Shoichi woke up reluctantly, fragments of the dream vivid in his mind for just a second before he blinked them away. There had been moonlight on a calm sea, the slightest waves making ripples in the silken silver… the air warm and still, someone’s beloved laughter and their hand in his…
He rolled over and immediately winced as the half-healed wounds on his chest and arms spread muffled pain across his skin. The dream vanished from his mind, replaced with the memories of yesterday’s battle.
The clock told him he was going to be late for school. Shoichi sat up as carefully as possible, got out of bed, and shuffled over to the bathroom. His face in the mirror was pale. The cuts were still visible, although at this point he could probably pass them off as scratches from… he didn’t know… walking into a bramble bush? Maybe?
His still-groggy brain wasn’t coming up with much. He looked at himself in the mirror for a while, not really seeing his own reflection. His whole body felt achy and exhausted, like he had flu. Maybe a consequence of over-using the shield? Finally, he shook himself and headed downstairs.
As expected, there were no signs of either of his parents. Shoichi wandered over to the refrigerator, opened it, and stared at the contents until it started beeping at him about the open door. He picked up a round pear from the fruit tray, closed the fridge, sat down at the table, and started carefully slicing the pear into segments.
It was at about that point that he realised he wasn’t going to school today. Just… no.
He made a valiant attempt to eat the pear, but he apparently had no appetite even though he’d missed dinner, so he gave up and put the pieces in the fridge for later. Tea, on the other hand, was a heavenly elixir of restoration. By the time he’d drunk his way through most of a pot of his favourite oolong, he felt vaguely human again.
Still not going to school, though. If he was going to fake a note for one day he might as well do it for two, he thought as he rinsed out the teapot and went upstairs to shower. Besides, he had a legitimate reason to stay home sick today, even if it wasn’t one he could tell his parents about.
The hot water finished the job the tea had started, waking Shoichi up and washing away some of the whole-body ache. For the first time, he looked at the injuries on his chest and arms. His stomach twisted when he saw how deep some of the gouges were. They’d healed impossibly fast, but there was no way he could pass those off as scratches if anyone saw them. He looked like he’d been in a car accident a few weeks ago and was still recovering.
Shoichi shuddered as he thought about what they must have looked like right after he was hit by the Spectres’ attack. No wonder Sol was freaking out, and Kestrel…
He’d forgotten. Or not been thinking about it, perhaps, in the aftermath of the battle. He suddenly felt like he was blushing all over, but that was probably just the hot water.
Kestrel kissed me. Satoru kissed me.
Shoichi reached carefully for the shampoo, still turning the thought around, trying to make it fit. Satoru. Kissed him. And… not in a platonic way. If you even could kiss someone on the mouth in a platonic way. But even if you could, that hadn’t been…
… he remembered how it had felt, and now he was sure he was blushing, hot water or no hot water.
Shoichi…. hadn’t actually kissed anyone before. So it wasn’t like he had any basis for comparison. But the way Satoru had looked at him, right before… like he was breaking into pieces and didn’t even know why… like Shoichi was the only person in the world and the only thing that mattered…
Shoichi carefully put the shampoo bottle back, unused, leaned against the wall and let the water spill over his head and body. He realised he was… waiting? For some sort of reaction. Shouldn’t he be shocked? Or freaked out? Or just… surprised?
But there was just the water hammering on the top of his head and the memory of being kissed, of how he wanted to grab Satoru and pull him closer, how bereft he felt when Satoru pulled away and ran…
… and the girls who had tried to date him, and how weird it had felt, and how he couldn’t make himself reciprocate even when he liked them…
… and how relieved he was when Akemi had made it clear she wasn’t interested…
… and that guy on the fencing team with the amazing arms, and the boy in his class Shoichi tried not to watch because he had the sweetest smile when he solved a maths problem, and it always distracted Shoichi too much from his own work…
… and sitting with Satoru in the library, their knees not quite touching, stealing little glances when Satoru was absorbed in a book…
Shoichi’s heart skipped suddenly as he wondered for the first time if Satoru had been doing the same thing. All at once he had a hundred questions, rising like butterflies out of his stomach and into his throat, but the most pressing was, What is he thinking right now? Does he think I’m upset?
A couple of minutes later he was back in his bedroom with a towel around his waist, hunting for his phone. He had messages from classmates wondering where he was, and one each from Akemi and Hikari, both with the subject ARE YOU OKAY??
And one from Satoru, no subject. Shoichi clicked on it with his heart in his mouth, and was simultaneously disappointed to see that the text of the email was in fact word-for-word that same question, and touched to know that Satoru was willing to break his silence to check on him.
