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NB: This is set during the King of Swords arc, when Tsuzuki accepts Muraki's bet. There are flashbacks to and memories of earlier incidents (both canonical and non-canonical), but the chronology ought to be fairly clear. I've gone with the manga version of the events (thought I've added more than a few between-the-panels moments). At this point in the story, the manga differs from the anime primarily in that Tsuzuki does not set a victory stake for himself. Interesting, ne? The information about Eileen comes from a source other than Muraki in the manga.

All manga dialogue is quoted with permission from Theria's translations at www.theria.net.

One last warning: kinkiness ahead. This is rated NC-17 for a reason! No explicit smut yet, but we all know that real sex is all in the psyche, don't we?

A Flush in Hearts I: To Raise
by
Amy the Evitable

"Oh, I'm sure you'll like it, Azumi. Just give it a try!" Tsubaki-hime pulled my head down. "Ne, you have to open your mouth!"

Tsubaki-hime and I were in a secluded nook on deck. I appreciated her taking me to this spot, as the crowd in the dance room had been making me sick. Too many feelings had hit my empathy at once and almost everybody was lying. I wasn't sure what was worse-- the outright greed coming from all the very pretty casino employees who flattered the patrons, or the boredom on the part of those patrons as they eyed up the possibilities for the night.

I opened my mouth, and let Tsubaki-hime feed me another hors d'oeuvre. I didn't let her fingers touch my face; it wasn't that the thought of her touching me made me particularly uncomfortable, it was just that I didn't want to read her emotions that clearly. At this proximity I couldn't block her out altogether, but it was easy to avoid paying too much attention to her emotions. They didn't capture my attention the way some people's emotions did.

She pushed another colorful little blob of cream on a cracker into my mouth. We were interrupted by someone approaching before she had a chance to tell me what this one was.

I was both relieved by and irritated at the interruption. Tsubaki-hime was interesting, I guess. There was nothing subtle about her use of my assumed first name, or her fingers pushing food between my lips. I thought she was pretty bold for a girl, but what did I know? I was just beginning to fumble around the realization that certain other people could be... interesting... when *that* happened. You don't get many chances to date on a hospital bed, no matter what the soap operas imply.

I wasn't really interested in her; it was easy to count the reasons why. I was on an assignment, I wasn't going to stay, and in any case, I didn't want a girlfriend. She didn't find me quite as interesting as she was pretending to, either, but that was all right. She was trying to be nice, and I'd figured I might was well oblige her.

I didn't know if Tsuzuki had me dancing attendance on her because the killer had addressed that note to her, or if he was trying for a little remedial socialization. Maybe he was just trying to be nice. He tried to do that pretty often.

The dealer at my sleeve was yet another beautiful young person in a thin white shirt and black vest. He'd manned a blackjack table next to Tsuzuki last night in the VIP area. I didn't remember his name.

"Excuse me, sir. Forgive the interruption, miss, but if I could have a moment with Hibiki-san?"

Tsubaki-hime pouted and stepped back a bit, but not nearly far enough to keep her from eavesdropping.

Whatever. She was the owner's daughter. She didn't have to be polite.

The blackjack dealer was extremely nervous, licking his lips and glancing between Tsubaki-hime and me. The combination of trepidation and some sort of gloating nasty anticipation made my just-calmed stomach turn, or maybe it was something in one of those hors d'oeuvre.

"Hibiki-san. I regret to inform you--"

No, he didn't. He was getting a lot of satisfaction out of this, and hoping for something more.

"--That your dealer is engaged in a... private hand of poker with someone. With... unique stakes."

"My dealer?" I asked. I had a bad feeling about this already.

He gave me a condescending look. "The new dealer. Tsuzuki-kun, right?"

I was starting to blush. Damn it, I knew what people were going to assume when the newest dealer, who'd been hired in such a rush just before leaving port, stayed in my room all night. Everyone was going to think that I was trying to give my boy-toy some sort of a legitimate cover by getting him a job on the ship. Damn Tsuzuki. He was pretty enough for the scenario to be plausible, and that constant puppy-eagerness to please could easily be misinterpreted.

I was pretty sure that I knew with whom Tsuzuki had gotten himself in trouble, too. Not that the dealer left me with any lingering doubts.

