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Phosphorous Snowfall

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XXXIII: The Sunrise Festival of Hinode Mountain

 

 

Even at the crack of dawn, Rin could tell that this would be a beautiful day. Not a cloud in the sky, not an ounce of humidity, and, to his joy, not a single sight of Amaimon’s familiar spike of hair following him around. Rin hoped he would have gone after Samael instead, because he was much more looking forward to what was planned for the weekend than worrying about one of his brothers tailing him.

It was during breakfast that Shiro finally explained what they were doing, and though Rin had had his doubts before coming here, now he was very curious and excited. They were going hiking in the mountains! According to Shiro, there would be a festival taking place near the summit, at the Musashi-mitake-jinja Shrine, called the Sunrise Festival. The festival itself would take place the following day, on May 8th, but they were going today to catch the first half of the procession climbing up the mountain to the shrine. There was talk of people dressed as samurais, monks in white, and a procession of spirits and peaceful demons across the entire Hinode and Mitake mountains.

Yukio had been worried that they were going there as Exorcists from True Cross, but Shiro had been quick to dismiss his worries when he showed up in casual clothing, seemingly ready to hike with his shorts and sandals.

“We’re going as tourists!” Shiro had said with a wide, beaming grin toward both of them, making Rin laugh and Yukio flinch back. “It’s a nice, easy trail, so we don’t need any fancy equipment, but dress up appropriately and bring some spares. Go on, you two! We’re taking the train in an hour, so be ready!”

Rin had never gone this far out of True Cross Town yet, but the prospect of walking in a mountainous region on this side of the world was something he was very much looking forward to, so much that he had immediately ran to his room to change first. He went for something simple but light, a t-shirt with a sleeveless jacket and a pair of loose cargo shorts. While he waited for Yukio to decide what he wanted to wear, Rin sat on his friend’s bed, rocking back and forth as he recalled the last time he had gone to “hike” in the mountains.

“Yeah so there’s this whole mountain range between Amaimon and Iblis’s territories? Because it’s not really specific to any of them, it’s a great place for demons with no elemental kinning, and while most of them are loners that don’t really care to have me wandering around, it’s still a pretty nice area to travel in. Sometimes at the highest peak you can see Father’s resting place, wayyy in the distance… It’s this big pillar of blue flame rising up in the sky, and it, uh, mixes with the red clouds and makes this really pretty purple mist I kinda like… I guess it’d be pretty if you hadn’t seen him up close first, huh?”

Though a part of Yukio was fascinated with this conversation, he never asked what his friend’s father looked like. He feared the description of Satan, the Demon God, wouldn’t be kind to his human brain.

“I can assure you, Rinka,” Yukio said with a smile as he picked up a set of hiking clothes similar to his friend’s and a jacket, “from atop Hinode Mountain you won’t be seeing any father of yours. I heard the sight from the peak was spectacular, and that you can see all of Tokyo from it. I bet up there you can see the stars without light pollution too.”

“Huh?” Rin sounded surprised. “The stars? What, there’s more to them?”

“Yeah,” Yukio turned to smile his way as he changed shirts. “If you think the ones we see from down here are all of them, then… You know what, I’m not gonna spoil it for you. You’ll see tonight!”

Rin’s impatient whine made Yukio laugh almost evilly. He, too, hoped the sight would deliver.