He wanted to write back and say… something… something like, I don’t mind that you kissed me. Or, Actually I think I really like that you kissed me. Or, So wait when you asked me to get dinner with you back in school was that supposed to be a date and I didn’t even realise??
And, of course, Could you please stop with the dark and mysterious and just tell me what is going on with you and the shards?
What he actually typed was, I’m fine, everything healed quickly. And then, after agonising over word choice for so long that his hair was half-dry and sticking out at odd angles, I hope you’re all right too.
After sending it, he went to reply to Akemi and Hikari, copying them both in to save time as he explained that his parents were out, he was feeling much better but staying home from school today, and how did it go for them?
Akemi responded so fast she must have been staring at her phone waiting for him to reply. She was in so much trouble. Her mother had thrown a fit, her teachers were ready to put her in detention for life. She hated everything. She was going to run away and live proud and free as a warrior of justice who didn’t have to do homework, at least as soon as she wasn’t grounded any more.
Hikari chimed in at that point, and it turned out that she’d told her parents she fell asleep, of all things. Shoichi had to admire her poise and quick thinking. Apparently by the time she’d walked him home she’d come up with a whole story about sneaking off at lunch to have a nap and then waking up hours later and panicking when she realised how late it was. Her parents seemed to have accepted it, although they were now worried about her not getting enough sleep, so she probably wasn’t going to be able to come to the shrine for a few days.
The new message alert made Shoichi’s heart jump, but it was just Akemi replying again, wondering how Hikari came up with that stuff, because when she got home she had nothing and now her mother probably thought she was doing drugs or something. And also there was a history test this morning that she’d forgotten about, why did her life hate her.
Shoichi was smiling despite himself. He hated to break the light-hearted feeling of the conversation, but he had to ask: What about the shard-bearer?
There was a longer pause this time before Akemi replied. I took him to the hospital and left him with the first doctor I saw. I couldn’t do anything else.
It was on the news, Hikari said, while I was having breakfast. But I have to put my phone away now or I’ll get in trouble. I’ll talk to you later.
Shoichi waited a few minutes for any response from Akemi, but there was nothing. And nothing from Satoru. He hoped Akemi hadn’t had her phone confiscated. And as for Satoru… his heart jumped again and he sighed, and forced himself to put the phone away and get dressed.
It was only as he was about to make his bed that he realised the sheets were bloodstained. Not a lot, and the smudges could be passed off as dirt, but it gave him a jolt, reminded him all over again of that awful moment when the Spectres’ attack had hit. He quickly bundled up the bedding and his pyjamas, and took it all downstairs to the washing machine. By that point he felt like maybe he could have another go at breakfast, so he put something together while he was waiting for his laptop to boot up.
Hikari was right: the shard-bearer wasn’t just on the news, he was the front-page headline pretty much everywhere. Shoichi… didn’t want to read it, almost, but he couldn’t help himself. The little boy’s name was Arakawa Daisuke. He was four and a half years old, and his family lived in Kyoto, not Osaka. He’d been kidnapped after school the day before yesterday, vanishing somehow in a few seconds when no-one was looking, and there had been no witnesses or leads until just over twenty-four hours later, when he was brought into an emergency room in Osaka by a young woman who dumped him and ran.
The medics had been more concerned with treating the child, and no-one had tried to go after her at the time. There was a description attached to the article, but it was so generic that Shoichi couldn’t see any similarity to Guardian Sol. The disguise magic really did work, then, although the people in the hospital had noticed something odd about her clothes. One person described her as wearing a firefighter’s uniform, which had Shoichi bewildered, until he thought that maybe it was something about all the red and orange, and her gloves… another witness thought she had been wearing martial arts gi. No-one could agree on her age, the style or colour of her hair, or her features.
It was weird and creepy to see Akemi in the news, even though no-one else would realise it was her. And seeing the results of the Multitude’s actions in black and white was… awful. The Arakawa family were devastated and desperate, appealing for anyone with information to come forward. The doctors were baffled by Daisuke’s coma. He had two older sisters who had left him alone in the playground for just a minute while they looked at their friend’s new comic book, and one of them had tearfully told a reporter, before her parents chased the press away, that it was all her fault…
Shoichi closed the news sites, feeling sick as he remembered the moment when Astra’s energy bolt hit the shard and tore it out of the little boy. If only Demogorgon hadn’t arrived, if only they’d been able to find the shard and anchor his soul…
Shoichi checked his phone again. Still no answer from Satoru. He supposed he wasn’t likely to get one, all things considered. How was Satoru feeling today, he wondered, and the probable answer to that made his heart ache. He thought about writing another message, saying something like, It wasn’t your fault, we had to break the maze, and you thought I’d be able to save him once we had the shard, but he couldn’t bring himself to do it. It felt presumptuous, to assume he knew what Satoru was thinking…
… except he had no doubt that he did know what Satoru was thinking.