"Your dealer," and the blackjack dealer emphasized the possessive, "Is playing poker with Muraki-sensei with his body as the stakes."

It wasn't the unfamiliar food that was causing my stomach to twist now. I had my memories of that night back, and I knew how much Muraki liked to play. He played with bodies, and even more with minds, and his voice echoed in my head.

"The French call it the little death, you know. 'La petite mort' is how it is said. You're such a beautiful child-- your skin so pale that I wonder if it has ever seen the sun. Those wide green eyes... No, don't shut them. I would not be so cruel as to send you to the larger death without giving you a taste of the smaller... Yes, boy. Like that."

I was flushing, and my palms were damp, and I felt a chill all over. I wanted nothing more than to run to the side of the boat and throw up. I'd spent too much of this assignment feeling sick. I was starting to hate boats.

The dealer seemed to think I was angry, which was preferable to him seeing the truth. "I am so very sorry to bring you such unpleasant news, Hibiki-san, but I felt you ought to know." He placed a 'comforting' hand on my shoulder. I shook it off and glared until he stepped back.

No, you slimy creature, you didn't feel any obligation to tell me. You wanted to be rewarded for playing the tattler. You want a nice tip, or better yet, to take the place of 'my dealer' in my room and in my pocketbook. Failing that, you're happy to make life a little worse for the man who attracted more attention than you did on the VIP casino floor last night.

Empathy makes it hard to like people, sometimes. Maybe ignorance of what's really inside of most people is what allows Tsuzuki to care so much about every person he passes on the street.

My thoughts were racing. God, Tsuzuki... what the hell are you thinking, making that kind of a bet with Muraki? What on earth are you trying to do? I know you think he's behind the mix of disappearances and unnaturally extended lives that brought us here. So do I. Are you trying to get close to look for evidence?

Are you in over your head, Tsuzuki?

There was a rustle of netting against silky fabric as Tsubaki-hime turned away, and the profile of her downturned face looked fragile. "I'm sorry, Azumi. I'm... tired. I think I need to rest a little now. I'll see you later, all right?"

"Tsubaki-hime?" Sorrow was what I felt from her, and bitter helplessness flavored with a sense of her own inadequacy. I ought to offer to take her back to her room. I knew her health wasn't good, and she tired quickly. But I also knew I ought to say something to her, something to make her feel better, and I didn't have the slightest idea of what to say. I know how much the wrong words can hurt. If I didn't say anything, at least I wasn't making it worse.

"Good night, Azumi." She walked away while I try to think of what to say, and her steps were quick and firm.

I felt as though I'd failed, somehow. I didn't know if I'd failed her or failed me. I didn't know what I was supposed to do. Should I follow her? I knew she was hurting. But Tsuzuki... Was he in trouble? Could he manage Muraki on his own?

Probably. He hadn't asked me for any help, after all.

For all his helpless bumbling around, Tsuzuki was strong, really strong. He'd held his own even after he'd walked straight into Muraki's trap in Nagasaki. His shikigami had easily defeated the creatures that Muraki had summoned. If he hadn't been trying to protect me, he probably wouldn't have taken a scratch in the fight. Even with that huge hole in his back, blood pouring down to cover the floor and filling his throat, he'd managed to find a way to win. Synching with him, with all the power he had, had left the hair on my arms standing up straight for days. It had felt like I was riding a tsunami or wrapped in lightning, moving with something vastly bigger than me, exhilarating and terrifying.

I read somewhere "Beware the fury of a patient man." Tsuzuki was more than patient when sweets weren't involved. When it came to people he was patient, gentle, understanding to a fault -- and when it was finally roused, his fury was terrifying. The intensity of the anger he'd felt when he'd learned who had killed me was scary enough. But that night, feeling even an echo of the fury he'd burned with when he'd battled Muraki over me, I couldn't help but remember a snatch of whispered conversation I'd overheard in the hall after I'd been told about my assignment. "Poor boy... paired with that destructive demon."

