❯ Girls’ Night Out – Girls’ Night Out ( Chapter 1 )
TITLE: Girls’ Night Out
RATING: high PG13
LENGTH: 11,000 words
SUMMARY: Yogekisha’s latest case calls for skills from Yakumo’s employment prior to « undead-bodyguard ». Ling-Ling, Pai and Yakumo investigate a disappearance at a women-only nightclub.
NOTES #1: The obligatory cross-dressing Yakumo story. It’s a casefile, though. 😉
NOTES #2: This is essentially a Yogekisha casefile fic, and although it IS set (rather vaguely) a few books further into the manga than the anime covers, it’s probably perfectly readable if you’ve only seen the anime. I don’t think there are any major spoilery references.
DISCLAIMER: ‘3×3 Eyes’ is owned by Yuzo Takada and Kodansha. Not mine, no profit, yadda yadda yadda.
Girl’s Night Out
« What is it, then? The new case? » He knows she has one. He’s been watching as the phone rang, as she picked it up, and as the gleam of financial promise entered her eye. Not to mention those unmistakeable little reflexive clutching motions of her free hand on the telephone pad as she closed up the call.
Puzzlingly, Lee Ling-Ling, the editor of Yogekisha, whose business has become less and less about actually publishing any magazines of late, just looks at him and frowns, the edge of her mouth twitching downwards. Then she shakes her head with uncertainty. « No, you’ll have to sit this one out, I think. I will need some kind of back-up, though, and with Mei-Xing away… Pai! »
Fujii Yakumo initially finds himself too startled to react as she walks out of the room yelling for his… well, not that Pai is ‘his’ anything, more like the other way around, but– « Hey! » He jumps up and dashes after her. « You’re taking Pai on a case? Pai and not me? What am I her protector for, again… and anyway, why? »
She snickers at him, which isn’t the expected reaction. He’s caught up to her in the break room, where Pai is camped out in front of the fridge again. Sometimes it seems like she thinks it’ll regenerate more food if she waits long enough, but mostly he thinks that having it within sight just makes her happy. She blinks up at them, eyes narrowing a bit crossly at the sight of Yakumo’s hand on Ling-Ling’s shoulder. « Yes, what can Pai do? » she asks, with such an innocent concern and wide eyes he wonders if he just imagined that look. « What can Pai do, that Yakumo can’t? »
Whatever it is must be a wonderful joke, because Ling-Ling seems about ready to burst from held back giggles. « For one thing, throw on a pretty dress and attend Ladies-only Night at the Scarlet Slipper club, which is where we’ll be going! » she beams. « On someone else’s expense, no less! Come along, Pai, we ladies need to get ready. It’s only a few hours until the doors open, and we have to meet our client to pick up photographs on the way! »
« But– » Pai begins to protest. « Oh, the case? Don’t worry about it. It’s not like you need the undead jerk at your beck and call all the time, is it? You can look after yourself. Besides, I’m betting this will turn out to be nothing. Someone’s overly-stifled daughter finally starts acting out, and of course demons must have had something to do with it when she leaves home. Sacrifices, cults, virgins, la la la~! » Her answer metamorphoses into a gleefully tuneless song. « Have you seen the Scarlet Slipper, Pai? » She takes Pai’s hand and cheerfully dances her in a mock twirl.
« Uh, Ling-Ling, » Yakumo tries, scratching at the back of his neck, slightly embarrassed by what’s on his mind, but only slightly. It’s no good, though, she’s a million miles away, floating on a gleeful financial high.
« It’s a new club, and you’re both terminally incapable of normal adult fun, so maybe it’s okay that you haven’t heard of it, » Ling-Ling offers. « We investigate it on expenses and get paid for it! This is the best case ever! »
« But why can’t Yakumo come? » Pai wails, strident now she’s finally given chance to get a word in edgeways. « It isn’t fair! We might need him, and if Yakumo can’t come, then he won’t get to dress up and see the club! Pai hasn’t seen Yakumo look pretty for a very long time! » Her lips press into a pout and her eyes glitter with moisture. « Yakumo should come! Yakumo should wear a pretty dress and come with us! »
A burst of silence follows Pai’s outburst, which has gained an almost supernatural volume towards its end.
« Erm, » Yakumo stutters, as Ling-Ling’s eyes narrow, and then go saucer-wide. « I was trying to tell you. The dress, a disguise, I – I can, uh, do that, if it’ll mean I’m able to work on the case. » Her frozen expression might be twitching a little, and might be trying not to change into something resembling a leer, which if it did, would probably be gleeful and perverse. He qualifies quickly, « It was just a job, I’m not actually a transvestite. » The constant protest of his final year at school. He waves a hand cautiously across her field of vision.
He gives up and turns to Pai. A sort of squishy, melty feeling grabs his insides as he reviews her words. « I never knew you thought that about that weird first meeting back then. »
She blushes deep red, smiles and hunches cutely into her shoulders so that her neck disappears almost completely. …Oh, good. Now he’s left with two women who are lost for words.
« This, I did not know about you, » Ling-Ling says stolidly, poking a finger into Yakumo’s breastbone and then grabbing with both hands a bit lower to rearrange his fake cleavage.
« Hey! » That’s… just not right. He argued vehemently against the stuffed bra anyway. It’s not as though all women are of noticeable proportions in that area, after all, and the dress is loose enough to get away with it. He’s suspicious that Ling-Ling just gets a kick out of forcing it on him. « I told you I worked as a waiter at Culture Shock before I joined Yogekisha. »
« A waiter, yes. » Her eyes glitter and she breaks out a fang-filled grin. « So… undead, immortal, monster-busting and wearing a frock. »
« It’s just clothes, Ling-Ling. » For him, even if Mama would clout him upside the head just for voicing the sentiment. He never felt all that incredibly uncomfortable wearing a dress, but hardly comfortable enough to don one without good reason. This one is the colour of red wine, simple and flowing, with long, loose sleeves. It’s not spectacularly fashionable, but he needs a style to cover up a multitude of irregularities, such as muscle mass that’s rather increased since the last time he did this.
Ling-Ling ties an orange sash around his midriff to try and disguise his rather straight waistline. She rests her hands on his hips as she regards him. He’s not quite sure why cross-dressing gives this sudden ease to put her hands all over him so freely. Perhaps it’s just the sense of being an honorary girl. « You look like my spinster aunt, but you probably don’t look like a man, » she concedes. « To anyone who doesn’t already know. »
Since she’s just insulted his pride on two fronts, he doesn’t bother thanking her, instead turning to peer into the mirror on the wall nearby. The dress looks fine. To his eye, the least convincing aspect is the fake cleavage. He drags his fingers through his hair and peels up the bandana covering the Wu symbol on his forehead. He rubs at it. As always, it feels strangely hot, seeming to fizz with power under his touch. « I wonder if this’ll cover up with foundation. »
Eyebrows raised, Ling-Ling hands him a make-up bag and says, « Go ahead. »
« I think you’re getting too much mileage out of this… » He’s not going to give Mama and his friends from back then the insult of letting it embarrass him. Make-up, though… he’s never been too adept at putting the damn stuff on. But the foundation covers up the Wu symbol, making him wonder why he never thought of that before. After the foundation, he settles for smudging a trace of silvery powder over his eyelids and applying a muted plum shade of lipstick. He turns and smiles at Ling-Ling.