Shoichi was suddenly tired again. After a few more moments staring at the email screen, he shut his phone, went upstairs, made his bed again, and let himself flop down and stop thinking. He left the phone next to his pillow in case it chimed, but he fell asleep so quickly and soundly that he wouldn’t have heard it anyway.
He dreamed of the sea again, the moon on the waves, and a fragile sense of both joy and loss that stayed with him long after he’d forgotten the details of the dream.
By Friday, Akemi was pretty sure this was the worst week of her life. Even worse than when her dad had left, and that was saying something. All her bad test results had finally come to light. Her mother was furious. And Akemi was furious right back, in a raw, painful way that was new to her, because didn’t Izumi care about anything except school and tests and Akemi not ‘shaming’ her? She didn’t seem to think there could be any sort of reason for Akemi’s behaviour except deliberately trying to spite her, and that hurt, even though the last thing Akemi wanted was to try and explain.
But by far the worst part was that her tentative reconciliation with Hana had been blown to pieces when Akemi refused to explain why she’d run out of school in the middle of the day. And Akemi couldn’t even take refuge in anger for that, because she knew Hana was worried about her, and they’d never kept secrets from each other, and she could see the hurt she was causing by shutting herself off…
At least the Multitude had done nothing since the battle in the tunnels. Sakaki had reported that all Neikos’s haunts had collapsed. There were no signs of any new ones, and no shard-bearers for them to watch. It was a relief to have time to catch their breath, and at the same time Akemi almost wanted to get back to Celestial Guard business as soon as possible. She felt like she didn’t fit inside her life anymore. When they’d decided to meet at the shrine this evening – even though Akemi was still grounded – it had given her something to hold onto, and she’d somehow made it through the day.
As soon as she’d done her part cleaning the classroom, she grabbed her bag and headed out. She’d been having weird dreams, too. Not exactly nightmares – not like the ones she’d had before Sakaki had told her she was Guardian Sol – but dreams that left her restless and upset. She’d dream that she was arguing with someone, getting more and more angry, about duty and fairness and something she was expected to do, like a test but worse, filling her with a heavy weight of dread. It made her even snappier with her mother, which wasn’t helping defuse the situation…
Akemi almost crashed into someone on the way out of the classroom, someone who said, “Watch where you’re going, space case,” with just the right condescending tone to snap her right back into reality with a glare that felt like it ought to burn him up on the spot.
“What did you call me?”
“Whoa,” said the boy, smirking and stepping back. She recognised him then, Minako’s new boyfriend from the other class. Takaya? No, Tatsuya. “It was just a joke…”
“Jokes are funny,” Akemi snapped. “You’re just an ass.”
“Not my fault you have no sense of humour,” Tatsuya retorted with a shrug, and still with that smug look on his face, the one that said he thought he was such hot stuff. “Are you gonna move or not?”
“How about you make me,” Akemi snarled, and had the satisfaction of seeing his expression falter, just for a second, as he seemed to realise that she was way angrier than he’d thought.
Then Minako was at her side, grabbing her elbow.
“Akemi, what are you doing?” she hissed. “Knock it off!”
“You have terrible taste in boyfriends,” Akemi snapped back, and immediately felt the bubble of self-righteous anger burst when she saw the look on Minako’s face. She scowled at both of them to cover her own dismay, and stormed off, pretending not to hear Tatsuya’s, “Wow, what’s her problem?” or Minako’s clearly upset response.
Akemi fumed all the way home, especially when she had to walk past the shrine instead of going into it. She was still grounded, but her mother had to work an extra shift today. Izumi had made it clear that Akemi was to come directly home from school and that she would be checking in, but Akemi already had plans to deal with that. She dumped her school bag in her bedroom and took a series of photos of herself – not trying to hide her sour expression – in the kitchen and sitting room. She’d send them to Izumi one by one through the evening, and as long as she was back home before her mother, it should be enough to make it look like she’d stayed put.
It had been Hikari’s idea. Akemi wished she was as quick-thinking when it came to excuses. She still squirmed when she thought about how she’d fumbled for words and then sunk into silence in the face of Izumi’s anger.