Destructive demon... I'd gone into Nagasaki with a gun, aiming to impress the man who inspired that kind of a whisper. Instead I'd found a man who defined the word 'hapless'-- until something made him mad. I'd been afraid that in his anger, he'd destroy me as well as Muraki -- using all that power-- until I realized that he was diverting so much of that power into shielding me. Not himself. Me.

Tsuzuki could take care of himself. Right? It wasn't like I could do anything against Muraki, anyway. In Nagasaki, he'd called and I'd come to him, helpless to resist. Even without my memories, horror had filled me at the sight of silver hair haloed by the red moon, but I hadn't been able to run or even to scream as he'd embraced me. Muraki's arms had been so strong as they'd pulled me close, pressed my face into his chest, and stabbed me in the back. The last thing I remembered was Muraki's voice, saying, "That should be sufficient to catch his attention." The next thing I knew, I was strung up against that cross in the abandoned building, slowly bleeding to death.

Maybe Tsuzuki had sent me off to baby-sit Tsubaki-hime to keep me out of his way while he took care of the problem that Muraki presented. I doubted that he'd want to take another hole in the back trying to protect me. That had hurt-- I would know, I was synched with him. After getting us out of the burning building, Tsuzuki had collapsed, leaving Gushoshin to return us to Meifu. Even Tsuzuki couldn't function with that kind of injury for long.

He was as good as new in a few days, though.

But if he didn't have to worry about protecting me, Tsuzuki should be fine. If I walked in on this game, I'd be a distraction. Tsuzuki hadn't asked me to watch his back this evening. He'd wanted me to watch over Tsubaki-hime, who really was upset and possibly ill as well.

But if I went after Tsubaki-hime without knowing what to say, I might just make things worse. Empathy can be so useless-- I know just how much a person is hurting, just how vulnerable she is, but it doesn't give me a clue about how to help.

Vulnerable-- that was how Tsuzuki had looked when Muraki had led him past me last night. Muraki had his arm wrapped around Tsuzuki's waist, and the hand on Tsuzuki's hip had not been staying politely still. Tsuzuki hadn't even noticed Tsubaki-hime and me until she called out to Muraki. Tsuzuki wasn't watching where he was going. He was watching Muraki, wide-eyed, like a deer caught in the headlights of an oncoming car. Or something small and furry caught by the gaze of a cobra.

Did cobras eat puppies?

After I'd yelled at Muraki, Tsuzuki had snapped out of it. He didn't make Muraki let go of him, though-- but I guess if he and Muraki fought here, they'd destroy the ship and kill everyone on it.

Oh, shit. If that were the case-- maybe Tsuzuki wouldn't use his power to defend himself here at all. Just how far would he let Muraki go? What would he allow Muraki to do to him, if he felt that fighting Muraki put other people at risk?

Come to think of it -- I'd never seen that patient man's fury emerge on Tsuzuki's own behalf. He got mad for me, or for Maria, or for Hijiri, or anybody else... but not for himself.

He couldn't cast Saagatanus out of himself. I didn't know the details, but if Saagatanus had been honest in his gloating, he'd trapped Tsuzuki in his own psychological hell. I didn't have reason to doubt it-- I'd felt just a piece of the anguish Tsuzuki was feeling once he'd broken out. And Tsuzuki hadn't broken out until Hijiri managed to succeed where I'd failed. Hijiri'd somehow reached Tsuzuki-- and told him that he was worth saving. Tsuzuki had needed to be pushed into saving himself.

Shit.

Now that I was thinking of that incident, I couldn't erase the memory of Tsuzuki's face, white and empty, after he'd used Byakko to utterly destroy Saagatanus. No exaggerated wounded looks, no wide-eyed pleading, no sweet smile that put the sun to shame. Just the bones of Tsuzuki's face, more delicate then I'd ever seen them before, the hollowed shadows around Tsuzuki's eyes, and the bloodless, almost blue, lips. He wasn't unconscious, but I don't think he was really seeing anything. I'd been staring at that face because I did not want to even glance at the ruin of Tsuzuki's back, where Saagatanus had taken most of Tsuzuki's spine with him when he left.

By the time I came to, Tsuzuki had been laid on his stomach on an adjacent table. That annoying sugar-powered hyperactivity was still for once, and I never, ever wanted to see it still again. Watari had stood over Tsuzuki, arms soaked in blood up to the elbows as he did things inside the gaping chasm of Tsuzuki's back that made horrible squishing and grating noises.