« Wow, » she admits with a grin of surprise that’s still got that hint of mockery in it. « You don’t look half bad. Who’d have thought it? If Benares could see you now… »
Yakumo chokes at the thought of Benares seeing him now. « Maybe I could gain a few extra points in the fight by distracting him. » He doesn’t mean that. Never mind the rest; Hell will freeze over before he wants Benares seeing him like this.
« There are some kinds of attention you can probably do without, » Ling-Ling snickers.
« Excuse me, I need to go and bleach that image from my brain, » Yakumo groans. He picks up his gauntlets and starts strapping them on beneath his sleeves. That’s the other thing that all the room in the flowing dress is good for.
« You’ll ruin your lines, » Ling-Ling critiques.
« I’d rather be prepared and armed. »
« You are so incredibly not a transvestite. »
He laughs. That odd tension seems to have drained off, their banter starting to return to normal. The black fingerless ends of the wrist-pieces show, but the hard metal panels only provide the odd flash, and in a dimly-lit club will hopefully easily be taken for bracelets.
« Here. » Ling-Ling clips an earring onto each of his ears, and drops a string of bright yellow beads around his neck. « Now you look almost presentable. Pity about those face-caterpillars you have for eyebrows, but I can do something about the hair. »
« Okay, thanks. » He knows that Ling-Ling has a few wigs somewhere, in case they’re needed for disguises when deep in a case with the need to sneak about. « Say, shouldn’t you be starting to get ready yourself? » He looks at the bundle of her clothes she brought in, then at her, expectantly.
She waves him off, accompanying that with a braying laugh like she’s got something stuck in her throat. « You’ll be lucky! »
Apparently he’s not so much an honorary girl that she’s going to get changed in front of him. The world is unequal. She grabs her bundle and flounces out.
Yakumo stands for a few minutes in front of the mirror, trying to expand or suck in his chest and compare the result from differing angles. When the door opens again, he looks up expecting to see Ling-Ling, but it’s not her. It’s Pai.
« Pai! » He’s used to seeing her in shorts or a skirt and T-shirt, so just as all those years back — the last time he himself was standing in front of her dressed like this, in fact — he’s blown away by how stunning she looks when she tries.
Her short dress is patterned in a multitude of colours and floats against her skin like she’s wearing a shimmering rainbow. Her hair is down, falling in brown swirls to her shoulders, framing her face. She’s not wearing make-up or jewellery. In fact, when he looks closely, she hasn’t really done anything much, but then, she doesn’t need to. « P-Pai… »
Ling-Ling walks in after her, clad in a figure-hugging black sheath that covers her from neck to knees, in time to observe, « If you look at her like that all night, Fujii, that’s going to make things a bit obvious. »
Yakumo blushes at last. It’s compounded by Pai flinging herself at him and welding her arms around his shoulders as she swings off him and babbles in delight, « Yakumo looks so pretty! Pai knew it! Pai is so happy that Yakumo is coming too! »
With his visible skin red to the tips of his ears, Yakumo speaks with difficulty, « I’ll bet you anything Pai looks a lot prettier. » He squeezes his arm around her waist to return the hug while trying not to lose his balance.
Ling-Ling rolls her eyes and packs a small black and silver handbag with… oh, yes, those would be home-made grenades and anti-demon talismans. Lest they forget the reasons they’re going. Pai finally releases him and Ling-Ling hands over a black wig sculpted in a shoulder-length feminine bob.
There’s a knock on the door, and from outside in the hallway, Steve plaintively asks, « What are you doing? »
Yakumo groans at the thought of the impending explanation.
The shoes are a problem. His feet are bigger than any of the female shoes they had on hand, so they’re too tight and hurt. Then again, he can easily kick them off if he has to fight. It’s stopping them falling off in the meantime that’s the chore. The wig, on the other hand, helpfully disguises his square-ish jaw and adam’s apple, falling in a long curl beneath his chin.
He starts to feel self-conscious as they’re waiting in line for entry to the club. All right, he was used to dressing up in women’s clothes, but he’d never actually been trying to pass for a woman. Everyone always knew he was dirt-poor student Fujii Yakumo under the dress and wig. Is this really going to fool anyone? A pair of girls are staring at him rather intently, he notices, and he smiles widely at them, hoping to appease. They smile back and one of them says, « Isn’t it wonderful? » before they turn away to talk amongst their own group.
He supposes she must be referring to whatever is showing at the club.
On their way over they stopped to speak to the worried mother, Song Yun. A sad, delicate woman with an aging beauty, graceful despite a pronounced limp, she was polite and quietly desperate. She told them again about her theories of her daughter being stolen away, and of the obsessive visits she had made to the club in the weeks before her disappearance. The photo they were given showed a tiny, delicate girl who looked younger than her stated nineteen years, with a mousy sort of style-less haircut and an introspective frown. « She doesn’t look like the type to run away, » Yakumo had said, and Ling-Ling glumly agreed: they were actually going to have to work this case.
« So what exactly goes on at these all-girl nights? » he asks Ling-Ling.
She shrugs and pulls a bland expression. « Does it really look like this is my usual scene? We’ll find out, but try not to get too distracted by it. I know you’re a spy for your gender here, but there is a missing girl at stake. »
« I’m really not that interested… » They’re getting gradually closer to the front of the line. This place even has female bouncers on the door. One of them looks approximately the size of Ran-Pao-Pao.
But they’re allowed inside with no trouble. If anything, the bouncers look at Ling-Ling more closely than Yakumo, because she’s a little older than most of this crowd. That or perhaps the canny calculation that’s perpetually lurking behind her spectacles gives them pause.
Inside the club, the crush of female bodies is staggering. How are they supposed to find one girl from all of this? Even Pai looks very uncertain as they all try to keep together rather than be carried off by the flow of the crowd. As for Yakumo, it seems he can’t even take a step without brushing against something he shouldn’t — but if he apologises, will that draw attention–? He stutters and edges his way through to the bar.
« Hey! » Ling-Ling says loudly to the woman in shirt and bow-tie who’s serving drinks there. « We’re meeting our friend here, but I didn’t expect it to be so busy as all this. Have you seen her? » She pulls out the photograph, alarming Yakumo as she reveals a brief flash of the contents of her bag, but nobody else notices.
« Not today, » the bartender says. « She’s a regular, right? I haven’t seen her for a week or two. Good to hear she’s coming back, but I can’t help you. »
« Okay, thanks, then we’ll have drinks while we wait for the slowpoke! » Ling-Ling proceeds to order — wine for herself and water for Yakumo and Pai, which seems unfair — as casually as if she really is on a normal night out and there hasn’t been an ulterior motive to all that. Yakumo seriously envies Ling-Ling her capacity for sneakiness.