She transformed before she left the apartment – also Hikari’s suggestion, to make sure no-one recognised her and mentioned it to her mother – and headed to the shrine. It was getting really hot now, as summer crept into full swing. The air was sticky and heavy, and although there were no clouds in the sky, it was beginning to look hazy with the humidity that would soon settle in for months. Akemi was glad to get under the shade of the trees in the shrine.
She was even more glad when she reached the clearing and saw the icebox with its bottles of soft drinks. Shoichi and Hikari were already sitting in the shade drinking different kinds of tea, and Shoichi didn’t even ask, as she flopped down next to them, just handed her a bottle of her favourite soda with a smile.
“Thanks,” Akemi said with feeling. “Hi, Sakaki.”
“Good evening, Sol.”
Akemi let her Guardian uniform fade back into her school clothes, and gulped the soda eagerly. For the first time in a week she felt herself relax. The clearing was quiet and peaceful, the leaf-dappled shade taking the edge off the heat. Neither Hikari nor Shoichi was the type to bombard her with questions. At some point the tent behind them had acquired a small but sturdy table, more cushions, some battery powered lamps, a small pile of manga, and a stash of paper fans. It almost felt like coming home, and more real and right than anything else had this week.
“I brought dinner,” said Shoichi after a moment, reaching into the ice-box and pulling out a plastic bag with three bento boxes in it. “Not very exciting, I’m afraid.”
“You are an angel in human form,” Akemi said with utter seriousness. Despite Shoichi’s description, the bento boxes were much fancier than anything she’d get from a convenience store, and Akemi started on hers hungrily. “How are you feeling?”
“Fine. Not even scratches left.”
Akemi looked at Hikari.
“My parents have asked me how I slept every morning this week,” Hikari said ruefully, reaching for her own bento, “but they seem to be getting over it.”
Akemi made a rueful noise. “Lucky you. Lucky Shoichi, didn’t have to explain anything. Can I trade with you?”
Shoichi ducked his head, apparently occupied with separating his chopsticks. “I think they might notice that,” he said after a moment, quietly. “Anyway,” he went on before Akemi could say anything else, “I’m glad I didn’t have to try and convince them I got in a fight at school or something.”
Akemi laughed incredulously. “A fight? You?”
“I couldn’t think of anything else,” Shoichi said with a sheepish smile. “I guess I need to work on my excuses.”
“Yeah, so do all of us,” Akemi said. She tilted her head back to look at the branches over their head. “Hey, Sakaki, you don’t have a magic spell for that, do you?”
She’d only meant it as a joke, but there was along pause before Sakaki replied, “I do not, but… Astra does have something of the sort.”
Everyone stopped eating to stare at each other, then at Hikari, who went red and put down her bento.
“What do you mean?” Shoichi said finally.
Sakaki sighed, leaves rustling in a non-existent breeze.
“Astra’s powers concern the mind, just as yours concern the soul, Luna,” she said. “She is capable of crafting a spell known as an ‘illusion seed’ to influence the minds of others. The seeds can change what people see, and remember… when you use an illusion seed, you can make them believe what you wish them to believe.”
There was a dead silence.
“That sounds really creepy,” Hikari said flatly.
“The seeds have no power to coerce,” Sakaki went on quickly, almost apologetically. “They cannot change anyone’s mind by force. But often in the fight against the Multitude, those who do not understand prefer to find some other explanation for what is happening. They will accept the illusion seed, and be happier for it than if they remembered the truth.”
“So could I… you’re saying I could make my mom forget all about the last week?” Akemi asked slowly.
“No,” said Sakaki. “You cannot undo what has been done. But if you were forced to leave your school again, you could set a seed to blossom in the minds of your classmates and teachers, and they would believe you had never left. Or if someone witnesses the Spectres, as becomes ever more likely as they grow in power, you could convince them there was some other explanation for what had occurred…”
“Gas leaks and weather balloons,” Hikari murmured. Akemi shot her a confused look. “Things that are easier to believe,” Hikari explained. “But it still seems… wrong.”
“No-one will accept the illusion if they do not wish to,” Sakaki said. “Some will reject it. Some prefer the truth. But most… do not.” Then, gently, she asked, “What did you tell your friend, Astra?”
Hikari blinked. “What do you mean?”
“Your friend, the shard-bearer who was attacked before you awakened. Did you tell him about the Spectres and the Guard?”
“No… I…. I said we were mugged….”
“And he believed you.”
