shuffles forward, leaning in as close as he can without coming into contact with the ghost, frowning down at the feverish light. In his periphery he spies Choro curled up with a badly trembling hand over his face where Kara touched him.

"It's okay Todo, you have to stay calm. This happens a lot with people like Kara, people who suffered for a long time and people who died very suddenly. The two of you are bound together, you only have to focus on it and pull him back to you." Jyushi firmly instructs with the voice of a man in his element.

"I can't!" Todo cries, "It's fading like smoke, there's nothing to hold onto! Niisan, please..." He begs and tightens his physical grip on his brother, believing it's the only thing he can do.

Barking out Todo's name, Jyushi gives his orders loud and clear, demanding to be heard.

"Todo! He can't hear or feel you like this, the only real connection between the two of you exists entirely in the bond. You have to use it to communicate with him. Be flexible! If it feels like smoke, imagine yourself as a glass ball and trap the smoke inside. These are the sort of things you need to learn how to do! Some ghosts aren't tethered as tightly as others to this world and Kara is one of those kinds of people, he's going to need a lot of your help! I know you feel like you need him, but you're the one who has to anchor him down, not the other way around."

For once Jyushi isn't smiling at all and he seems to regret his choice of words, but Todo is a former Shadow and the hardly harsh reprimand breaks through to him more than gentle reassurances ever could. Concentrating his efforts on following Jyushi's directions, he immediately feels a difference and the bond comes to resemble something solid the moment he convinces himself it can be grasped.

Once the swirling light of Kara's body begins to slow, Jyushi kneels beside Choro, gently prying the man's hand away from his face.

"...What happened?" Todo asks as an identical inquiry comes to him in the form of a weak mist against his face. Even the barest flicker of a thought from Kara is enough to calm him.

"I think he was burned, but it's already fading so I can't tell. It looks gross but not too bad..." Jyushi observes as he glances between Choro and Todo, unsure who to question first. He settles for Todo as Choro looks devastated over something he can't begin to guess at.

"What does the bond between you two feel like?"

"Ah? I guess... It's usually electric or like water, but sometimes it feels like thread or smoke." Todo explains, feeling silly at having to describe it out loud and nervous at the thought that he's just given the wrong answers to a test. In his arms, the blue of Kara's dark body returns to its usual twinkle but his eyes remain brighter than normal, light spilling out beyond the confines of their sockets.

"Electrical burn then." The exorcist determines as he reconsiders Choro's face with deep concern, but he receives a quiet reassurance as the Shadow leans away.

"I'm fine. Just shocked in more ways than one."

Jyushi laughs at Choro's unintentional joke but covers it up by clearing his throat as the Shadow's expression remains forlorn.

Sharing a look with Todo, who only shrugs in response, Jyushi defaults to smiling, albeit nervously.

"Well, at least you're okay Choro. But how is it even possible? First Oso and now you... What's with that? Haunting pairs can heal quickly too, but not that fast. It'd take a bonded pair decades to see that kind of recovery speed!"

"What do you mean? Do the effects of the bond become stronger over time? What about with me and Kara?" Todo asks as he reluctantly unwinds his arms from his brother and watches him gently drift upwards, fortunately stopping on his own before he's out of Todo's reach. Kara blinks and then closes his eyes, although the action is barely discernible due to the only slight variations in brightness.

"It depends on a bunch of things. Each bond feels different for every pair, but there are some things that stay the same." Jyushi begins, running a nervous hand over his radiant focus. To Choro, he adds with a weak smile, "I guess we're about to be even."

Taking a deep breath, he sighs out a confession.

"...I used to be bound to a ghost. She was my best friend. Have you ever smelled something and tasted it too? For us, the bond was like that, it was all tastes and smells. Honey for me and flowers for her. Our light even matched, both different shades of yellow. Hers was brighter than mine, kind of like gold. Mine used to be weaker than it is now, it was pale like sunlight."

At the serious tone of Jyushi's voice and the ominous feeling that the exorcist is telling a story of great importance, Todo finds himself entranced and unable to interrupt the sudden shift in mood. Kara's eyes open, returning to their normal appearance, and he reaches for Todo's hand as he senses his brother is willing but unable to do so himself.