As the bartender moves on to other patrons, Ling-Ling turns back, sucks on her drink and waves the photo in her hand. « I’m going to ask around. You two stay here and keep your eyes open. Everyone comes first to the bar, after all! » She winks and disappears into the crowd.
« Man, she scares me sometimes. » Yakumo stares after her. Why is somebody that terrifyingly competent running a failed small-press paranormal publication anyway? he wonders, not for the first time. He turns back to Pai–
Sanjiyan dumps her glass of water into a potted plant and shoves the empty glass at the bartender, demanding a beer. « Yakumo, pay her. »
He gulps, automatically patting himself down and not finding pockets. Of course, girls have handbags. He does not have a handbag. There are some limits. « I don’t– »
She sighs through her teeth, making it sound like a hiss. He isn’t sure where she gets the money from that she dumps from her hand onto the bar, but he is fairly sure she didn’t have it a moment ago. She drinks her beer from the bottle. Beneath the curls of hair on her forehead, he can see her third eye sliding around in a study of the place when she tips her head back, but fortunately the light is dim, and tinged with red and purple besides, and it makes the irregularity a lot harder to see. You can tell there’s something on her forehead, but hopefully the uninformed can’t tell exactly what.
« W-what are you doing out? » he stammers.
« What business is it of yours? » At least she leaves the ‘slave’ unspoken at the end. « I like places such as these. Pai does not go to them nearly often enough. »
Is that a criticism of him, somehow? « Er… » He isn’t really certain enough to address it.
« Yakumo. » She turns her triple gaze fully onto him, and there’s something… unusual… in there. He abruptly remembers how he’s dressed. « I… had forgotten. You really must exercise this side of yourself more often. » He just about manages not to yelp as her arm curls down and her fingers dig into his hip through the fabric of the dress.
« It’s not a– what are you d– » Her lips muffle his words into silence. His thoughts continue to race. What the hell? Did she drink that beer already? No way that’s enough for her to be drunk, even if Pai never drinks! Sanjiyan… Sanjiyan likes…? Wait! His brain has some kind of meltdown at that point, and he can only respond to what she’s doing.
When she pulls back, apart from the shock of losing her touch, he also has a truly alarming moment of remembering where they are and his supposed disguise. Then he realises, looking around, that girls groping and kissing each other isn’t an entirely foreign event in this club, and relaxes — for a given value of ‘relaxed’.
« I — is my lipstick smeared? » he manages. She seems to have lost interest in him, irritation on her face as she signals the bartender for another drink and is ignored in favour of people who’ve been waiting longer. For a moment, he’s extremely worried that she might damage them for the offence.
She eyes him. « Yes. » He knows this, actually, because she has it smudged around her lips. It looks disturbingly cute, and thinking of how it got there, entirely arousing, and–
Yakumo squeaks and flees towards the bathrooms. « Going to — off to go — fix it! » he yelps behind him. « Don’t go anywhere! » Realising the futility of saying something like that to the Sanjiyan, and the extreme inadvisability of separating himself from her in a place like this besides, but… but…
But damn it, it’s her fault that he doesn’t have a choice!
He remembers at the last minute to divert his course to the next door along. Yakumo has been in a ladies room before, but the signs on the doors at ‘Culture Shock’ were largely what the beholder made of them. He didn’t anticipate queuing while surrounded by chattering and giggling girls. He folds his hands in front of him wishing he thought to ask Ling-Ling if he could borrow a handbag after all, and when he finally gets a cubicle, locks himself away in it with a groan.
He slams his head against the wall a few times. Doesn’t help. He grips himself through his skirt. Shit, he is not going to take care of himself in a ladies room while wearing a dress. Damn Sanjiyan anyway. Did she mean to do this to him? Can she guess his predicament now?
Shit! He slams his head into the wall again.
Then he puts down the seat, perches cross-legged on top of it, and does his damnedest to enter into meditation, ignoring the chatter of the girls outside. Eventually, he manages to reach a level of calm that lets him seize back control of his body.
After a last slow, relieved breath before once more facing the enemy, he emerges from the cubicle.
Looking in the ladies’ room mirror, he straightens his crooked wig and clears the lipstick smudge from around his mouth, although he did not think, either, to bring more to touch up his appearance. He didn’t anticipate a situation where he’d have to. Mama would be either laughing or tutting at him, he’s not sure which. He is a complete failure at his crossdressing-fu.
« Here! » He looks up, startled. A small girl next to him offers up a lipstick from her purse with a shy but helpfully earnest smile. It’s even a close match to the right shade. He gapes. « Ah… t-thanks, » he manages to stutter, taking it, and realising abruptly that his voice doesn’t sound feminine in the least.
Apparently she doesn’t notice. At least, there is something in the way she’s studying him that’s oddly intent, but it doesn’t strike him as obvious shock or suspicion about his gender. If anything, it’s the ‘Wu’ symbol on his forehead that he feels abruptly conscious of. It seems to burn beneath the make-up. He remembers that they came here in search of some suspected involvement of the supernatural, but… this girl? Really?
She’s startlingly pretty, but also exceedingly decorated, to an excess that he’s not really sure what she might look like underneath it all. Her sparkling blue eyes are almost swamped amid the blue swirls that surround them. Her hair is a sea of elaborate twists. Her tiny nose and mouth, and something about the line of her jaw, strike a note of familiarity in him, but it isn’t until he’s fumbled through applying the lipstick and is handing it back to her that he realises why.
« You! » The lipstick falls through both their fingers and lands on the floor. She jumps back, her eyes flying wide. « You’re–you’re Song Jia Li! Wait! » He grabs for her arm as she turns to flee. « Everyone’s looking for you. »
Faster and more lithely than his eyes can seem to follow, she’s twisted out of his grasp, and he isn’t sure how. But it’s she who cries out, « What are you? » with fear in her expression, backpedalling. « No! I shouldn’t be here. You… I felt… I followed… but I can’t– Go away! »
The door slams behind her, and again, somehow she’s managed to dodge between all the intervening bodies as though they aren’t there, leaving Yakumo surrounded by female stares.
He grimaces and waves his empty palms placatingly, grabs her lipstick up from the floor, and follows her with a good deal less grace.
Out in the even more tightly packed bustle of the club floor, she’s nowhere in sight. He isn’t surprised, and if she can move like that then he has little chance of catching up to her in there anyway.
He stares down at his hand, barely seeing the lipstick. For a moment, when he touched her, he felt… that had definitely been youki. A powerful demonic energy. Evidently, she felt his own youki, too.
It looks like Mrs Song’s daughter isn’t the victim of a demon but something other than human herself. What, though? She doesn’t seem dangerous, he thinks, but there’s definitely something supernatural about the way she can move. It’s probably no case of mere chance that she found him, either. He’s guessing she sensed the immense energy of a Wu subconsciously. Damn — if something’s going on here, what position does that put them in, with Sanjiyan deciding to come out instead of Pai? If his presence is noticeable, her presence is like a flaming beacon for all of the demon world.