 

~~~

 

The train ride to Hinode was almost an hour of pure, impatient waiting, but thankfully Yukio’s father seemed to be in a talkative mood, so he spent almost the entire ride telling stories about the last few times he’d gone to the festival as an Exorcist on duty. As he was retelling the one time a tengu had almost ruined the procession on their way to the peak, Rin was looking outside the window at the speeding landscape. He had already taken the train a few times in the past, but never to go this far out, and Yukio could see from the corner of his eye the way the glamoured demon was gaping in awe as buildings and streets became forested mountains and distant peaks and districts.

Yukio couldn’t help but wonder what his father expected out of this trip, if he expected anything at all. And as his mind began to turn and twist looking for grim possibilities, it dawned on him how easily those thoughts came to him nowadays… Did Father Fujimoto really want something out of this? Or was it much more simple in nature than his suspicious thoughts made it seem to be…? He got his answer sooner than he had thought when, beside him, Rin twisted in his seat.

“So what do we do if we meet other Exorcists up there?” Rin asked, pulling him out of his thought maze. “Are there wards I should worry about…?”

“No, don’t worry about it,” Shiro replied with a dismissive wave of his hand. “All the wards are lifted around this time of year to allow the spirits to travel freely. Usually the monks handle all the work, but True Cross Exorcists are there as added security, so if we get recognized… well I’ll just say I’m here as a dad with his two boys. Can’t be the Paladin on my days off!”

While Rin had simply laughed it off, Yukio had frozen at those words, letting them sink in. A dad with his boys… He let himself relax in his seat. Perhaps it all really was a lot simpler than it seemed…

When they made it to the Hinode station, they were already at the foot of the mountain, and as a result, it was immediately hard to hold Rin down. Already the excited demon was grabbing Yukio by the hand and dragging him along with the crowd, with Shiro laughing as he followed at a slower pace behind them. They waited for him at the gate leading up into the trail, and from there Rin was already baffled by what he was seeing up the path. It led into a forest, a most ancient one, whose trees were large and thick and twisted along the trail like guideposts, their canopy serving as a roof into those green and mossy tunnels. There were wide humid stones shaped like steps all the way along the trail, intertwining between the large protruding roots that broke up the path intermittently, and while they helped make it even easier, they also gave this path a sense of sanctity, somehow. Like climbing up the steps to a temple, or an ascension into another realm.

As they walked through the thick, warm yet fresh air that flooded the mountain, Rin felt that this forest was completely different from the ancient forests of Gehenna he had grown in. He could spend a lot of time lounging around there when he was set loose in Amaimon’s realm, and though the size and might of the gargantuan trees reminded him greatly of his brother’s petrified stone forests, they held none of the… everything that this place had. It was simply not comparable to him.

There were smaller shrines all over the place too, and while Rin and Yukio both marveled at them (Rin especially gushed over the cuteness of the smallest ones, some of which were hidden away in moss and stones between roots and trees), Shiro explained that they were all there for the spirits and demons to rest from their long journey along the procession, and that when comes night they should expect to see demons resting in those shrines. Already in plain daylight, while they couldn’t see them directly as they were off the path in hiding, Rin told them that he could smell demons all around them and that he was excited to meet them.

“Most demons don’t really like me, haha,” Rin told them with a timid laugh as he crouched down near a small shrine to look at the runes and objects hidden inside. “At least back home. I dunno, they get scared or somethin’, or they just ignore me. Here, I dunno, they’re… nicer. I can actually talk to them! It’s like they’re happier here, you know what I mean?”

As he looked down fondly at his smiling friend, Yukio could see exactly what he was talking about.

As the day skipped along, the sights of the forested mountain multiplied into more elaborate shrines, clear rivers and a higher altitude that often gave them breathtaking views of the surrounding landscape. At one point, Shiro stopped his climb when they reached a certain wooden bench he remembered oddly clearly. It was still there, on a large stepstone off to the side, right underneath a great sequoia. Stepping closer, he looked not at the otherwise normal bench, but rather farther away behind it. Ah, yes, it was still there, he could see it behind those overgrown bushes. The priest turned back to look up into the trail, and saw that Rin and Yukio were already farther ahead, chatting away and laughing out loud. He waved his hand, calling:

“Yo, boys! Over here!”

They both paused and turned back to look his way, and he waited for them to catch up to him, a mischievous grin growing on his face.

“What’s wrong, Dad?” Yukio asked as he crossed the last few steps toward him. “Do you need to sit a bit?”

“Huh? No way, kiddo, yer dad’s fine!” Shiro laughed, before sneakily pointing a thumb behind the bench. “There’s just something I want you both to see. Come on, follow me.”

Without explaining anything else, the sneaky priest casually walked around the bench and disappeared into the bushes, reduced to nothing but rustling leaves. Rin and Yukio both watched, incredulous, for a short moment until they decided to go with it, and in they went as well. What was hidden behind the bushes was merely more forest, but strangely the soil wasn’t packed with shrubs and weeds that would make it hard to traverse, but in thick roots and moss instead. It seemed like the trees opened up more pathways for them out here, even though they were clearly off the main trail. While Rin was having fun climbing and jumping over all the roots of the giant trees, Yukio was spinning around himself, unsure of where to even look. Scarce rays of light pierced the canopy in select places, dancing whenever a breeze blew by and the leaves trembled under its gentle care. It was so quiet, so tranquil.

For him, who was so busy all the time and always had his nose in books and paperwork when he wasn’t demon hunting, having this moment just to stand there and look at all of this without thinking that he had somewhere to be… It felt liberating.

“Woah~! Hey Yukio! Come look up here!”

Turning back, he spotted Rin waving over to him from the top of a taller outcrop supported by twisted roots, and he was quick to trot over there and climb up. He gladly took the hand Rin was holding out to him, and once he was at the same level, he turned to face what his demon friend was talking about. And he had to admit, that view was something indeed. From up here, they could see all the way down the mountain path through a clear in the trees, and beyond the green of the canopy down below, there were the distant shapes of Tokyo, reduced to pale blurs against the blue of the sky, beyond the green gates of the mountain. Everything seemed so far, all their troubles, all their worries, and all they were running from. They stood there for a time, taking it in, until Rin eventually said:

“You know, I was nervous about coming here.”

His voice was low, his words reserved only for him, and he listened.

“I dunno what to think of your dad, or myself, anymore. I… honestly can’t look at that sword without feeling sick. But… today’s been great. I’d like to think he really meant what he said on the train.”

“What he said…?”

“You know… being a dad with his two boys.”

Yukio had asked, but he had been sure that it was what he was referring to, because those words were on his mind too. Before he could tell him that he felt the same, they both heard their names being called and they turned to Shiro, who was farther away between the trees and waiting for them. He looked excited to be here, which certainly surprised Yukio in a pleasant way, so it was with a hop in his step that he followed Rin down the outcrop and back on track.

“So what exactly is out here, Dad?” the spectacled teen eventually asked, with Rin giving a nod in unison. “ Is there something here?”

“Ah-ah!” Shiro waved a finger in the air, casting a smirking glance back at them. “That’s part of the surprise, kiddo.”

“Is it that big of a surprise?” Rin asked, stretching his arms over his head and leaving them crossed behind.

“Well it’s not the ‘end of the world’ type of surprises,” Shiro chuckled as he climbed over a root and extended a hand to help both of them up, “unless that’s the type you want. No, it’s somethin’ special I wanted to show you two.”

As they began to walk down a dirt path that felt a bit like walking down a hill, Shiro went on with his story, and while he did, Yukio was reminded of the voice his father took when he would read him bedtime stories as a kid. A gruff voice that didn’t seem to understand the wonder hidden beneath.

“See, when I was a young Exorcist still climbin’ the ranks, I often got stuck here on patrol duty during the Hinode festival. It was to keep the monks safe and any rogue demons from causing trouble, but it was actually rare that any action ever happened, save for that one time with the tengu, so young me was dreadfully bored out of my mind. I didn’t really care for all this festival crap, I thought it was just as boring. So, when no one was tailing me everywhere, I used to sneak off down here… annnnd right around here, I’d go hide and chill out by myself. Take a look, boys.”

A wall of trees stood before them, completely blocking the view, and it was only when they stepped beyond them that the true spectacle revealed itself. The mountain was covered in many small rivers of pure, clear water, all seemingly vanishing and reappearing on a whim, between rocks, swirling between trees, gushing currents to tranquil streams. And they all poured here, it seemed.

Beyond the line of trees was a humbly large lake, entirely surrounded by the trees like a solid fence. The hills all descended into the basin, a conglomerating point for all the different rivers to join into one pool. The dark surface lay immobile, not bothered by any breeze nor any single noise. Its shores were nothing but moss-covered roots and dull, flat rocks, upon which they all stood as they quietly approached. Of course, it was Rin who broke the silence.

“It’s so pretty! Holy Hell!”

“Hah,” Shiro chuckled, keeping his voice notably down. “That’s about what I said when I first found this place. It’s somethin’, isn’t it?”

Yukio wanted to add something to compliment the beauty of this hidden marvel, but as he often did, he found himself at a loss for words. It felt wrong to speak here, somehow, like they were being listened to by something unseen. He couldn’t quite put his own thoughts into words, and so he remained quiet, and went along with it when Shiro proposed they eat their lunch here.

All was as quiet as ever as they ate, sitting together on one of the flat rocks near the still waters, and not even idle talk or whispered words could disturb this quietness. Yukio observed Rin attentively, he saw how his friend was doing his best to act as normally as he could with his father, despite his doubts and worries, and he wondered, among all the other questions swimming in his head, if the silence of this hidden lake was the silence that Rin adored of Assiah. He recalled a conversation that had never quite left him, when they were eight years old, where the silence of Gehenna was described as aggressive, and he wondered, again, if this tranquility was what kept the demon at peace when he was here. He wondered if he had a role to play in it, and he wondered, of course, if there ever would be a time when he would be able to stay here with them, always. He watched quietly as Rin listened to his father tell another story about his old missions on the mountain, this one pertaining to this lake, and he wondered, with no shame this time, what exactly his father expected out of this.

Why would he let him befriend the demon he had tried to exorcise years ago? Why would he let said demon live among them, in his own church? Why would he hide the truth and pretend when he had known this whole time? Why was he making such an effort to tame Rinka too? He wanted something out of this, but what? Both Father Fujimoto and Rin weren’t saying everything, and it put Yukio on edge. He couldn’t push them to tell him, so he had no choice but to wait for them to open. And it was maddening.

Still, despite it all, he looked at his friend and his father, both smiling and laughing, and felt as though he was looking at something much bigger. Again, he wondered why things couldn’t be simpler. Why his father couldn’t just say the full truth. Why Rinka couldn’t just live with them. Why things… couldn’t be different.

“What are you thinking about, bud?”

He blinked, forcefully torn out of his daze, and looked properly at Rin, who was quickly munching down on the rest of his bento while gazing at him curiously. He looked down at his own lunch, just now noticing how little he had eaten.

“Not hungry?” Rin continued, making Yukio shake his head in response.

“No, it’s fine, I was just… thinking about things,” he replied, grabbing his chopsticks to resume eating. “I got a lot on my mind, and this hike is helping me think a bit more clearly. Somewhat.”

“Tell me about it,” the other teen agreed, mouth full as he gazed off toward the lake without elaborating. “It’s quiet here. I like it.”

Yukio smirked to himself as he averted his gaze. He had guessed just right.

“Hey, ssh. Look, over there,” Shiro suddenly spoke, quietly but urgently, making them both look to him first, then toward where he was looking.

Further down the shoreline, slowly stepping out from between the trees, was a doe. The graceful animal took cautious steps, its long ears flicking up and down as it listened, and it slowly made its way onto the flat rocks, seemingly unaware of their presence. It walked to the edge, where it went for a drink.

“Don’t move,” Shiro whispered, holding up a hand toward Rin who was clearly about to move, and Yukio followed the command easily. “Look, there’s more.”