I never wanted to see Watari so close to panic again.

I remembered how Tatsumi-san had entered the impromptu operating room with hurried decorum. He'd taken one look at the scene and stepped back against the wall without saying a word, and he'd stared at the floor for a long time. He hadn't moved. Hadn't said a word, not even to ask Watari what had happened. Even when Tatsumi-san had finally noticed I was awake, he'd only offered me a tight smile, then returned to staring at the floor. All his concentration was absorbed in wrapping himself tightly in control.

Tatsumi didn't even look up when Watari finished his work and reassured the both of us that Tsuzuki would heal. The wound wasn't poisoned or anything like that-- Watari had hurriedly explained that it had just been slow to heal because Tsuzuki's energy had been badly drained. The struggle to expel the demon and then to destroy it had taken a lot of energy, and the demon had already exhausted so much of Tsuzuki's energy in summoning shiki and blowing up buildings and breaking out of my ReiBaku. There hadn't been anything left to power the usual Shinigami rapid healing.

Tatsumi had walked up to Tsuzuki's blood-soaked body on the table. He'd reached a hand out towards Tsuzuki's face. The hand had hovered there a moment, and then Tatsumi turned away almost violently. He thanked Watari and me, and promptly left the room.

I never wanted to see Tatsumi-san like that again, either. I didn't want to see what would happen if that fiercely grasped control slipped.

Saagatanus had been the General of the demonic forces, though. Muraki couldn't do that kind of damage, could he?

I didn't think so. Not that kind of damage.

But Tsuzuki was vulnerable to other kinds of damage. He left himself totally open to disappointment and to betrayal. It was incomprehensible to me, how he walked straight into the arms of certain heartbreak. You could rebuff him-- really hurt him, no matter what kind of smile or joke he offered you after you did it-- and he'd keep offering you gentle affection. It was like he never learned how to protect himself.

Or if he knew how to protect himself, that he didn't think it was worth his while. Maybe he didn't think he deserved his protection.

Muraki would use that. Muraki would twist Tsuzuki's emotions around until Tsuzuki couldn't struggle against him, and then he'd...

Damn it, what could I do against Muraki? I didn't know. I had a few ofuda. I had a little training in formal combat. Those small things arrayed against Muraki-- I wasn't even sure I'd be able to do anything but tremble in front of the man who'd killed me. But what kept going through my head were Tsuzuki's words in Nagasaki, after I'd called him an idiot for walking into a trap. He'd said he couldn't leave me, even if it was a trap. He hadn't known he could defeat Muraki, either. He'd been afraid. He'd still come for me. The only person to ever come for me.

What would I be if I didn't at least try?

I turned to the dealer.

"Where are they playing?"


By the time I'd been shown to the private gaming room where Muraki and Tsuzuki were playing poker, I had a sketchy plan. I couldn't beat Muraki in either a physical or a magical fight, I knew. But Muraki had chosen card games as the challenge, and maybe, just maybe, that was an arena where I could beat him. Maybe, just maybe, Tsuzuki would be fine, holding his own, and I wouldn't need to do anything at all. But I had a deck of cards in my hands just in case.

Was it cowardly of me to open the door quietly and all but sneak into the room? Should I have kicked the door down, or at the least strode in and demanded that the game stop?

Maybe it was cowardly, but I'm not sure either of them would have noticed me even if I had made a dramatic entrance. That was one positive for the empathy tonight-- at least I knew they weren't ignoring me, or just dismissing me as the powerless boy. They really didn't notice me. They were totally absorbed in what they were doing. Or about to do.

The intensity of the emotions in the room would have left me speechless, even if I'd wanted to make a dramatic statement. Mixed in with that horrible taint I always felt from Muraki was overpowering lust and satisfaction and something else. It was something like possessiveness, but that wasn't quite the feeling that was creeping through me. I didn't want to take the time to name it. It was bad enough to have it roiling under my skin-- I didn't want to think about it, letting it into my head, too.