He makes his way back through to the bar. Sanjiyan isn’t there. Ling-Ling is, looking cross.
« Hey– » He tries to get his piece in before the inevitable roasting. « Ling-Ling, I saw her! But we’ve got trouble. The Sanjiyan’s out, and I don’t know where she went. Well, other than on a bender… »
« Saw her? Jia Li? » Ling-Ling asks, whatever tirade she’s been building up rocked off course.
« Yes, but I lost her. I don’t think she’s human. » He explains to Ling-Ling about the rest of the encounter.
She gives him a peevish look. « So you found her and lost her. But really, Yakumo, even if it did prove useful, you could restrain yourself. We’re here less than half an hour, and already you’re checking out the ladies room? »
« It wasn’t like that! The Sanjiyan, she– » He stops as he realises that he doesn’t actually want to tell Ling-Ling this story. He feels his face redden. « I needed to, okay? »
Her eyes remain cynical. « This is interesting, though. The good thing is that the girl is still alive, but obviously the situation isn’t as reported. » She strokes her chin. He guesses that she’s thinking, I hope this won’t affect our fee. « Wait, Sanjiyan is here? In a club that could be infested with demons? » She grimaces. « I suppose she can look after herself. We’ll know if she gets into trouble; we can follow the sounds of property damage. Damn it, I wish we’d brought Steve. »
Getting Steve past the door would be quite the feat.
« This is hers. » Yakumo hands her the lipstick. « Maybe he can use it to get some sense of… something, later. Ling-Ling, I’m not sure we can catch this girl if she doesn’t want to be found. She’s fast, and moves like nothing I’ve ever seen. I suppose at least we can tell her mother that she’s alive. »
« But alive as what? That might not be a blessing, Yakumo! »
« Uh… » That one stabs acutely. But their conversation, and its rather uneasy turn, is drowned out by a sudden rise of excited chatter, and a jostling starts to move through the crowd. The pounding music that’s been in the background all this time has died down. « What’s going on? »
« It looks like the main feature is about the start, » Ling-Ling says. Then she smirks. « Come on, I’m told it’s something to see. Since you’re the pervert-spy here, you should definitely try for a spot near the front! » She clamps a hand over his wrist and drags him through the crowd. It should be easier, since the crowd are all moving in the same direction now, but Ling-Ling’s competitive streak demands her getting there faster than everyone else. By using Yakumo’s larger body as a shield to batter anyone else out of the way, she manages to get almost to the front of the large, low stage set up on the centre of the club’s back wall.
Lights are starting to flicker and music to pound. Between the flashes, the silhouettes of moving bodies are just becoming visible, moving closer from the back of the stage. As the flashes grow brighter and longer, the glitter and colour of amazing costumes swishing through the air around the figures blaze into the consciousness. It’s hypnotic. And it’s nothing mundane. Yakumo gapes, and steals a glance at the people around him. Ling-Ling’s… everyone else’s attention is transfixed upon the stage. There’s a static crackle on the air, as if they’re on the verge of something, but it’s something that he can’t quite feel. Not the way he can see that they feel it.
« Yakumo! » Sanjiyan is there, her hand on his shoulder. He cringes, anticipating, but she says nothing about earlier. Rather, her eyes are wide and her mouth open in worried exclamation. « There is magic at work here. A very powerful energy. We must beware! »
« I know. » He grabs her hand, squeezing. It’s automatic. He has the urgent sense that if he doesn’t cling to her, she’ll be gone, too. « Ling-Ling’s… » He shakes her shoulder, on his other side, but she doesn’t even look at him.
« Yakumo! » Sanjiyan’s eyes have raised to the stage as the music and lights pound into overdrive and the dancers really start moving.
« Don’t look! » But it’s too late. He can see, in the strobing light, her face — all three eyes wide and rapt, her mouth in an open smile of exhilaration, the light bouncing off all the sharp points of her teeth. « No, don’t, damn it! » Her hand is still in his, but her fingers no longer grip back. He crushes her fingers, trying to get a response. « Sanjiyan! …Ling-Ling! » No matter how he pulls at either of them, no matter how he tries to block their view, they turn right back, or shove around him, or stare as if they can see right through him.
The crowd roars, their voices seeming to lift up the fast-moving dancers’ bodies still higher. The trailing swoops of their awesome costumes leave patterns imprinted on the air. Ling-Ling screams along with the crowd and raises her arms, as if she longs to get part of herself closer that energy, to touch it. Sanjiyan maintains more dignity, but is still locked there, enrapt.
« Why aren’t I affected? » Yakumo asks, aloud, to nobody who can hear. He looks around desperately. It only confirms that there’s no-one to answer him. « Why… I’m not a woman, is that why? » The dance is incredible, but there’s nothing in it that awakes his desires as a man. The clothes are beautiful, but they move around the masked female dancers’ bodies almost… not sexlessly, because on some level, that’s all of what this is about, but without any sexual appeal.
This is not for him.
He hasn’t properly thought about it until that moment, but abruptly he’s very highly conscious of being surrounded by nothing but women. While, for some reason, in his life this is by no means unusual, the sudden isolation of it now clamps down on him…. the sense of being alone. Alone, alien, and… under threat?
It’s oppressive. He feels panicked. His thoughts try to close down, overruled by some primal instinct of danger that makes his consciousness want to go hide in a corner, and he has to fight it off. They couldn’t know that he’s a man, could they? They might sense his youki, but not his gender. And with Sanjiyan standing right next to him, his youki is hardly the one that they’ll…
« Stop, Sanjiyan, no! » Caught up in feeling the press of super-hyped up female energy around him, he hasn’t noticed that three of the dancers were moving closer and closer to their nearest part of the stage. Their hands reach down, beckoning, offering… The grinning Sanjiyan reaches up, and jumps… His fingers brush the heel of her shoe.
Then, Sanjiyan is dancing there, too, and finally Yakumo is captivated, but it’s not under their spell. Sanjiyan’s bare limbs flash, moving among the covered, glittering dancers. Her rainbow dress flits among them, and even though, compared to the rest, her movements are as slow as treacle, she is still the one who takes his breath away. Something in his chest hurts, sweet and keen, and he struggles to breathe at all.
She doesn’t look at him once.
One of the other dancers does, though. It takes him long enough to notice, to tear his eyes away from the Sanjiyan and see how the girl, shorter than most of the other dancers, anonymous behind her mask, seems always to be straying closer, to have that blank, painted wooden face pointed his way.
He sees, beneath the tumbling headdress, the tufts of artfully arranged hair, and he remembers where he’s so very recently seen someone move like these dancers before.
Song Jia Li, on stage in front of him.
He raises his arm, craning, and as she reaches down to pull him up, and their fingers tangle– pulls her down into his grasp.