More deer stepped out from between the trees, some small, some tall with antlers, and all of them aiming for the water’s edge. They were cautious, but so elegant, so slow and methodical in their steps. Rin sat up on his knees, leaning forward to get a better view of the sight, while Yukio was doing his best not to move. Sometimes, he had to admit, it was hard to distinguish between animals and demons. Subconsciously, a habit beaten into him from countless missions and a phobia he’d carried his whole life, he looked at each of the deer gathering on the lake’s shores, looking for one that seemed out of place… and was glad not to find any. He breathed out in relief. He wasn’t planning on letting his fear get the better of him, not today. Things were fine.

“What animal are those…?” he heard from Rin’s lowered voice, full of wonder.

“They are deer,” he replied in an equally hushed tone. “They usually live in forested areas, so we don’t get them in True Cross.”

“They’re so pretty…!”

“Majestic as they are, they can be very skittish too,” Shiro added, “so stay quiet for now.”

“They remind me of Cernunnos… It’s their horn thingies. Think they’re related?”

Yukio quickly cast a curious look in Rin’s direction, then to his dad, who looked just as baffled but seemed to take it from the ironic side of things. Of course Rin didn’t know what deer were, but he knew about Celtic mythology instead. Of all things. No doubt he had seen that entity in Gehenna, they both thought, though neither asked.

The deer scattered along the shore, unbothered by the three strangers sitting nearby, and they became another part of the calm wonder of this lake… though the calm didn’t last long. Both Rin and Yukio gave different signs that something was up. Where the demon prince began to sniff the air like a dog that had caught the smell of food, Yukio’s hair stood on end and he felt a series of shivers traverse him. It was then that they appeared; just like the deer, they came out of the forest from between the trees, a full army of small lively greenmen, sprites and wisps, all running and strolling for the water’s edge.

While Yukio was fine with those harmless demons, he felt more on edge when even more demons started showing up, this time from the lake itself, entire groups of water based - harmless still - demons that rose from the lake’s bottom like reflected shadows rising from sea weeds. The wisps went to dance across the lake’s surface, like fireflies in the middle of the day, and Yukio would have been okay with all this… if there weren’t so many of them. He physically recoiled, though he did his best to keep his composure, as greenmen flooded the rock they sat on and surrounded them like they were big attractions to be discovered. He saw his father smile, calmly, as he picked up one of the small mossy imps in his hand, and he heard Rin laugh as they climbed up his sprawled legs to bounce up on him happily, and Yukio had to keep his breath in so he wouldn’t do anything to scare the little things poking at his pants and shoes.

Things were fine, he repeated to himself. Those demons were totally harmless. Things were fine .

Except, of course, there was a reason all of those demons were gathered here, and it came in the form of a murmur across the lake. The leaves in the trees above moved and sang in a sudden breeze, and when they all turned to the lake, they saw it. It was fast; whatever it was, it was big and it was swimming under the surface, making circles around the lake as it spun between the schools of giggling water spirits. The deer weren’t afraid. The greenmen were cheering. Rin was standing up and waving his arms. And Yukio kept his hand close to his backpack, where he kept his seals hidden.

The large water being then stopped its circles near the shoreline, and for a few breaths, all was quiet… until it burst out of the water. It was a river spirit, Yukio quickly identified, a long dragon-like being made of water and weeds that extended its long transparent neck up to the canopy as it shook its body around. Two short and stubby watery legs settled on the flat rock before them as both Yukio and Shiro stood as well, but before the cadet could get his exorcism tools, his father gestured him to stop, and so Yukio stood very still, trying to keep calm even as the tall beast lowered its snout toward them. He tried to tell himself that if it was dangerous, it would have attacked them already, but somehow even those thoughts didn’t help much. He watched the rock teeth, the wooden claws and the glowing aqua green eyes of the beast as it observed each one of them, its long weed whiskers flicking along with each movement of the head, and wondered just how Rinka was able to just stand there before it. The demon prince was ecstatic even; he was laughing and he knew without his glamour his tail would be wagging.

“Wow!” he exclaimed, getting the spirit’s attention onto him. “I haven’t seen one of you guys in ages! That’s so cool! Hey Yukio, you seein’ this?!”

“Rinka, be careful,” Yukio warned, having to stop to swallow.

“I don’t think this river spirit is looking for trouble,” Shiro said, standing a bit more straight as he eyed the demon. “Relax, Yukio. It’s alright.”

They both got quiet again when the river spirit started growling, uttering mewls and strange underwater noises only a demon would be able to make. First it was toward Rin, then it spoke while waving its long snout toward both of them. Then, to their surprise, it lowered its head in a bow, the weeds along its spine flattening as well. Rin laughed, before turning back to them with a wide grin.

“It’s okay guys, she’s fine with us being here,” he said, much to Yukio’s relief. “She says she doesn’t get a lot of human visitors in her domain since they stick to the trails.”

The river dragon spoke some more, bobbing its head toward Shiro and dripping water everywhere as a result.

“She says she remembers you, Mr. Shiro,” he told him, making the priest widen his eyes. “Something about cleaning up trash that was blocking up a creek around here?”

“Oh my,” Shiro chuckled, rubbing at his chin pensively, “that was during one of the first times I came here if I remember correctly. Good memory! Well, the pleasure’s all mine!”

The dragon let out a few more mewls as it waved its head around, but Rin gave a confused hum as a response.

“Uh… she’s asking if you’re up to help her out again,” he translated, turning back to him. “She says there’s stuff stuck in her mouth that bothers her and she can’t get to it.”

“In… her mouth,” Shiro repeated, visibly trying to see if that was part of his line of duty, before he gave a shrug and marched up toward the shore. “Alright, let’s see about that. I’m no dentist though, just a fair warning!”

While he watched his father confidently walk up to the river spirit who was lowering its head onto the rocks and opening its see-through jaws wide, Yukio forced himself to take a deep breath. Things were… absolutely fine. He had no reason to worry. He closed his eyes, for only a moment. He needed to find his composure again. If he reacted this way every time he saw a slightly bigger demon than the usual, he wouldn’t go very far very fast. His fear seemed to have gotten worse as of late… it resulted in some pretty bad bouts of anxiety concerning his budding career. He looked up again, and watched as Rin was petting the watery demon on the neck, looking fascinated. The water scales reflected the light onto his face in distorted waves and spirals, and his smile was radiant.