The filthy melange of Muraki's emotions wasn't surprising. He wanted my partner. I remembered Muraki's furious jealousy in Nagasaki. I remembered his delight in Tsuzuki's power overwhelming his childish fury at being thwarted. Tsuzuki hadn't said much about the time he'd spent with Muraki before he'd found me. He'd been fiercely ashamed, and I hadn't felt as though I could push him. But his report, while sketchy in details, made it pretty clear that Muraki had been courting him. Dinner and a date to a museum-- what else would you call it?

God, I hated having Muraki's emotions bubbling up inside of me. I didn't want to be capable of feeling the things that he felt. I wanted him to be utterly foreign to my comprehension. The thought of being sucked into wanting the things he wanted, even for just a minute, made me want to scratch my skin off.

I did not care what Muraki was feeling. Not at all. It was my partner I was here for and I tried to focus my empathy entirely on him. My partner who had retreated up against the wall, the line of his back all but sealed to it, his arms wrapped around himself like a frightened child. I couldn't tear my eyes away from the faint trembling of his lips. Muraki was advancing on him. I watched as Muraki's arms imprisoned Tsuzuki, hands against the wall on either side of Tsuzuki's head. The white lines of Muraki's long body didn't quite touch Tsuzuki, but they were so close that Tsuzuki had to have felt the fierce heat that beat from Muraki's skin.

I didn't want to remember that heat, but the cursed calligraphy across my skin began to put off that same unnatural, all but searing, heat.

I tried to block away my awareness of the curse marks. What was Tsuzuki feeling, damn it? Did he need help?

I focused my empathy on Tsuzuki, and was nearly knocked down by the spiral of emotions that drove each other faster and faster, like hurricane winds. Not all the lust in this room was Muraki's. Tsuzuki's desire burned almost as brightly. I'd never felt anything like this from Tsuzuki before. And mixed in with the lust...

I was afraid. I couldn't tell what was Tsuzuki's fear and what was my own. My pulse was racing, and I was shaking. I felt almost dizzy, ready to jump out of my skin at the slightest movement and at the same time, unable to move through the haze that surrounded my skin. I knew I would be overwhelmed if I couldn't sort out the emotions within me. Horror sent my stomach plunging at the thought of allowing Muraki to complete his advance and touch Tsuzuki. Something screamed at me that if I allowed that to happen, some line would be forever crossed. But if I passed out due to empathic overload, what could I do? I needed to name the feelings that hit me like a load of ball bearings on spin cycle. Naming the emotions, Tatsumi-san had told me once, was the first step to directing them. Controlling them.

So...

I wanted to bolt from this room. I wanted to collapse to my knees and beg. Shame branded my cheeks with red. I couldn't stop shaking. I craved. I loathed. I feared pleasure, I feared pain, and the fear was pleasure and pain, too. My arms and legs were heavy and slowed by the anticipation of a touch. I wanted to end this too-intense moment. I wanted the intensity to build. I wanted promises kept. I wanted to be saved. I owed. I hated my helplessness, loathed my weakness. My helplessness heated my blood and made my cock ache. I would do anything to stop this. I hungered for this. I was horrible for wanting this. So horrible that I deserved this. I wanted it too badly to be allowed to have it.

Oh, god. Two feelings surged through Tsuzuki as Muraki approached and thus, surged through me. The first was: You terrify me. The second was: Please touch me. Everything else was born of that mismatched pairing of emotions.

And the anger that burned all the other emotions to ashes, which clenched my fists and set a tight vise to the base of my skull, was all mine. Fury at the both of them. At Muraki for pressing himself upon my partner. At Tsuzuki, who wasn't moving to stop Muraki. In fact, Tsuzuki seemed to hunger for that assault.

How could he?

I don't know which of them I wanted to scream that question at most. Probably Tsuzuki. I knew Muraki was all about pain, about taking from me what little I had. I knew he wanted to take my partner from me. But Tsuzuki had claimed he would protect me. Had offered that gentle smile at me until I was dependent on it to get through my days. Offered himself as a target for my anger when I needed it. Coaxed me out of my darkest moods. Taught me that people could play, could be silly, could show weakness, and not always suffer for it. Encouraged me to become attached to him as I'd never been attached to another person, and now he was courting destruction. Craving Muraki was like a moth craving a candle. No matter how bright and beautiful he seemed, Muraki was death.