She gasps as he catches her in his arms, and starts to struggle. « No, » she says. « No, you’re supposed to come up, like the other… the Divine One… You are like her. You are her companion, are you not? That power I sensed, earlier… »
« There’s no way I could go up there! » Yakumo realises how true it is on how many levels even as he says it. The very idea is terrifying. « I need to talk to you. Quickly, while everyone else is busy. » He ducks down, throwing his arm over her shoulder, and runs, crouching, beneath the front of the stage, in the shadows between the dancers and the crowd. He aims for a curtain with a door behind it, and they fall through into a prop room of some kind. He looks around quickly for anyone else, then shuts the door behind him. Everyone else is transfixed by the display of the dancing, even the bouncers.
Jia Li seems dazed. He’s ripped her away in the middle of something she can’t really control, he realises, and if she’s making little sense and giving him little resistance, that’s probably why. He sits her down in a chair. « First, you need to know that your mother’s looking for you, Miss Song. She thought you were dead. People think you’re missing. Why didn’t you go home? Why didn’t you at least tell them? »
« I… can’t, » she says numbly, big eyes staring at him. Her mask has fallen off somewhere in all the rush. « I have to be here with them. I need to be dancing. I should be dancing now… » She makes to get up and he pushes her down.
« What did they do to you? » he demands. « Tell me what happened? They’re all demons, aren’t they? What’s going on in this club? »
« I told you, I need to go back. » Her desperation intensifies. « I belong with them! I can’t leave. I have to dance. » She rises and her body starts to blur. Yakumo, with a desperate yelp, flings both arms around her and clings tight.
« Wait, I need to know one thing first! At least answer me this — don’t you even care about your mother? She hired us to find out what happened to you. Don’t you owe it to her to at least tell her you’re alive before you go off with a troupe of dancing demons and decide you’re never going to see her again?! »
« She hired– » A hitch in her voice, surprise choking the words off. « Wait… » Yakumo feels her hand creep up between them and realises he crushed her face into his fake bosom. « But then you’re not… oh, no. » Her fingers drag off his wig. It falls on the floor when she lets it go. Her hand rises to her mouth. « Oh, no, no, they’re going to be so angry! And I– I almost pulled you up among us. You can’t be here! You have to leave. Leave now! » Her voice is rising almost to a shriek.
« Shush! » He manages to twist his grip around to hold a hand over her mouth. « Look, Jia Li… I can get you out of here, and I will. I’ll take you back to your mother. You don’t need to do anything with these people. However you think they have you trapped, whatever hold you think they have over you, we can solve it. I’m sure we can. Please trust me. »
He waits until he feels her nod against his hand, then slowly releases his grip. « I don’t think… I don’t know if it’s possible, » the girl whispers. « But I would like to see her again. » A quiet sob escapes her lips. « I don’t want her to think I’m dead. »
« That’s a start. » Self-consciously, Yakumo lets her go and edges back, picking up the wig, keeping a watch on the door. The noise level seems to have died down slightly outside. « We should get you out of here now, while we can. Tell me, what hold do they have over you? How do I break it? »
« I… I don’t know, » she says quietly. The mask is on the floor by the door. She walks over and picks it up, stroking it between her fingers sadly. « I only know that I came here to see the show, and it was… amazing, electric… beyond description. It moved something in me so, so much. All I wanted then was to dance, and when their hands reached down and pulled me up onto the stage… I was one of them. » She looks up and her eyes shine fiercely, almost a glow. « I don’t want it to end. I felt their energy become a part of me. I want to stay here forever! » Something in her grows fierce, straightening her body, and Yakumo can feel her youki being reinforced, even from several feet away. Then it dwindles once more, uncertainly. « But the truth is, I haven’t even thought of my family since that time… my old family. Only the group, and the dance, and nothing else until I felt your strange energy today. Can that be right? » Tears fall down her face, streaking the blue make-up. « My mother thinks I’m dead, and I never spared a single thought for her at all. »
« You were under a spell. » Yakumo touches her shoulder lightly. « Its grip must have weakened already if you see enough to realise that now. I think we should get you out of here first, then I’ll find out if there’s anything we need to do and come back later. » What about Ling-Ling and Sanjiyan? he wonders. Ling-Ling… she’ll be okay, won’t she? Just as all those other women will be — they’ll walk out of the club as they do every week, once the music and the dancing have stopped. But Sanjiyan was up on that stage…
No, he thinks. Sanjiyan is… Sanjiyan. However their influence works, these demons surely can’t make her one of them with a single dance.
« All right, » Jia Li says. « All right. I’ll try. »
« Try what? » It’s as sudden as that. The dancers ghost around them from nowhere. He doesn’t even hear or see a door open. They move so quickly, so silently, that one instant they’re simply there. Yakumo is surrounded.
He reflexively clutches the wig on his head, which he wasn’t able to check after he put it back on. It probably doesn’t matter if it’s crooked, though. He has a feeling he won’t be able to fool all of these women when they have their attention narrowed solely upon him.
« Please, » Jia Li says. « Please. I just want to go home one last time, to say goodbye to my mother. This person came looking for me because she asked it… »
« What. Is. This? » The tall dancer who steps forward from the rest seems to care about nothing except Yakumo, enunciating each word sharply. When she takes her mask off, her eyes are the glowing orange of hot coals behind it. Now, that definitely isn’t human.
Before he can move, she’s behind him, and has torn the wig off again. As she circles him as swiftly, her fingernails scrape across his chest, drawing blood and ripping the false bosom askew. She’s taller than he is by several inches, with pale hair and very wide, pink lips. Her skin is so white and cold it almost seems tinted greyish-blue, and he doesn’t think it’s artificial. He’s not sure where her colouring might have come from originally, but she definitely isn’t Chinese, isn’t Asian, and he’s not even sure if she’s ever been human.
« Don’t hurt him, » Jia Li begs. « He was only looking for me. Vita! Vita, my mother thinks I’m dead. »
« That way is probably best. » The demon woman’s eyes flicker briefly upwards, but swiftly return to Yakumo. He feels like his skin is being peeled off by them, slowly. There is nothing human or understanding in her voice as she accuses him: « You saw. »
« I… » He backs away, despite knowing how useless the gesture is when they can move at their sorts of speed. « My name is Fujii Yakumo. Song Yun asked me to look for her missing daughter… » It’s probably best not to mention the name of Yogekisha — which doesn’t have what might be called a favourable reputation among the demon world — or to bring Ling-Ling or the Sanjiyan into this if he can help it. Especially if they’re as furious as all that. After all, him they can’t kill. But Jia Li knows about his connection with the Sanjiyan already. Do the others? « I didn’t mean to intrude into anything else. Just to find the girl. Please, let me take her back to her mother. If she wants to come back to you after that, then she’ll come back. I don’t have any business keeping her anywhere against her will… no more than do you people. »
« Useless words! » Vita spits. « She cannot go back. None of us can go back, once the dance takes us, and you, you should not be here. You should not have seen! »
Something cracks across his face, and he’s startled enough to cry out. Suddenly she’s on the other side of him. He raises a hand and speckles of blood begin to drip onto it before he can even connect his fingers to explore the damage.