"It's really only because of her that I ended up being so good as a bonder. Sometimes people develop extra abilities they didn't have before. Usually it doesn't happen unless the pair has been together for a long time, at least a few years. For us, and for you guys it looks like, it happened right away. I could sniff out things beyond our bond that I really, really didn't like the smell of. Sickness and sadness, pain and anger. Unhappy things like that. And in the air, we, I could almost taste it, when someone fell. Their blood gave off this smell that the wind would carry to me. I could never ignore it, it was that strong. Like bees with flowers, we could find anyone by following that scent. Our home, my home, is called Doomridge because people are 'doomed to fall' in the mountains. The constant fog surrounding the bluffs makes falling the number one cause of death, and the number one reason why we have so many bonded pairs. People die and continue as ghosts or people get hurt real bad and need a bond to pull through."

Jyushi pauses for breath and the light emanating from the honeycomb patterned bat flickers so faintly that Todo can't be sure of what he saw.

"But that's not the only reason why people bond, some do it for the extra benefits and stronger light. Humans that want that boost will pair up with ghosts that want the ability to feel and interact more closely with the material world again. If either of them get hurt, they recover faster. If the human partner wasn't a mage before the bond, they become one. And for the ghost that gets tethered to them, they can be pulled back from death by their human anchor if they start to forget who they are."

His eyes dart to Kara, brow crinkling in worry.

"Some ghosts get overwhelmed by what they are and they burn out in a big explosion of light. Some people can't adjust to being a ghost and they fade away into nothing. I've seen plenty of others die for their own reasons too. Not everyone wants to bond even if they know they're unstable."

This time Todo is sure of it, the light from Jyushi's bat dims as the batter's hand clenches over its handle. The tunnel stays lit by a trio of bright, happy colors despite the heavy air between its four occupants. Choro looks up from his book at the change in lighting but never takes his hands off of its pages.

"You aren't the only one to bond to someone out of desperation, Todo. It happens the most among family members and friends. Once the bond is made, it can't be broken. But..."

Jyushi stares at his own light without truly seeing it and Todo watches with rising anxiety as it starts to lose its sparkling glitter.

"I messed up. I couldn't let her go even though... She fell on purpose. I found her ghost before anyone else, just by coincidence. I thought I was saving her, I thought I convinced her to live again, I thought I was helping, but the moment the bond formed, I knew I was wrong and that I'd made a mistake. A really painful mistake that would only hurt us the longer we stayed bonded together. Before the bond, I would never have been able to even guess why anyone, why she would want to die. After the bond, I couldn't ignore her deathwish. It had nothing to do with me. Nothing at all. She was tired, and I'd never felt so tired until I experienced it myself through our bond. It was like being constantly stuck in that moment when you're about to fall asleep, the part where your body wants to sleep and you're so exhausted that it's the only thing you wanna do too..."

Memories of aching, hazy, endless days sink like fog over Todo's eyes for a moment before Kara sweeps them away. Todo frowns at being on the other end of having information withheld from him, but the push and pull between them immediately halts as Jyushi continues. His voice is somber but steady.

"Even though I ended up knowing why she did it, I still couldn't fully understand. I tried so hard to take that feeling away, but it wasn't something that could be removed. Our bond was unstable at first but it evened out towards the end, once I came to terms with what we did. Out of guilt for rushing to her death, and because I found her so quickly at her most vulnerable moment, she pushed herself into making her own mistake by wanting to bond too. To say goodbye. To apologize for almost leaving me without explaining why, not that she felt like she needed to, but because it was one of the few things she wanted to do. It was enough to keep her stuck as a ghost. None of it would have happened if she hadn't suddenly thrown herself off the edge that day. If she went through with her original plan to write a note before leaving our hometown, then we would have never ended up haunting each other. I would never have found her at all... But all of it did happen and we spent barely a year together. A bond can't be broken but if one partner dies, it loops around the surviving person, connecting the end that was with their other half back to them."

Gaze drifting up and away from his honey colored light, which has dimmed significantly over the course of his tale of misfortune, Jyushi looks at the two brothers without meeting their eyes.

"We call these people Living Ghosts."

Holding out his yellow clad arm and shaking the oversized sleeve down, he laughs half-heartedly at the gasps elicited from his reveal, conceding, "I guess there's no point in hiding it anymore."

In a manner identical to the black sleeve worn on his other arm, a honeycomb pattern wraps around the uncovered limb, but its golden light emanates from within the arm itself.

"You can see the light, can't you? When you have a brush with death or when you bond with someone, which is like the same thing, you start to see creepy stuff you couldn't before..." Jyushi remarks in a grave tone.

"It's her light. I'll have it with me till I die."

Pressing the gold-light bearing hand to his sternum, Jyushi squeezes his eyes shut and stammers for the first time.