How could Tsuzuki offer himself up on Muraki's altar like this? Were all those implied promises to me empty? Was he really going to fail me like my parents, my doctors, everyone who I'd ever known?

How can you do this to me, Tsuzuki?

I looked away from them, and my eyes fell on the two poker hands that lay on the table. One was a flush, all five cards in the suit of hearts. The other hand, the winning one, was a full house. Kings over fours.

I'm sure Muraki thought he was very clever. With that ego, what other card would he use to mark himself besides a king? And the fours-- four was an ill-omened number. Shi, the sound for four, was the same as the sound for death. Shi, Shinigami. Kings over fours. Muraki over Tsuzuki.

Which was exactly the scene I still couldn't help but stare at.

Muraki still held his body a bare inch away from Tsuzuki's. Tsuzuki had turned his head away. I think he was trying to avoid Muraki's gaze. But it left the line of his neck open to Muraki's assault. Even to me, the flutter of Tsuzuki's pulse looked vulnerable. I clenched my hands into fists as the desire to stroke my fingers over that pulse filled me. Damn it, I thought I'd blocked Muraki's feelings out.

Muraki touched his lips to that neck. Tsuzuki gave no visible reaction to the kiss, though I felt it burn through him. Then I saw a flash of teeth, and Tsuzuki whimpered at that bite. Lust, fear, and desperate need seared through me, hotter than my curse markings. Tsuzuki's taut, thin body sagged against the wall in unmistakable surrender. Muraki smiled in triumph, and I wanted to slap that smile off of his face.

He'd smiled like that at me beneath a scarlet moon. Muraki had revolted me, terrified me-- I'd watched him plunge a knife into that woman, felt his joy at the mangled flesh and his exultation in the hot blood against his face. I'd known he was a monster. I'd known that I would be his next victim-- but despite that, Muraki had woken my body. Made me want him.

I didn't want Tsuzuki to be as vulnerable to Muraki as I was. Not to the brutal assault of his power, and not to his nuanced seduction.

I didn't want him to be even more vulnerable than I was. But Tsuzuki's emotions were so tangled that he was tying himself in knots that held him more effectively than Muraki's arms.

No matter how straightforward and single-minded Tsuzuki appeared on the outside, his emotions were always complex. Layered was the word that came to me. Sometimes whatever he was superficially feeling-- amusement, dismay, protective affection-- was strong enough to mask the layers. But I'd learned that if I concentrated-- or if I touched Tsuzuki-- there were always more emotions that lay beneath, often contradictory. He felt so much, and he felt all of it so intensely.

Almost always there was regret and a gentle sorrow, like a sustained note played on an oboe. There was guilt like tonic water, the bitterness carbonating though everything else. It had taken Tatsumi to point out to me the core of seriousness, the determination that vibrated inside Tsuzuki like the roll of a timpani drum. The desire to play, like a bright shade of yellow, and a concerned interest in everyone he interacted with that was like cinnamon sugar.

Tsuzuki was like that piece of Lithuanian torte he'd once made me try. Layer upon layer, some sweet, some tart, and some downright bitter.

And the whole thing was entirely flaky.

I knew that wasn't fair, but I didn't feel like being fair right now. Not watching Tsuzuki trembling in desire and fear before Muraki, hating himself, full of shame and lust and hope that fed the desire and fear still further. Damn Tsuzuki and his contradictions. Maybe the reason my partner pursues his sweets so ardently is that his desserts are the only things with which he's capable of having an uncomplicated relationship.

Now that layered complexity was like an undertow, draining Tsuzuki's ability and even his desire to protect himself. But I should have known it would be that way. That Tsuzuki could be taken away from me like sunshine had been, like love, like my very life. Nothing could really be counted on in the end.

Nothing, except maybe me.
 
I was breathing hard, but some of the anger cleared from my mind. So Tsuzuki hungered for something Muraki was offering him. No, not hungered. Hunger was too mild to describe what Tsuzuki had felt when Muraki had caged him, caressed that neck, and then taken hold of the translucent skin in a possessive bite. Tsuzuki needed something that Muraki was dangling before him like I needed my next breath. You couldn't choose to stop breathing. You could hold your breath and feel the need burning through your lungs, but eventually, you'd have to give in, to gasp the oxygen. No matter how strong-willed you were, eventually that denied need would drive you toward unconsciousness, toward a place where will didn't matter, It wouldn't even be a choice. You'd breathe.