« What do you mean to do?! » Jia Li cries. « Vita, take care, he’s not human, either! »
So much for an ally.
« I know that, fool! Whatever else, he is still a male. Our rules on this are inviolable. Stay back if you want no part of it. » Vita’s tongue curls pinkly about her lips in a long lick, and Yakumo likes neither the gesture nor the atmosphere of expectation that’s descended upon the room.
« Stop! » he says urgently. « I don’t want to fight you. We need to talk about this. » There’s a blur on the edge of his vision, and then a blow across his shoulders sends him staggering. He falls forward into another just the same — this time he can see and feel the ripping nails across his neck. Struggling for breath, he lifts a hand to clamp over the wound, feeling warm blood seeping into the ragged fabric of the dress.
His other hand, he snaps out in front of him, extending the knife from his gauntlet. He scowls up and painfully hisses through his damaged throat, « Just because I don’t want to fight you doesn’t mean I won’t. Stop this before someone gets hurt. »
The reply he receives is a second line of fire across his back, delivered at such speed that shreds of fabric from the red dress puff out onto the air, fluttering slowly to the ground as he reels from that blow, and the next, blood splattering up from his outstretched arm, and he can’t even tag whoever did it with his blade. They’re so fast.
Jia Li is crying, backing away with silver floods cascading from each eye. It’s disconcerting how much her tears sparkle, until he realises it’s the glitter in her make-up mixed in with them. He won’t die, but she doesn’t know that.
Yakumo bares his teeth and focuses on his extended hand, ignoring two more stinging blows as he speaks the words: « In the name of Fujii Yakumo, I call you, Tou-Chao! » The arcs of the claws around him are as fast as the demon dancers. Two of them become visible as they fall away, clutching slices in their costumes and flesh alike.
« You dare! » Vita roars.
« I dare defend myself! » Yakumo yells back, forcing out a voice that’s hoarse and bubbling. « Let me leave with the girl and nobody else will get hurt! » He glares across at her in challenge, dripping blood from half a dozen wounds with Tou-chao poised firmly on the edge of his mind. He doesn’t get the sense that Vita is any less prepared than he to continue fighting her corner, though, and he’s less certain of his position if the threat doesn’t work. They’ve done nothing so far to indicate they’re truly dangerous, except their fervour to protect the troupe and its secret. He doesn’t truly want to harm them. If it doesn’t work…
« We are faster than you, » Vita snarls. « And whatever else you are, you still bleed like a man. » She all but spits the last word. « You will not win. »
She doesn’t know anything, but has no opportunity, fortunately, to have to prove it. It’s in that poised split second before the fight is about to resume that Sanjiyan walks into their midst.
« Stop this! » Her fingers are raised in that familiar gesture. Yakumo can’t tell if its threat is aimed at himself or the dancers or just everyone present. Her glare for him is utter contempt, but it’s to the dancers that she speaks: « That is my servant, and you cannot kill him without attacking me. » She waits a moment, as if daring them to, then smiles, sweet and dark. « In which instance, you will all surely be dead. »
Now that the masks are all off, Yakumo can see that, like Vita, the other dancers aren’t all of them Chinese. Nor are they all young, nor all beautiful, apart from the grace of their movements. There are women and girls of all races, and a few, like Vita, of uncertain origin, and the sense of age in some of their eyes makes him think that, whoever they are, whatever they do, they have been doing it in many, many places for a very long time.
Yakumo holds onto his throat to try and ease breathing through it and the disturbing hiss that the escaping air makes. He stares back at the women, whose stares at him are full of dull anger and betrayal. All except Jia Li, the newest of them, who seems merely fearful and cowed, but also, since the Sanjiyan’s arrival, quietly very, very relieved.
« Seima, » Vita says slowly, bowing low in obvious petition. Things have become a little more civilised like that in the short interval since the violent scene was broken apart. The faceless dancers, unmasked, gather around, some even seated, and all of them relocated to a large, comfortable dressing room reached through an adjoining door. The request on Vita’s lips is not very civilised. « Please, I beg you. Give us the man. He has crossed a forbidden line. The things he has witnessed, we cannot allow him to carry away from here. Surely, Seima, you can replace him with other servants? »
Yakumo bristles, but the Sanjiyan is already there. « Not this one. His life is bound to mine. Furthermore, he is here because I allowed it, when I did not understand who you were. The fault is therefore mine. » Her eyes — all three — narrow with growing impatience, and she says much less formally, « Give it up, Vita. He does not even understand what he has seen. »
« Of course he does not, » a tall caucasian blonde with sharp cheekbones, one of those dancers Yakumo injured, says. « That is not the point. »
« You will leave my Wu alone, » Sanjiyan snaps. « His faults, which are many, are my plague to bear. »
« Hey, » Yakumo wheezes. « I was doing what we came here to do. Do you even remember the job? Ling-Ling? …And where is she? What happened out there? You’re right, I don’t understand. I don’t understand any of this. And maybe that’s a good thing! You were dancing with them! Under some sort of spell… »
« It was no spell, » Sanjiyan says, clear surprise and an almost trancelike wonder in her recollection overriding her derision. « It was… beauty… spirit… primal power and essence. I grieve for you that you could not experience it! Even if you do look remarkably presentable in that dress. »
That reminds him of earlier and he feels his face heat up. Choking doesn’t do anything at all to help his healing throat.
« Our lot is to share this dance eternally, » Vita says. « It is our gift. Never have we allowed a man to experience it and live. But perhaps… I do not feel any sense of a woman’s soul from you, but tell me, boy, perhaps you do wish to be your disguise in truth…? »
Shaking his head is also kind of a bad idea, but the question strikes him otherwise speechless. Maybe he should have said yes, he thinks, as he hears her low, frustrated growl. Maybe it would have allowed them to use that to retain their dignity: but on the other hand, he doesn’t know the extent of their powers, and has at least half a suspicion that if he said he wished to be a woman he might well find himself spending the rest of his life as one.
He’s not sure he’s up to coping with that, on top of everything else that’s happened to his body.
« What about Jia Li? » He digs in with determination. « You’ve all forgotten about her, but she’s the reason we came. The outside world thinks she’s dead! Maybe you’re not here to cause anyone else harm, but you’ve changed her into something other than human, ripped her whole life away from her! So at least… at least, what about her mother? Can’t you at least limit the damage you’ve done by letting her prove to her family that she’s still alive? »
The Sanjiyan lands an unfathomable look upon him as he speaks the phrase ‘other than human’. « This is personal to you, my Wu? » she asks. While he’s still stammering, she turns to address the dancers again, and brusquely, unexpectedly, challenges them. « Can the girl not choose? Does she not have a voice? Is your advocacy of the power of the female merely for show? »
« It is not, » Vita begins angrily, then shrinks back as she realises who she addressed in such a tone. « It is simply not done. Nobody looks back, once chosen. If he had not interfered, Jia Li would not have known this grief at all! In any case, there are dangers. The power, especially when it is unstable, new… unexpected things may happen. You already know how it is transferred. » Yakumo reflexively looks at his hands, which have touched Jia Li a number of times by now, and she sneers at him. « Not to you. »
« But then, Sanjiyan was right up there on stage… »
« You think their small power could truly effect me? »
He didn’t, but it’s a relief to hear it nonetheless. « You were dancing, » he mutters, ducking his head and trying to hide his face beneath his hair.