"The bond... Feels like a knot in my chest. And in my head it's a house I'm trapped in. Everything inside is in pairs, but I'm the only one there. I can't leave and no one else can get in. And the smell... The smell of her flowers never goes away, and I can taste her cooking in the air. The light that comes in through the windows is our light, hers and mine, what mine used to be. It shines through a storm that never ends, the sound of the rain from the day I found her and the day she left won't stop. The house feels alive, like I'm not alone, so I keep trying to find her but she's not there. She's never there. Even in my dreams, she's never there..."

Jyushi has a wide-eyed, crazed expression on, but his head tilts down until they can no longer see his face. Conflicted, Todo and Choro look seconds away from reaching out to him but Kara is the only one to actually move forward, floating low to ground so that he can peer up at Jyushi. The exorcist laughs at his antics but the sound is tainted by overbearing sorrow. Shaking his yellow sleeve back down, he discloses morbid details on his condition.

"Most Living Ghosts can't stand to keep going without their partner, no matter how long their bond lasted. In the same way ghosts can die without being killed, Living Ghosts can disappear, though no one has seen it happen in person. We just assume they die and leave nothing behind because we never see them again. If I had died during our bond before my friend passed away, she would have ended up like me. Sort of physical again, sort of not. There are rumors that Living Ghosts, or Full Jackets, can potentially keep on going... Forever. As long as they never fade away or get killed, they'll live on and on. A ghostmage with the benefits of a body and potentially all the abilities a human and a ghost could harness. Unbelievable right? Maybe it's better that almost all of them quietly disappear. I'm um... Kind of a weirdo, even back home, for surviving a decade on my own. I thought I was the strangest person in the world, but then I met all of you."

Kara hums in agreement before anyone can take offense at the statement. He's not wrong.

To Todo he surmises that the exorcist's tale of an ill-fated bond must be why he had such strong fears for his friend. What must it have been like to be bound to a dear friend, one who cast herself off a mountain only to survive, in a manner of speaking? To have worked together to save other fallen while confronting each other's opposing desires... Her pain would have echoed down to him through their bond, and his would have answered. For nearly a year.

All Jyushi can expect from now on is a lifetime of being haunted by someone who is no longer with him. Invisible and unseen yet still felt in a place he cannot escape from, all within his own mind. How has he not been driven to madness?

What will happened to Todo if Kara ceases to exist?

Todo squeezes his hand so tightly that Kara's certain that if he were still occupying a physical body his fingers would be creaking under the pressure. A lance of ice impales his heart, a reflection of Todo's distress at the thought, bearing a message of flat refusal at the possibility.

He will not go through that pain. And neither will Kara, Todo adds with absolute assurance, or denial.

"Hey, can I borrow that? I wanna show you guys something." Jyushi interrupts their silent exchange, pointing to the ribbon tied to the laces that run up Choro's sleeve.

Snapping out of his own ruminations, Choro considers the ribbon with a passing mournful glance, but he unties it for Jyushi nonetheless.

"I don't need it back," he murmurs despite unconsciously placing a hand over the spot where it was tied, quietly finishing his thought to explain, "There's no reason for me to wear it if Kara is alive."

At the mention of his name, Kara shakes himself free from Todo's grasp to sit just above the ground in front of Choro. He smirks at the skittish man, who tries to back away only to hit his shoulders against the tunnel walls while Jyushi grabs Todo's wrist to tie the ribbon around it.

"This is why the other name for haunting pairs exists. Some people think it's too morbid, so they call them jackets instead!" Jyushi exclaims, seemingly back to his normal self, although the light from his focus remains subdued.

Raising his wrist up, Todo displays the now faintly glowing ribbon. Considering it for a moment, he cups a hand over the cloth to cast it in shadow, confirming that it does indeed shed weak light in Kara's color. Before he can ask why, Jyushi offers a preemptive answer.

"Nobody's ever been able to figure it out, why things glow like that for pairs if the object is in either of their colors. What I do know is that when it's like this, it takes up nothing from either of you to maintain its light. You actually can't make it stop glowing, people have tried! But you can make it glow brighter with your own light if you want. You'll also have an easier time of attuning to things in either your pink or Kara's blue. Actually, maybe it'll be the same for you too Kara, since you're already attuned to a physical object. You might be able to do it again, even though ghosts don't have foci..." Jyushi trails off, staring into nothing while pondering the phenomena.

"What about your shirt?" Todo cuts in, contemplating another way to disguise Kara should the need arise, while eyeing the almost ridiculously elaborate article of clothing.

Used to seeing only black or gray his entire life and having been trained to recognize colors as either weapons or ghosts, both of which scream danger to his senses, the bright yellow cloth nearly makes him anxious at times. But it's only a shirt, Todo