It was him; the snazzy man with the white trousers, and the huge sword strapped to his back. For the second time, Nori Adachi had saved Ayame Suzuki.
In reality, that first meeting between them was a total misunderstanding. Nori had only saved Ayame from Shax’s protective instinct. It didn’t matter that he intervened, she would have been fine either way. It’s the thought that counts, though. When the breakout occurred, it was everyone for themselves and Nori didn’t have to risk his own life to save a stranger’s.
Nori certainly had the look of a hero, given the fact he stood at least two heads taller than everybody else in the room, dwarfing Saboten and Cleo before he’d finished stretching himself out from his landing. Two hanging buns of murky red hair, collected into small cloth packages, swung from side-to-side as he stood straight, before soon coming to a complete stop just below bare angled shoulders.
Scarred and unprotected by his bloodied vest-top, Nori had been dragged through plenty of battles in the past twenty years. Just how many Kanzen Hakujou had Scarecrow created? And something else caught her attention too; not a single drop of shed blood had stained his current trademark. Not that the sight of blood bothered her anymore, Ayame had also seen plenty of battles in the short time that she had been free. If anything, the collective of unique blots almost made the hair on the back of her neck stick up at attention but it was hard to tell whether that was Shax again, or something else.
Their eyes met; Nori was like Saboten.
Red sclera, but in both eyes.
A pattern of three black lines against his irises, and triangular pupils.
But Nori’s ferocious presence and intimidating expression meant little to her as she stepped forwards and made an attempt to hug her hero.
Despite her best intentions — and efforts — the uncomfortable giant reacted poorly. His palm pressed firm against the ‘attacker’s’ forehead, her affection was denied without consideration.
Cleo, having watched the demonstration with a coy smile, dotted the moment with her own experience. “He’s not the touchy-feely type.”
Without a care, Ayame struggled into the flesh of his palm harder. “You’ve saved my life twice now,” she grunted, funnelling her reserve of energy into the soles of her feet. “I’m going to hug you eventually, whether you like it or not!”
Her declaration set a fire in Cleo’s core; “hey,” she snarled through those perfect, princess-cut teeth. “If Nori’s gonna hug anybody, it’s gonna be me!”
She flung herself through the air from her seated position beside Sun, hurtling straight for her guardian’s upper body: arms outstretched, legs prepared to form a supposedly-comforting vice-lock. From the sigh on Nori’s breath, it was clear that this wasn’t his first Cleo-themed rodeo. It was with the greatest of ease that he pushed Ayame back, hard enough for her to stumble but still retain her balance in the end, while simultaneously twisting his own body towards Cleo.
In that split second before he caught the girl by the scruff of her neck like a father dog, reprimanding his disobedient pup, Ayame saw Cleo’s eyes light up. Perhaps, just in that weightless moment, she thought her guardian would comply to her demands. Alas, it was clear that Nori had other business on his mind.
It wasn’t all bad for the two of them; once he had returned the pup to the ground, he patted her head with a softness Ayame didn’t imagine he could possess. Three gentle motions, and a ruffle of her hair in the space between the two identical buns.
Oh. It occurred to Ayame that both Nori and Cleo shared similar hair-styles, but who suggested it first?
An expected gruff voice dragged her away from her half-pleasant daydream; “you’re Mercury,” it said. “Ayame Suzuki.”
“I prefer the second one,” she said.
“If you could know my name too, that’d be great,” scoffed Saboten, having given up on ever hearing somebody utter his real name at this point. Ayame supposed that, like their age, Saboten’s real name didn’t matter in the grand scheme of things. Whichever name came before Saboten, be it Rohan, or Nicholas, or Sandwich, that person no longer existed, and they would never return.
Saboten was an entirely different person from the boy with whom Ayame skipped school, or who reluctantly went to Café Nigai with her and ate ground coffee on a dare. She used to steal cigarettes from her father for him, cutting off the tips incrementally in an attempt to ween him off.
When this mess was all said and done, would they be able to return to the life they once knew? How long is too long before society can rebuild? By now, surely Café Nigai had been burnt to the ground. Bitter, black ashes dressing the earth where high schoolers made memories.
Would they even be able to work their way back into a normal society? She almost laughed. After all, neither of them had even graduated. What would they do for work? How would they contribute? It’s not like Shax had any practical use outside of protection, like Sun. Saboten was more suited to war, Leyim too.
“We’re very sorry, Saboten,” said Aoi. Face scrunched, pained to be dropping this news bomb on him. “It appears Scarecrow wiped any record of your past life from their database. We’ve never experienced anything like this before, it’s suspicious to say the least.”
“You don’t say?”
“The true explanation lies within your relations,” said Nori. “After all, it would be unfortunate for the company if you turned out to be son of a high-ranking official, considering you’re leading the rebellion.”
“You say that like you still represent them.”
“We reckon you were a pet project. Y’know, since you’re the one who got Belphegor and all.”
“It’s not like it’s a secret, Aoi,” she said. “Atticus Kazuhiko wanted Belphegor but Beelzebub tricked him, took over his body, and became The World.”
“Actually, what is The World’s game here?” asked Leyim. “It feels very sporadically arranged.”
“We’ve been so busy dealing with The Envy…”
“Don’t worry,” said Aoi, “you’re doing your best.”