« It was liberating, Pervert Wu. » As if she can read his thoughts. « They are a lower order of demon than I, so have no fear for me. Ah– » A canny amusement comes into her expression, and she turns, smirk broadening to a wide smile, as a figure bursts through the door and explodes into dark billows of smoke that spread outwards to fill the room.
A familiar voice rises in a war cry and Yakumo blinks astonishment as the smoke starts to clear only to reveal talismans decked absolutely everywhere — including upon several of the dancers — and Ling-Ling poised panting for breath in their midst with a gun gripped in each hand. « Quickly! » she yells, choking a bit from the smoke. « Yakumo, are you okay? Shit, is Sanjiyan still under their thrall? »
« ‘Thrall’, » the Sanjiyan repeats, starting to look less amused.
« Ling-Ling, it’s okay, we were… uh, talking it over… » Yakumo reaches out tentatively to try and pluck a talisman off the face of an extremely pissed off Vita, but can’t make his fingers quite connect: they just keep twitching away. « Uh… a little help? »
Her eyebrows scrunch up above her glasses. « Are you sure? You’re not somehow under a spell as well? I don’t even know what happened out there! It took me ages to shake it off. »
« They’re not trying to hurt anyone… I don’t think. » Because he still can’t say he’s completely convinced of it, himself.
« They are demons, » Ling-Ling argues petulantly, still unwilling to negate her mad heroic rescue.
« In case you haven’t noticed, these things work on us, too, » Yakumo groans, giving up and pulling back his jittery hand. « Can you take the talismans off them, please? They’re only going to get more annoyed the longer they’re left… »
« He is right, » Sanjiyan says. « These people mean us no harm, nor any to any other, except incidentally. Like most beings. While your rescue is efficient– » read as, more efficient than Some could manage « –there is no need for such measures. »
She moves into the centre of the room, claiming attentions, and as she does, her triple eyes meet Yakumo’s two, sharply. It’s one of those times when he hears her voice in his mind as distinctly as if she speaks next to his ear. « Yakumo, go. »
For a moment, he doesn’t understand. But then he sees Jia Li nervously edge up beside him, the door Ling-Ling entered through unguarded, and half the dancers taken out of action by talismans while the other half are only looking at the Sanjiyan or the crazy new female intruder. Why argue when they can sort this out right now? he agrees. It’s a good enough chance.
He grabs Jia Li’s hand, finger pressed to his lips, and pulls her away with him, ducking out of the open door.
« Oh, god… » She’s still in shock from the events in the club, and as soon as they’re out in the street in the open air and she’s free to do so, she’s babbling frantically. « Your throat — your dress — what happened in there? » She stumbles and clutches onto his arm.
They’re getting stares, and it’s not surprising. Yakumo is aware that with the damage and disarray he no longer looks like anything other than a beat-up boy wearing a dress. His choice of colour was fortunate, though — it disguises quite how much blood resulted from the wound to his throat. « It’s fine, » he says. « I can’t die. Any injury will heal. It’s part of the Sanjiyan’s power — come on, we’ll get a taxi, and we’ll go straight back to your mother. We should go before they can try to stop us. Whatever she said, that Vita wasn’t sold on the idea of letting you do this. » He grimaces as another cab shoots straight past and he urges Jia Li to the kerb in his place. « You flag down the taxi and I’ll hang back, okay? They’re not going to stop for me. »
They finally manage to get installed in the back of a cab and she stares at him through wide, fearful eyes, reflecting the colours of the neon as they drive through night-time Hong Kong. « Why are you doing all this for me? » she asks. « No… I know you’re getting paid, but why do you care so much? »
« Anyone would! » Yakumo protests. « I just want to help. »
« No, it’s more than that. Back there, the Seima saw it, too… » Jia Li’s expression turns distant and star struck. Sanjiyan seems to have that effect on these demons. After a moment, she returns back down to Earth. « She said you were her servant. » She ducks her head. « You don’t seem like a demon. I mean, you don’t seem exactly normal, either, but… You seem like a person, which… which she doesn’t. »
« No, » Yakumo sighs. « This happened to me by chance. I had a normal life once, as well. I suppose… that’s what Sanjiyan meant. » He trails off. He wonders, suddenly, if she was upset by that. By the idea that this mattered to him. Well… He could tell it to Pai — if not her — that he wouldn’t have the events in Tokyo five years ago undone, if it meant he never met her. He wouldn’t trade that away, no matter what. He looks across to Jia Li slowly, not flinching when she lifts her head and unintentionally pins his gaze. « Is it worth it? Dancing with them? Giving up your humanity? »
« I… » she falters, blushes and ducks her head even lower than before. Her cheeks tinge red. « I never felt anything like that anywhere. I never felt so alive like that. I didn’t know I could. Mother used to be a dancer, but I could never learn well. So I need to… I need to tell her that I’ve found this. I’m so glad you came after me, so that she’ll get to know. »
Yakumo blinks, and puts a hand carefully on the girl’s shoulder, unable to think of anything to say when faced with her tears.
The taxi driver watches them in the mirror with all the caution best used to deal with the insane. But he’s probably seen worse.
« This one. » Jia Li points into the darkness outside the car window. « We’re here. »
They’re outside a moderate apartment block, with the lights of a nearby dim-sum restaurant reflecting in the taxi windows. Yakumo has little idea what time it is, but certainly well past late enough for most of the residents to be asleep. They are not going to make themselves popular.
Song Yun, though, appears quickly at Jia Li’s tentative knock, and of course, she has not been asleep.
The moment almost freezes as the two women reach for each other, and Yakumo only just manages to interpose himself between them, blocking with his body and pulling Mrs Song back. « You can’t touch, remember what Vita said? It could be dangerous. » He feels terrible for getting in their way, but it’s that or risk endangering the older woman. Song Yun’s attention passes over him vaguely, and if she registers any oddness in his appearance, she doesn’t care.