Hikari had gone pale. “Yes. Are you saying I– I used my powers–”
“No,” Sakaki said, quickly and with certainty. “No, you cannot use the seeds without intending to. It requires concentration to build the illusion. But your friend accepted the lie even without the seed, did he not? He preferred to believe it. That is how the seeds function. They offer an alternative… a more palatable way to see the world for those who choose it.”
There was a long silence. Akemi bit her lip. Hikari wasn’t wrong, it was definitely creepy. But when she thought about the week she’d had…
“How would we use them?” she asked.
Again Sakaki hesitated as if she were reluctant to answer. “Astra can create the seeds and give them to you,” she said at length. “You can keep them in your medallions. If you need to leave your school or your homes, you can whisper to the seed what you need the people around you to believe, and let it take root. Just be warned that it can be defied, by those with the will to accept the harder truth.”
“Why didn’t you tell us about this before?” Shoichi asked, a sharpness in his voice that had Akemi looking at him in confusion. “If we’d known–”
“Because I did not want you to have to use them,” Sakaki said, and the sadness in the admission stopped Shoichi mid-sentence. “It is hard enough to hide your truths from the ones you love, let alone deceive them in this way. I hoped that in this time and place you would not need them, but… it has become clear that you will be obstructed even by those who mean well.”
“It still feels wrong,” Hikari said very quietly after a moment, hanging her head. “But… if it means my parents don’t worry about me…” She straighted, a determined expression on her face. “How do I make the seeds?”
“That I cannot tell you,” Sakaki answered regretfully. “Like the soul anchor, they are a power I do not have. In the past… I have seen Guardian Astra cup her hands and look into them, and a point of light has appeared. She described it as… pulling threads together with her eyes to weave on an invisible loom.”
Hikari looked so bewildered by the analogy that Akemi started laughing despite herself.
“Sakaki’s instructions are the best instructions,” she said, glancing at Shoichi, who also finally cracked a smile.
“It will come to you,” Sakaki said. “In the meantime we must hope that Ker does not move too swiftly. I sense the faint traces of two more shard-bearers in the city, but they are not yet bright enough for me to track them. So far Ker does not seem to favour Neikos’s style of establishing haunts.”
“That’s good,” Akemi said.
“Maybe, maybe not. If it means she intends to attack directly instead…”
Akemi bit her lip and glanced at Hikari, but didn’t say anything about the illusion seeds. Hikari looked worried enough without pointing out how urgently they might turn out to need the things.
“So what do we do?” Shoichi asked, looking at Akemi. It took her a moment to realise that he was asking her directly, not just throwing the question out at random. “If there aren’t any haunts to clear, we don’t know where the next shard-bearers are, and we don’t know what Ker’s going to do…”
“We wait,” Akemi said, trying to make it sound like a choice. And then, as an idea came to fruition, “And we go to Kyoto.”
The other two stared at her.
“The little boy was from Kyoto, and we think the serial killer is an Archduke,” Akemi said. “Sakaki can’t sense what’s happening out there. We need to check what’s going on. There could be more haunts, or more shard-bearers.”
“By that logic we’d need to go to every city in the country,” Shoichi objected. “Tokyo, for a start…”
“The shard-bearers will not be so far afield,” Sakaki said quietly. “Those who are not in Osaka will be nearby.”
“And besides, we know something’s happening in Kyoto,” Akemi went on. “So that’s where we start.”
After a moment of hesitation, Shoichi nodded. He seemed to debate with himself before speaking again.
“I’ve been thinking about the shard-bearers who’ve already lost their souls,” he said. “We can’t help the ones whose shards have been taken by the Multitude, but… maybe we could make some sort of deal with Kestrel to retrieve the souls from the shards he has?”
“You must do no such thing,” Sakaki said sharply before Akemi could reply. “He is not to be trusted and there can be no bargaining with him. If you have the opportunity, you must take the shards he holds. Then we will be able to return the souls.”
Shoichi’s eyes narrowed. “Why? He’s not part of the Multitude and he doesn’t want to hurt the shard-bearers…”
“If he has said he does not serve the Multitude, it is a lie,” Sakaki replied. “I doubt he cares about the bearers one way or another.” And then, as Shoichi started to retort, clearly angry, “You must listen to me in this, Luna! You most of all! Do not let him convince you he is not a threat – no matter what he claims, he is not a friend of the Guard–”
“He helped us escape,” Hikari said. “He carried the little boy out of the labyrinth.”
“But he never said he was our friend,” Akemi pointed out. “Only that he would never help the Multitude.”
“And in that, he lied,” Sakaki said firmly.