“The World’s plan was set in motion when she absorbed Rho Dwelt; Adramelech was the first Shinigami split from Beelzebub, and had to be the first to return.”
“Simply put, Beelzebub created the Shinigami to bring life to the endless Kara Sekai. For a select few of her children, she tore a piece from herself.”
“And they have the Jigoku Eyes, right?”
“Yeah,” Nori nodded, “The World’s intention is to pull that essence back into Beelzebub, becoming whole once more. Of course, she’s not stupid. There will always be opposition; that’s where you come in, Saboten.”
“She’s most afraid of you, considering Belphegor’s penchant for reality.”
“I can’t do that yet.”
“We’ll work on it.”
“Right now,” continued Aoi, “we believe The World’s plan centres around assimilating three particular Kanzen Hakujou. Once that happens, she will be literally unstoppable.”
“First, Kanri Kajitani who can alter the fabric of space. Naturally, Akubi Nayami will follow as she’s been gifted with chronokinesis. Afterwards, by my calculations, she’ll be going after The Envy since he can cross between the two worlds at will.”
“Saboten, please mind your tongue.”
“S— sorry, Aoi.”
“Our data indicates that The World intends on making herself a fixed point in time with these abilities, becoming ‘The Fool’.”
“A fixed point in time?”
“Once she has become The Fool, even Belphegor will be unable to erase her from our reality.”
“Wait,” said Saboten. “Why call herself ‘The Fool’?”
“The World and The Fool are tarot cards at opposite ends of the Major Arcana,” said Aoi. “The World represents an approach to the end of a cyclical life, a brief pause in Heaven before returning to the beginning of all things. The Fool represents this beginning; infinite potential, complete freedom. The Fool is The World’s hero, I suppose.”
“As you can probably guess, once The World has crossed that line, there will be no going back. Not even Saboten’s reality warp will have any effect on her, so you need to buck up and get training.”
“The Envy is our first target. If we eliminate him, The World will need to spend some time plugging the holes in her plan before she can continue.”
“According to our intel, Kajitani has been moving from city-to-city since the breakout occurred, heading towards the northern-most coast. Nayami’s whereabouts are strictly confidential…”
“By which we mean, literally nobody knows. We can’t get a peep outta anybody!”
“You don’t have to sound so happy about it…”
“Nayami won’t be alone, she’ll probably still be with Saigo, right?” Aoi’s question was directed to Nori who simply nodded.
“That, or she’s dead.”
“Well, then we’ll be going for Kajitani afterwards. If they’re hidden from us, they’re certainly safe from The World.”
“Not only that,” Nori held up two fingers, “we’re in luck. At the moment, it’s impossible for The World to just pull one Shinigami Lord from its original host and into herself, as she did with Rho Dwelt.”
“Rho?” Saboten’s gaze dropped, “you know about Rho?”
“Actually, we believe that she and Adramelech are the ones preventing Beelzebub from accessing those abilities.”
Obviously, his movements reversed at twice the speed; “she’s alive?”
“In a sense, sure.”
“She’s more than alive,” Cleo cheered, “she’s a hero!”
“Do you think she gave herself up to The World?”
“She didn’t need to do that…”
“In all honesty, Saboten,” Aoi said, “without Rho’s sacrifice, we probably wouldn’t have made it this far.”
“Let’s get back to the task at hand, shall we?”
A long sigh followed, pent-up exhaustion bursting from the dam of Saboten’s tired, tired body.
That was that, wasn’t it? Despite the fighting — even after defeating Project Sin — eradicating The Envy would not bring their journey to a drawn-out but satisfying conclusion. He tucked the lone cigarette behind his ear; at least, after this fight, they’d get another minute of peace like this, right? He’d save it, he figured, an indulgence for the next moment of peace.
Right now, they had to get to work, he didn’t deserve to rest.
“It’s gotta be my Dad, right?” he said, eyes fixated on the ceiling tiles. First-hand, Saboten couldn’t remember his family structure. His mind could now only travel back as far as waking up beneath Numazu, had it been that way this whole time? False memories shaped by suggestion. Ayame had explained; Saboten was raised by his Grandfather, his Dad had left on business and not returned. “Grandpa died,” he said, “Mom probably died too, right?”
Ayame nodded and tentatively added, “you said your Mom died when you were in middle school.”
“Or did she!?”
“Cleo,” Aoi silenced her again, before turning back to the boy with softened eyes, “you don’t seem very attached to your family, Saboten.”
Despite her careful expression, he felt it necessary to respond to her comment with a glare composed of pure irritation but he held back from snapping at her. It was misguided and unhelpful but, on some level, it felt like she was the last one still looking out for what they once had.
A parental figure to replace those once lost as though a stewing instinct had kicked in for Sun, and bubbled over to the rest of them. “I still can’t remember anything about them,” he said, “I got a hint of something back when I was home in Mishima but, other than that, it must all still be blocked off. Being back there, I don’t think it was good for me.”
Ayame looked away from him, just long enough for Saboten to noticed. He wanted to bury that phase of their lives but also, it wasn’t right for her to just forgive and forget. It was damage irreparable. Still, the mother asked “what happened?”
“I wanted to sink into that place, block out everything that had happened. I had built up my own reality,” he said, “and I was content on bringing Ayame into it too.”
“Reality,” Nori eyes narrowed, “Saboten, you of all people shouldn’t use that term so loosely.”