« You found her, Mr… Fujii, isn’t it? But, Jia Li — Jia Li, why can’t we touch? It’s really you isn’t it? You’re alive, you’re here! Mr Fujii, why can’t I hold my daughter? »
« I came to say goodbye, mother, » the girl says, openly crying again. « I’m not dead, but I can’t come back, either. I can never come back. It’s not — it’s not anything bad, you understand. It’s the opposite — it’s wonderful, but — I can’t come home. » Yakumo’s heart does a funny jolt. The familiarity is sharp all around. « Don’t you worry about me, mother. Don’t worry. »
« How can I not? » Song Yun tries to push through Yakumo, stronger than she seems. She has wiry muscles, and trained movement, despite her limp. « When my daughter is saying such things, how can’t I worry? I won’t accept it! »
« I don’t want to! » Jia Li keens. « I don’t want to leave you. » Yakumo see the sudden flash of determination in her desperate eyes, but doesn’t see it soon enough, and she can move so very much faster than him, besides–
Before he can do anything about it, she has moved around him and reached out to grasp her mother’s hand, jostling him as she pulls the older woman towards her. « Why would it be so wrong to be together? »
There is nothing greatly visible or dramatic in the moment, nothing to indicate transformation. When Song Yun steps back, though, it’s with a gasp, her eyes wide, and her limp is gone. « Jia Li… » she breathes, and then her eyes cloud, and she looks through them as if she doesn’t know them at all.
A blur in the corner of the room acquires a voice: « Sister, come with me. »
Yakumo spins, finding a second blur. « You– »
Vita is in front of him. To his left, he’s aware of Song Yun vanishing. A heavy feeling weighs down the centre of his chest. Jia Li is still standing next to him, frozen, struck into awful silence. What the hell? What just happened?
Did they ever lose the demon dancers at all?
He doesn’t have chance to dodge as Vita’s hand blurs towards his face. The heel of her palm strikes his nose and he feels cartilage snap and flesh burst against his cheek. He chokes a muffled cry and clamps a hand over the damage to protect himself from further blows, but she doesn’t strike again. He raises his head and glares at her through his watering eyes. A patina of satisfaction coats her anger.
He says with difficulty, « You know this will heal inside of about five minutes. »
« Of course, » she responds. « Otherwise, I could not risk going against Seima-Sama’s wishes that her servant remain unharmed. »
Bitch, he thinks, but doesn’t voice it. The injury will heal quickly. Let her have the moment to vent her anger, if it makes things easier.
Vita looks at Jia Li then back at him with scorn and just a trace — perhaps — of loss, and says, « Let her live the rest of her life now knowing what she might have had. Who have you helped?! » She spits the last word and then she, too, is gone. Yakumo clamps his hand over his nose and moans sickly as he feels the mashed cartilage trying to pull itself back into shape.
« Jia Li, » he says thickly. « Jia Li, are you okay? »
She seems dazed. Her powers gone, the faint vibration of them is absent now from the edges of his senses. She stands still just inside the threshold of the small apartment and her gaze focuses elsewhere, upon a different world that’s now lost. « Maybe… » she whispers. « I think maybe it was never meant for me. »
She wanted to be together, but instead made a simple exchange. Maybe it was because she was alone, without the powers of the troupe. She didn’t expect it, Yakumo certainly couldn’t, and–
He wonders what it might be like, if Mrs Huang had her way back then. At least… if it had been possible to replace him without killing him. He thinks of someone other than him bound to Pai’s side… « I’m really sorry, » he says, around his gummed-up hand.
« No. » She shakes her head, but the denial doesn’t stop the tears from falling. « I’m not sorry. My mother will live forever, or near enough. She has back the dance, the dancing she loves. That’s… it’s wonderful. » Still, the tears fall. « I… I know that it will be wonderful, and beautiful, and… and so much more. »
She takes a deep breath, managing to hold herself straighter. « But I know this, too, because I’ve seen it. I know she’ll never even think of me again. »
Sanjiyan and Ling-Ling arrive, eventually, both of them travelling by Air Fei-Oh. Ling-Ling looks slightly green for the experience; Sanjiyan just looks annoyed.
Yakumo is sitting outside the apartment block with a wad of his usefully-roomy, usefully-red sleeve clamped over his nose, waiting for them. Or, alternatively, waiting until the bleeding ceases enough that he might call Shou-rin and get himself back off to Yogekisha. They arrive first. He isn’t feeling particularly full of light and happiness with the world.
« Yakumo, » the Sanjiyan says. « Is it over? » She reads the wordless response. « Then, come. »
She holds out a hand imperiously.
He takes it and is pulled onto Fei-Oh’s back. Within moments, Song Jia Li and Song Yun’s home is just another of dozens of similar blocks, lost in the maze of the bright lit city below.
« What happened? »
He watches the city, a pattern of colourful neon and white-lit windows. « The girl locked herself away, crying. The mother’s a demon. Your new best friend broke my nose. So it went well. » Off her expression, he elaborates upon that to explain events in full.
Ling-Ling sighs. « At least we got paid most of the money from Mrs Song in advance. »
« Vita was right, » Yakumo says bitterly. « They just swapped places. Song Yun is a demon, and Jia Li is alone. Who did we help? »
« I cannot say, » Sanjiyan replies imperiously, sticking her nose up in the air and turning away from him, and he looks at the back of her head, warily, not dragging his gaze away even when Ling-Ling speaks.
« Each knows the other is alive and well. Even if they can’t be together, there’s a lot to be said for that. Jia Li has her whole life ahead of her, and she’ll realise it in time, and realise that the world she’s given up was a gift to her mother. Song Yun has back the life she lost and more. That Vita knows it, too. The punch is not the parting shot that she intended to cause the most damage, Yakumo. »
Finally, he turns to her, watching her face intently for signs any of that was just hollow words. But although she’s still holding the back of her hand close to her mouth and looks very pale in the moonlight, there is nothing there suggestive of insincerity.
« Excuse me, » says Ling-Ling then, and with her fingers clinging for all they’re worth to the ridges of the monster’s back, leans over the edge of Fei-Oh’s flying form. Yakumo hopes there’s nobody directly underneath.
That effectively takes Ling-Ling out of the equation and leaves Yakumo stuck with Sanjiyan. He’s not sure that’s a good idea right now because he has the feeling that he’s pissed her off. She’s still refusing to even look his way.
« You’re not my curse, you know that, » he says slowly, dragging the words from his throat. It’s healed now, but the words are still difficult, buried and deep, and don’t want to come. « And I don’t regret it, my life with you. Not even the tiniest bit. If I made you think that, I’m sorry. »
She turns at last, the line of her mouth straight and blank, and states austerely, « What interest should it be of mine? I care only about your ability to serve me effectively, not your willingness to do so. Your loyalty is guaranteed by the bond between your life and mine. »
Then, Sanjiyan blinks, and– blinks. The eye in her forehead doesn’t re-open.
« Pai… »
« Yakumo! » And suddenly, his arms are full of excitable Pai, chattering over what she must have missed and fussing over his nose — when she finally notices it, which is after accidentally elbowing it and starting the bleeding again–
He wouldn’t trade this life, he thinks — he decides to think it, firmly, and fiercely, recollecting that conversation with poor Jia Li as he clutches Pai. It’s okay to have Sanjiyan calling him a slave, and demons tearing him to shreds on a daily basis. To not be human… at least, for as long as Pai isn’t human. That feeling, earlier, it was nothing but meaningless nostalgia. Only that, and nothing worth dwelling upon at all.