He had to remind himself why he was doing all this. This was why.

Rin turned back to him and waved him over.

“Yukio, come over here! You gotta touch those scales, it’s so cool!”

The young Exorcist smiled faintly, but he shook his head.

“It’s fine, I’m good over here,” he responded, rooting his feet to the ground where greenmen had climbed to sit on his shoes. “I’ll trust you on that though.”

Rin then frowned toward him, though it was brief. His demon friend left the spirit’s side and stalked over to him, causing Yukio to recoil slightly again, but Rin was quick to grab his hand. He smiled, as he always did, and pulled him along.

“C’mon,” he said, “it’s totally fine. I’m here.”

And he was. With a shaky breath, Yukio let his friend pull him closer to the demon, and the closer and closer he was to it, the more he could feel his insides tighten nervously. He could see his father, working away at pulling something out of the beast’s open mouth, and only now that he was closer could he see that its maw was completely transparent. It was like gazing inside a glass bottle afloat in a gentle current.

Rin brought him to where he was standing earlier, where, still holding on to his hand, he raised his friend’s palm up to the demon’s watery skin. Slowly, carefully, he made Yukio’s hand come into contact with it, and the cold feeling under his palm made Yukio flinch slightly. Still, after a moment, he found calm. The scales of the river spirit were both as soft and delicate as petals and wet and slippery as stones constantly swept by the flow of a river, all the while retaining the fluidity and constancy of water. It was… fascinating, and truly wondrous. It reminded him of the fear and wonder of having blue flames dance on his arms for the first time. It was only then that he realized that Rin had let go of his hand. Yukio was petting the demon on his own. They faced each other, and this time, Yukio’s smile reflected off of his.

Things were more than fine.

 

 


XXXIV: The stars of Assiah

 

 

Being around this many demons wasn’t this bad, Yukio decided. Well, for a limited time, at least. For the time they remained around the lake’s shores and surrounding trails, greenmen and little forest sprites and spirits followed them playfully and curiously, and it took them finally leaving the cover of the woods and back to the main trails of the mountain for the demons to leave them. The next attraction on the list was the main reason for their coming here; the Sunrise festival, atop Mount Mitake, which was right next to Mount Hinode.

They arrived at the top of the mountain early enough in the late afternoon that they still had time for dinner at the lodging before the sacred procession that would take place at twilight. Rin and Yukio got to try out the local food, which they both fell in love with instantly, and Shiro was happy to show them around Mitake Village around the shrine and all the little wonders and tourist spots that littered the place. Because of the festival, there were a lot of people in the streets, and Rin got curious when he spotted entire groups of young people travelling in uniforms. When he asked Yukio about it, his friend observed them for a moment before humming in understanding.

“They seem to be students. I wouldn’t be surprised if some schools organized trips here for the festival. Mine never did though.”

“Huh. Must be fun to travel in big groups like that!” Rin laughed at the prospect, imagining the different dynamics that it would imply. “Didn’t you do a big class thing like that last year?”

“Yeah, it was a trip to Kyoto,” Yukio smiled at the memory. “I liked it, even though we mainly stuck to the bigger sightseeing spots. I’ll take you there eventually, I think you’d like it. It’s a lot different from Tokyo, a lot more… refined, I guess?”

Rin got excited at the mere suggestion of visiting another city; now that he was tasting what traveling around was like, he wouldn’t mind seeing much more like this!

Some time before the procession could even begin, they were all already stuck in a crowd of waiting people. While Rin was leaping on his tiptoes to try and look above the sea of heads, Shiro tapped Yukio on the shoulder and told him not to move, that he’d try to find a good spot to watch the event. Yukio agreed, but when he turned back to Rin to relay the message... his friend was already sneaking off into the crowd, slipping between people. Yukio panicked, and so he immediately disobeyed his father and went after Rin so as to not lose him.

“Rin!” he called out to him, making a move to grab his hand but barely missing. “Hold on! Where are you going? Dad said not to move!”

“C’mon, there’s something over there!” Rin called back, briefly stopping to grab his human friend and pulling him along.

They made it to the other side of the plaza they were waiting in, all the way to the edge where a line of tall pine trees stood. A small group of onlookers were circling one of them, Yukio quickly noticed. They were looking up at someone who was climbing up the tree’s branches. Yukio grew confused. What was going on here? As they drew near, he caught the end of a conversation, and the small hiccups of a child.

“-he’ll get it back, don’t worry,” a kind young voice said. “Look, he’s already almost there!”

There were teenagers their age here, all three dressed in the same uniform, most likely from one of the school groups they had spotted all over the place. One of them, a short spectacled one with a shaved head and a kind smile, was consoling a crying little girl, the other, the tallest with dark brown hair and an air that made him look older, was scowling at the tree and at their third companion, who seemed to be having issues climbing.

“Oy, Shima!” the tall one called out impatiently. “You hurryin’ up or what? We’re gonna miss the procession.”

“Come on, Bon, gimme some slack!” the one in the tree whined toward them. “This tree is unclimbable!”

“If you get stuck there, I’m not getting you down, I’m warning you,” the one referred to as Bon told him, crossing his arms with a sigh.

“What’s going on?” Rin asked no one in particular, looking from the guy in the tree to the rest of the crowd back and forth. “Why’s he getting stuck up there?”

“This girl’s scarf got blown up by the wind all the way up there, she says it was a gift from her grandmother,” the shorter teen with the shaved head replied in a hushed tone. “It’s a uh… well nevermind.”

“This jackass claimed he could go get it,” the scowling teen said with a move of his chin toward the tree, from which they heard a distant whine.

“I’m stuuuuuck! I can’t go up farther, the branches aren’t solid enough! I don’t wanna break my neck for a scarf!”

Yukio quickly analyzed the situation. He could see, all the way atop the tree, the scarf that was apparently blown up there, with red and purple patterns. He could also clearly see the flailing limbs of a dancing demon holding on to that scarf. He squinted his eyes briefly toward the other teenagers, wondering if they too could see it, but decided against bringing it up with the crowd so near. Instead, he turned to Rin, elbowing him in the ribs to get his attention. He motioned up the tree.