The strength of Sakaki’s conviction shook her, but so did Shoichi’s reaction to it. He’d gone very still and very pale all of a sudden. What on earth was going on? If Sakaki said Kestrel was an enemy, then Kestrel was clearly an enemy…
…. and yet, Akemi remembered: on that I swear my soul.
She’d believed him absolutely in that moment.
“Well, anyway–” she began.
“What do you mean,” Shoichi interrupted, staring at Sakaki with a tense, almost frightened expression, “me ‘most of all’?”
Akemi blinked. She hadn’t even registered that but… it was certainly an odd thing for Sakaki to say.
“I….” And Sakaki seemed suddenly very wary, very careful, as she went on, “I mean that you are… inclined to see the best in people. It speaks well of you, but it also puts you in danger… your generosity may be misplaced, your trust betrayed. That is all I meant.”
There was a moment of silence. Shoichi was still looking at Sakaki, that tense expression still on his face. Hikari glanced at him, then Akemi, clearly anxious. And Akemi thought about the way Sakaki had hidden things from them, kept secrets even as she instructed them on their Guardian duties, and something in her heart went a little cold.
I don’t believe her, she realised. I don’t believe that’s what she meant at all.
“So Shoichi’s too nice,” she said aloud – cheerful, breezy, teasing. “We knew that. Hey that reminds me, what do I owe you for the bento?”
Shoichi’s eyes went to her, confused but clearly willing to be distracted. “You don’t need to pay me back–”
“See?” Akemi scooted closer to prod him an unused set of chopsticks. “Too nice. Fine, I’ll buy next time.”
“I can take a turn too,” Hikari piped up. “There’s a really nice place by my school.”
“And how much furniture are you planning to buy, anyway?” Akemi asked, looking at the table. “Not that I’m complaining, but we could chip in–”
“It’s really okay,” Shoichi protested, “my parents give me a big allowance, and anyway it’s my birthday soon, so I’ll get money then, I might as well use it–”
“Wait, it’s your birthday?” Akemi prodded him again, already feeling the mood in the clearing relax. “When?”
“Uh… week after next.”
“Seriously? When were you going to mention that?”
Shoichi shrugged, embarrassed. “It’s not a big deal, I don’t usually–”
“Don’t you normally have a party?”
Shoichi shook his head. Akemi tried and failed to keep her dismay off her face.
“Well, you’re having one this year–” she began, only to be interrupted, to her surprise, by Hikari.
“Do you want a party?” she asked, eyes on Shoichi’s face. “You don’t have to.”
Shoichi hesitated, looked at both of them, and then suddenly smiled.
“Yes,” he said. “That would be nice.” And then just as Akemi was opening her mouth, “But not karaoke, okay?”
“… spoilsport,” Akemi muttered.
“And… just us.” Shoichi looked down at his bento as if only just remembering that it existed. “Not lots of people.”
Akemi felt like pointing out that a party usually implied more than three people, but restrained herself. Shoichi looked suddenly kind of… fragile.
“I usually do something with my parents,” he said suddenly, like it was a confession. “But they… were too busy last year. Um, and they haven’t said anything this year, and it seems like they’re busy again right now. So. That’s why I don’t have plans.”
Akemi opened her mouth, but had to shut it again when she realised she had no idea what to say. How could Shoichi’s parents be too busy for his birthday?
“What do you want to do?” Hikari asked gently.
“I really don’t know.” Shoichi looked sheepish. “What would you do?”
“Karaoke,” Akemi said. Shoichi shot her a mock-exasperated look. “Hey, you asked.”
“I went to the aquarium last year,” Hikari said. She smiled at Shoichi. “Would you like that?”
Shoichi’s face lit up. “I haven’t been there since I was little! That would be amazing.”
“Then that’s a plan!” Akemi said cheerfully. After a moment, her smile faded a little and she sighed. “Well, assuming it’s still quiet then. And we should go to Kyoto first.”
“We could always do that instead of the aquarium–” Shoichi started.
Akemi glared at him. “We are not celebrating your birthday by fighting Spectres, okay?”
… which, in hindsight, was probably a stupid thing to promise, but she wouldn’t realise that until later on. For now, it at least got a laugh out of Shoichi, and the rest of the evening was spent planning the aquarium trip. And if Shoichi went quiet and distant every so often, and Hikari occasionally lost the thread of the conversation and looked at her hands like she was trying to imagine a bright light cupped in them, well, Akemi would take that for now.
Hikari spent the first few minutes of the walk back to the station trying to remember everything she knew about looms, which… wasn’t a lot. You used them to make tapestries, didn’t you? In the end she asked Shoichi, who shook his head.