That was what Tsuzuki's feelings tasted like to me. Like he'd held his breath too long, and was helpless now to keep from gasping. He was ashamed and scared, but he was helplessly drowning in the poisoned honey that Muraki was offering, and that shame and fear made the poison in the honey all the more attractive. Muraki had found some weakness in my partner, and he was exploiting it, just as I'd known he would.

I had to try. I'd never confronted Muraki before, but I had to try now.

"Wait!" The word coming out of my mouth startled me almost as much as it startled them. I was still so angry. Tsuzuki was letting Muraki exploit his weaknesses. That choking anger didn't come out in my tone, but it did emerge in my word choice. "I won't let you have one of my dealers for free."

Tsuzuki's head whipped around at my words, heedless of the hold Muraki's teeth had on his throat. I saw blood where he'd torn the skin from Muraki's hold, but Muraki leaned in quickly to lick it up before he, too, turned towards me.

"Sensei," I said, more to prove that I could keep an even tone while he was looking at me than for any real need to greet him.

"Eh?" Tsuzuki was just as eloquent as I'd expected. Apparently the sight of me was like a wave hitting the tidepool of Tsuzuki's psyche. There was a battering rush of emotions, and as they slowly ebbed down, the landscape of that tidepool seemed utterly different. But if you looked carefully, only a few creatures were washed out or tossed in. Most of them were still there, only rearranged. Trust me, there were still plenty of prickly urchins lurking in the depths to stab unwary fingers.

Muraki drew my attention back to him. "Children shouldn't be here."

My skin was cold and clammy now. I made a sarcastic opening offer for Tsuzuki, which Muraki promptly accepted.

My idiot of a partner ignored this little exchange and gushed about how happy he was that I'd come to save him. He was of two hearts about being saved, but he was entirely delighted at the sight of me. Something proud, something protective, something incredulous that I was standing here.

It made me mad. He apparently thought so little of me as a partner that he didn't think I'd back him up. I made him beg for me to save him, let him plead and whine until that desire for the poisoned honey was so deep in the background of his emotions that I almost couldn't feel it anymore.

Almost.

"Oh, all right. Okay, okay, I'll try, all right?"

"Really, Hisoka? You're really going to save me?" Tsuzuki kept up the grateful-puppy-dog-spared-a-beating look on the outside, but my empathy read something very different inside after I acceded to the begging. It was that roll of the timpani inside him, starting soft but relentlessly building until your bones shook with the noise. Something had roused that determination inside of him and it was drowning out the lust-laden conflict that still raged in the background.

Muraki let a slow smile bloom on his face. "I don't really care," he murmured in cultured tones. "The teasing will only multiply the later pleasures."

The force of Tsuzuki's determination became a roar inside my head. Muraki seemed to feel something, too, as he looked at Tsuzuki and frowned. The lust didn't recede in his eyes, but you could feel the calculations going on inside his head. He was ignoring me again, dismissing me.

I hated that. Damn it, I was his opponent here. "I challenge you, Muraki!"

It took too long for Muraki to look back at me. By the time he did, I could see that whatever calculating he'd done was finished. He'd arrived at his answer. "...Shall we play?"

"Uh..." There was my eloquent partner again.

"Now, now Tsuzuki-san. I'm afraid you'll have to sit out of the room for a bit." Muraki ran the back of his knuckles along Tsuzuki's cheekbone. "It would be unfair not to. You are so tempting... Entirely too much of a distraction to me. Besides, it's more fun to unveil the prize after the victory. I'm sure we can find something appropriate for you."

The approach-avoidance conflict trumpeted loudly again, but my empathy felt no subsiding of that determination. God, it was loud inside Tsuzuki's head. How did he think in there?

That might explain a lot, come to think of it.


Author's Note: I'm certain that if Hisoka had been less distressed, he would have remembered that the quotation came from poet John Dryden. 8^)

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