“You’re a good climber,” he reminded him. “Think you could save that guy and the scarf?”

Rin grinned widely, cackling in response as he stood proudly with his fists on his hips.

“‘Course I could! Watch me save the day, nyuk-nyuk!” the glamoured demon replied before marching off toward the tree, cracking his fingers and stretching his legs on the way.

“Monkey,” Yukio laughed after him.

“Huh? Can he climb higher?” the shaved teen asked, surprised.

Yukio didn’t even need to answer. He just smiled and let everyone watch as his nimble friend suddenly began ascending the trunk of the tree with little to no trouble or hesitation. It was like gravity was a myth to him. He grabbed on to one branch, would hoist himself up another, would jump up three more and then almost run against the trunk with his bare feet as he merely grabbed on to the bark for support, and overall it was quite amazing to see. Yukio heard gasps and murmurs of surprise amongst the crowd, and for once he wasn’t nervous about the attention being on Rin. He didn’t have to worry about every little thing. He was surprised himself when Rin quickly reached the guy stuck halfway up the tree, tapped him on the shoulder and said:

“Get back down, man, I got this.”

Yukio couldn’t help a chuckle at the face the other teenager made when Rin expertly leapt up the tree, using the very branches he had just said weren’t solid enough. While his friend got higher and higher, the other quickly made his way back down, immediately backing up the moment his feet touched down to gawk at the spectacle.

“Who the Hell is this guy!” he exclaimed. “He’s even more of a monkey than Ju-nii!”

Yukio even heard the little girl awe, making him briefly look down at her to see her face full of wonder, with zero trace of her previous sorrow. Rin reached the spot where the scarf was near the top with little to no problem, and for a moment, he didn’t move or make any grab toward the thing. Yukio couldn’t see the demon anymore, but another reason he had proposed that Rin go and get it was for this exact reason; Rin could talk to demons. He knew, at this exact moment, that the demon prince was most likely conversing with it and hopefully finding a way to get it back without killing anything.

It took a longer moment than he would have hoped, but Rin eventually reached out and turned back toward them on the ground, waving the scarf with a victorious grin. The little girl cheered, clapping her hands in joy, and that response reminded Yukio of the few times, as an Exwire and an Exorcist on the field, he received thanks from the people he helped. The joy and relief on their faces, the proud sentiment growing warmer in his chest… Little things he didn’t properly look at. They were here, in the big smile the little girl gave when Rin swiftly landed back on the ground and bent down to give it to her. He smiled too, but for different reasons.

Rin would be a natural at being an Exorcist. But that was a thought he would keep for himself.

When the little girl left with her scarf and her parents, and the crowd thinned out, the teenager called Shima walked up to Rin, looking impressed as he exclaimed:

“Wow man, that was cool! How’d ya learn to climb like that?!”

Rin immediately replied with a stutter, taking a small step back, and Yukio knew the sudden attention would be a bit much for him, so he stepped up to his side without a word. Rin looked a bit more comfortable as he replied:

“Oh, it’s uh, you know, I started practicing young. It’s all about managing your weight! Oh and, not breaking any flimsy branches.”

“Is that so?” the other answered with a smirk, a hand coming up to rub at his chin. “I should-”

“Don’t even think about it,” the one called Bon said as he and the other teenager joined them in a circle. “Your mom will kill ya before falling from the tree does.”

“Harsh, but true,” Shima’s expression crumbled, only to perk back up. “I’ll be stealthy then! Like one of those ninja guys we saw performing earlier!”

“The day Shima becomes a good ninja will be the day Konekomaru stops shaving his head,” Bon said jokingly.

Both Rin and Yukio kept looking back and forth between the two during the exchange, confused but intrigued by the dynamic on display. Of course, Rin was the one to bring up what Yukio was silently wondering, but in a less subtle and tactful way.

“You guys have a weird accent,” he said matter-of-factly, making Yukio whip his head to shush him down, but of course Rin ignored him. “You’re not from around here?”

“Weird accent yerself,” Bon retorted toward him, crossing his arms as though he took offense to it. “Ya don’t even sound like yer from Tokyo.”

“That’s ‘cause I’m not,” Rin laughed it off, waving his hand innocently. “So where ya from?”

“We’re all from Kyoto,” the smaller one, Konekomaru, answered with a polite smile. “We’re here on a school field trip to catch the Sunrise festival.”

“Kyoto?” Rin echoed, turning to Yukio to lightly slap his arm excitedly. “Hey you were talkin’ about that place earlier!”

“Yeah,” Yukio chuckled, turning to the other three, “I visited last year on a field trip too. How d-do you guys find Tokyo?”

He bit his lip briefly, quickly side-stepping so he was closer to his demon friend. First impressions were key. So far so good, he thought as the three told their impressions based on what they’d seen on their trip so far. The one who surprised him the most was the tallest, Bon, when he claimed that he was planning on coming to study here. Before Yukio could ask where he wanted to enroll, there was a wave of noise coming from the crowd. Something was going on, and right on cue, Yukio saw his father come out of the crowd, looking relieved once he spotted them.

“Come this way, boys, I found a nice viewing spot! The procession is coming up, hurry!”

“We should go,” Yukio said to the Kyoto teens as he grabbed Rin’s hand so he wouldn’t run off again. “I hope you three enjoy the rest of your trip.”

“Thanks!”

As he was being dragged off by Yukio, Rin turned back with a grin and called:

“Remember! Manage your weight! You can climb anything ya want!”

“Haha! I’ll keep that in mind!” Shima waved his hand. “See ya, Monkey Man!”

“Those guys were fun,” Rin commented as they followed Shiro into the crowd, and Yukio couldn’t help but agree they seemed amicable. “Now I really wanna go to Kyoto! I like their accent.”

Yukio silently promised that he’d take him there one day.

The spot Shiro had found was on elevated ground, just high enough that they could see above everyone’s heads and beyond. First, there came the music. Traditional ceremonial Japanese music, heard from a distance as lights slowly appeared down the steps leading up to the shrine. And as the crowd became silent and the monks came into view, solemn and humble, a line of demons of all kinds could be seen following behind them, chanting and singing along with the music. They were all at peace, in this ceremony dedicated to them, and though their presence somewhat unnerved him, Yukio thought it was a shame that even though this crowd was here for them, only a handful of people could properly see the spirits at all.

He turned to look at Rin. He was smiling brightly, eyes full of lights and music, and Yukio could see the little girl from earlier in that smile. He supposed… there were other ways demons could be seen. It didn’t have to be a meeting of fear.

 