“I have no idea,” he said. “It’s something about putting the threads over and under each other, or… looping them?” He laughed, pulling a face. “Sorry. I’m about as much help as Sakaki. If it’s any comfort she wasn’t very clear about the soul anchor either.”
“How did you figure that out in the end?”
“I…” Shoichi looked slightly abashed. “Um, I’m not sure how much credit I can take for it. I sort of… put the shard under my pillow and… well, I had this weird dream and… after that I kind of knew how to do it?”
Hikari turned an incredulous look on him. Shoichi blushed.
“Okay,” Hikari said. “But I don’t have anything to put under my pillow.”
“Maybe your Guardian crest?”
“I do that anyway.” It was Hikari’s turn to blush. “Just to keep it safe, you know.” After a moment, she asked, “What was the dream about?”
“Oh, it was…” Shoichi fiddled with the strap of his bag, seeming lost in his own thoughts for a moment. “Most of it was… just dream stuff,” he said finally. “But there was a labyrinth, and I was walking along it to… focus my mind, or something–”
Hikari’s breath caught. “A labyrinth? Like– like the one in the tunnels?”
“What?” Shocihi focused on her again, blinked. “Oh, no. Not like that at all. It was… drawn on the ground. Just lines.”
They’d reached the station by this point, and since they’d both be going in different directions, they paused outside to keep talking.
“So you had to find your way through it?” Hikari asked.
“No…” Shoichi leaned against the station wall, eyes distant, a little frown on his face. It made Hikari smile. He looked so super-serious that she wanted to tickle him or something. “There was only one path. You couldn’t get lost. The point wasn’t to find your way, just to… keep walking and focus on the path, until you reached the centre. It was a kind of meditation, I think.”
“I thought the whole point of a maze was to have lots of different paths, and get lost.”
Shoichi shrugged. “I don’t know. That’s just what I remember. It was a circle, kind of. It was in something like a shrine. Like it was really important.” He shook himself out of his reverie. “Anyway… when I used the soul anchor for the first time, I tried to… walk through the labyrinth again. In my head. And it worked.”
Hikari bit her lip. “I feel like… I don’t want anything to do with mazes. Not after…”
She trailed off, but Shoichi shot her a sympathetic look.
“I don’t know how to explain it, but it was just different,” he said.
After that they went their separate ways. Hikari spent the journey home lost in thought. She used to like mazes, she remembered suddenly, the kind you found in a colouring book, where you had to trace the right path with a pencil. But that didn’t sound like what Shoichi had described. And no matter how she tried, she kept thinking of those creepy, narrow tunnels with the little boy’s crying echoing through them… and then the distorted, endless world of the maze that had followed… those staring people, and the sense of sinking deeper the more she struggled…
She shuddered. When she got home, it was good to put thoughts of mazes and looms and illusion seeds out of her head for a while and do her homework, but she kept coming back to what Shoichi had said. Like a circle… only one path…
Finally she opened her laptop and just typed “maze” into the search engine. Dozens of children’s puzzles appeared, along with some more complex drawings, and some hedge mazes and so on. None of them seemed right, although they were reassuringly mundane, and went some way towards erasing the creepy feeling she had now about the word.
After a moment, she went back to the search page and tried “labyrinth” instead. A lot of the results were the same, but her eyes were immediately caught by the one that was different. Like a circle. It was almost a spiral, in fact, one path looping around itself until it reached the centre. Hikari clicked on that result and found herself on a page about ancient mythology. She skimmed most of the information, focusing on the part that confirmed Shoichi’s guess that it was a kind of meditation.
Back to the search page. This time she tried “labyrinth meditation”. And suddenly the results were very different. No more kids’ puzzles or hedge mazes. She found a site dedicated to the history of the labyrinth, another with instructions on how to walk and meditate, yet another with ideas for how to improvise if you didn’t happen to have access to a large ancient pattern in the floor…
Hikari forgot about homework. She was even fascinated enough to stop shivering every time she saw the word “labyrinth”. And the more she read, the more some sort of awareness was coalescing in the back of her mind. Like weaving with your eyes on an invisible loom…
“I think I can do this,” she said out loud. Her hand went unconsciously to the crest around her neck. “I can do this.”
When he got home, the first thing Shoichi did was take the medallion from around his neck. He turned it over in his hands, tracing the edge of the crescent moon set in blue glass, seeing the occasional flash of light from the mirror inside it. Then he put it down on his desk, carefully, and sat on the bed, and looked at it.