~~~

 

That night, when the first half of the ceremony was over, the trio retreated to the lodging they were staying at, exhausted but pleased by their day out in the woods. The room they had gotten was small but cozy, with a traditional Japanese style to it that contrasted greatly with the European aura of the monastery. After they had bathed at the local bathhouse, Yukio and Rin both flopped over on their futons, practically dead, while Shiro walked over to the other side of the room. He slid open the wooden door to reveal a short balcony that circled the entire inn, and he was satisfied to find that they had a clear view of the night sky through the trees that surrounded the shrine grounds.

Sitting down on the tatami, he turned back to look at the boys. He couldn’t help a smile at the sight. Yukio was sprawled on his back on his futon, both arms and legs spread out in a star formation, while Rin was on his front, arms tucked to his sides with his butt held up in the air, flopped over his pillow. They wore matching yukatas with the inn’s name repeated in a pattern and were mumbling things to each other as though gossiping secrets.

Shiro sighed to himself, thinking of how things would be different if he could just say those few words that weighed on his conscience.

He decided not to, once again, and instead turned back to gaze outside.

“Oh!” He heard Yukio perk up, then shuffle around. “Right, Rinka, didn’t you want to see the stars? Dad, are they out?”

Shiro briefly looked back as the two boys both sat up with a renewed energy he didn’t think they still had, only to give a nod back outside with a tired hum.

“Yeah, and they’re beautiful up here. Come see. The moon is almost full tonight.”

He heard a lot of shuffling, which meant that he wasn’t that surprised to see Rin crawl over to the window first. His eyes were wide and glowing with wonder as he took in the sky, and while Yukio joined him with a quieter awe, Shiro couldn’t help but recall all the lights that had been hanging from the dome ceiling of the boy’s cell. He wondered if those had been his way of seeing the stars when he couldn’t be here. A bite of Assiah to gaze at when he was lonely. Once again the pity he had felt during his unknown visit in that cell crawled back in his throat like a snake.

He kept quiet and turned to look at this wonderful firmament too. The skies were clear up here, so much that they revealed more constellations than the little they could see from the monastery. If Rin had thought that they only came in such low numbers, to find out now that there was in fact a sea of lights in the sky and there were in fact millions upon millions of them… he could vaguely recall what he had felt himself, when he was young, the first time too…

“There’s… so many… How do they all fit up there?”

“They’re at different distances. Each and every single one of them is a sun like ours, with millions and millions of kilometers between each of them.”

“It’s… it’s big!”

“However big you think it is, it’s even bigger.”

“Woah…!”

He smirked to himself as he listened to their quiet talk. Maybe he could tell them… but when? Right now would seem poetic, but he could not run the risk of them freaking out in an inn like here, so it was out of the question. He had been lucky when he had confronted Rin about his own heritage, but now he knew the boy was a lot more fragile and broken than he had thought, so he would need to space it out, give him time. And for Yukio… There would be a high chance he would never forgive him. And Shiro wouldn’t blame him. This was… touchy, to say the least.

Still uncertain of the direction things needed to go, Shiro eventually looked back down at them, noticing they had gone quiet, but he wasn’t that surprised to find them nearly passed out, leaning against one another on the tatami floor. Correction: Rin had completely given in to sleep, while Yukio was still awake, though he did look drowsy.