Was Sakaki spying on him? Did she know about the times he’d talked to Satoru? Shoichi couldn’t think of any other reason for that ever-so-specific warning about Kestrel. And yet there’d been no indication that she was aware of other details of their lives, and there had been times she’d needed to reach them and been unable to do so. When she contacted them after a battle she was always impatient and concerned, not like someone who already knew what had happened.
But what else could she have meant? That excuse about ‘seeing the best in people’ didn’t ring true. She’d faltered, as if she’d said too much, and tried to cover it up.
If she did know about Satoru, why hadn’t she sent them to find stake out his university and take the shards? And if she’d been caught out earlier, why hadn’t she turned it around by telling the others that Shoichi had been hiding things from them?
His stomach twisted painfully at the thought of that conversation, guilt and worry and – anger, he had to admit – all coming to roost somewhere in his chest. Anger, because everything Sakaki said about Kestrel just couldn’t apply to Satoru. He couldn’t believe it, not for a second. Not Satoru. And how did Sakaki even know anything about him? Had they run into each other in the years since Satoru had left school? Shoichi wanted to start asking questions and refuse to stop until he got an answer, but…
… but doing that would give himself away, and maybe give Satoru away as well, and he… he couldn’t risk it. He couldn’t reconcile what Sakaki said about Kestrel with what he knew about Satoru… or even with what he’d seen, with his own eyes, the way Satoru obviously struggled with whatever he was supposed to be doing, the way he’d given up his own dreams in service to whoever or whatever had told him to become Kestrel…
Shoichi bit his lip, remembering the moment he’d realised why Satoru hadn’t taken up his place at Tokyo. And remembering the kiss again, and the way Satoru had clung to him, just for a second…
He closed his eyes. Was Sakaki spying on him? He… didn’t think so. But he had to be careful. He didn’t want to keep secrets from Akemi and Hikari, but he couldn’t betray Satoru. He just couldn’t.
After a moment he opened one of the desk drawers and put the crest inside before shutting it. It felt a little less like it was watching him then. Then he checked his phone, just in case Satoru had suddenly decided to reply to his email from four days ago. Nothing.
With a groan, Shoichi put his head in his arms on the desk, letting the phone drop with a thud. He was going around in circles. He didn’t know what to do, and there was no-one he could ask. Maybe he needed to try coming clean with Akemi, somewhere away from the shrine, maybe he could talk her into giving Satoru the benefit of the doubt…
His phone chimed. He hesitated before picking it up, knowing that the spike of hope he felt was about to be crushed. Then he saw Satoru’s name on the lock screen, and almost dropped the phone a second time as he fumbled to open the message. Then his heart seemed to stop.
Don’t go to Kyoto, read the email. They are strong there. Stay away.
That night, though they didn’t know it, they all had the same dream.
Shoichi found himself standing at the top of a tower, looking out over the night sea. The moon and stars were hidden; dark clouds boiled over the horizon, illuminated only by the occasional flash of distant lightning. The wind picked up and blew his hair back from his face, and he felt the first drop of rain on his cheek. He was tense and poised as if to fight or run, but he was frozen in place, waiting for some signal…
Out on the horizon, a red flare shot up as if to pierce the clouds. Throughout the city spread behind him, bells began to toll, frantic, warning. Like a coiled spring releasing, he turned and ran down the stairs.
Akemi was in the Queen’s hall, sitting on the steps beneath the throne, counting seconds between the thunder. Every crash sent a shiver between her shoulder blades, the horror of a nightmare and the dread of a coming threat, and her eyes burned with tears that had been recently shed but were now dried up. When she heard the bells, she raised her head slowly, listening to the cries of fear and panic that began to echo through the palace halls.
Then she took hold of the sword that lay on the steps beside her, slowly rose to her feet, walked away from the throne. The double doors ahead of her swung open without being touched.
Hikari had been walking the labyrinth for hours, or days, or years, she thought, when she saw the first flash of lightning reflected in the gleaming silver line at her feet. She raised her eyes to the stars that had guided her until now, but the stars were gone, and there was only blackness above her. A sudden wind came rushing through the colonnade surrounding the labyrinth, bent the olive trees even further into their twisted dance, bringing with it the smell of the sea and a terror that stopped her in her tracks.
Before the first bell sounded she had already abandoned the path and rushed to the side of the courtyard that overlooked the docks. A ship was driving hard towards the shore, sails tattered and torn, no flag at its mast, and she saw the darkness it brought with it, and could not move until all at once she found herself running.
… and Satoru stood before the mirror, saw his own reflection turn away from him in scorn, and woke, alone in his room in Osaka, with tears running down his face, and a name on his lips that he couldn’t remember.