“Need some help getting to bed?” Shiro chuckled in a whisper, to which his son replied with a small smile and a light shake of the head.

“No… it’s fine. Rin isn’t heavy.”

They remained in a long, comfortable silence as they gazed out at the sky, each lost in their own world. Shiro knew Yukio was growing suspicious of him and his actions, a suspicion that showed in the way he looked at him, in the frost in his gaze. Where they would once have been able to fill the silence with easy conversation, now Yukio prefered to stay quiet. It unnerved the priest, but at the same time, he had no clue what to do to rectify the situation. How could he regain his son’s trust after all this? How could he hope to keep that trust when the time would come to spill the truth…? He closed his eyes, keeping a sigh to himself, and wondered briefly if every parent out there had to go through this with their kid. He certainly didn’t know. Thirteen years old was a troubling age, and he was seeing the full brunt of it with Yukio’s silent treatment.

He didn’t know how long they had been sitting there, both pensive, but they were both taken out of their world when a mumble came from Rin. From where he was leaning heavily on Yukio’s shoulder, the demon boy was muttering unintelligible words in his sleep, and by the way his tail kept flicking back and forth, it was clear he was dreaming. He was like a sleeping cat who would kick its legs trying to catch something in its sleep. Though… it did not appear pleasant, by the way his brows furrowed and his nose scrunched up. Yukio noticed it as well, so he reached up to lightly shake Rin’s shoulder in hopes to rouse him up.

“Rin… Rinka, hey, wake up… You’re dreaming…”

“Hhhng… blurh… aah… fath… nnnn… dooohn’t...”

Shiro squinted his eyes, straining his ears to listen. What was he dreaming about…? As Yukio moved a bit more to try and wake him up, Rin suddenly jumped with a start and a kick of his legs, calling:

Father ! …huh…?”

He blinked the fires out of his eyes, first looking up at Yukio, then toward Shiro, and the priest could see the moment he realized he had been dreaming as relief swept through him. He lowered his head with an exhale, mumbling tiredly:

“Sorry, bad dream…”

“Are you okay?” Yukio asked, letting him fall back against him.

“Yea, yea, I’m fine… It’s nothing.”

While Yukio spread out his legs to let Rin’s head fall in his lap, Shiro thought back to the times he had caught Rin wandering at night, unable to sleep, looking very much as rattled as he was now. He leaned forward slightly toward the boy.

“Do you have these dreams often?”

Rin replied with a wide-jawed yawn that flashed his slightly sharper teeth as he curled up on the floor, freely using Yukio’s legs as a pillow.

“Yeah,” he replied honestly, “it’s nothing new, really. Been havin’ em since I was a kid. Don’t worry about it. Just whack me with a pillow if I make too much noise or somethin’.”

From where he was, Shiro saw that his eyes were open, and he was looking out the window. Expression blank.

“They’re just dreams…” Rin whispered. “He can’t see me here…”

“No, he can’t,” Yukio repeated, clearly having caught on to what - or who - he was referring to.

And without another word, Shiro turned back to look at the stars, many wishes and thoughts flashing through his mind. Hopefully they would both be right. Hopefully that dome ceiling full of lights and garlands would shield them both…

 




XXXV: The trio from Kyoto

 

 

The next morning, Yukio woke up feeling all kinds of sore, but overall well rested. While he lay still on his futon, slowly blinking the sleep out of his blurry eyes, he thought that, despite how he felt toward his father and despite his doubts over the reason behind their coming here, this trip had indeed been a good idea. Going away from work, from the routine of everyday life, just for one or two days, he already felt better than he did previously.

Raising himself up in a sitting position to stretch, he blindly went to grab his phone to squint at the time - barely 6 in the morning - and dropped it for his glasses. Once he could see, he scoured the room, only to find his father’s bed to be empty. Rin, however, was still sound asleep, and sound was the key word here. He was completely tangled in his sheets, with his legs going off both sides of the futon while the rest of him was twisted in a way that made him snore, loudly. Of course, he was also drooling. Thankfully, he didn’t seem to have been bothered by more shaky dreams featuring his father, much to Yukio’s relief.

He let him sleep some more for now and instead looked down at his friend’s phone, sitting next to the bed. Rin had taken a lot of pictures the day before but hadn’t had time to show them to him, and knowing him he would forget until he went back to Gehenna, so Yukio didn’t feel bad taking a look for himself.

He cycled through the gallery one picture at a time, slowly retracing their steps throughout the last day. Rin liked to keep mementos of everything that caught his eye, and he had certainly not skipped out on all the shrines along the hiking trail, as well as all the trees and steps. Unsurprisingly, he found a lot of pictures of him just walking along, sometimes looking back at the camera, and he smiled when he spotted one he remembered posing for, with Rin next to him holding up the camera. They were crouched next to a tiny shrine in which there were a couple of little mossy golems waving at them.

Looking back one more, he was surprised by this one too; it was of himself and his father, walking further ahead of him. They had their backs to the camera, but Shiro had one hand wrapped behind his back to rest on his shoulder as he pointed somewhere up ahead for him to look, and Yukio remembered it had been a mossy statue where a couple of Exorcists had once carved their names onto. For a moment, Yukio stared at the picture, unsure of what to think of it. Unsure of what to think of his father…

Mindlessly, he kept cycling through Rin’s gallery, retracing back days and weeks and remembering most of those moments, until he found the one picture he could not forget. The one of Rinka’s mother. Now they knew her name. Egin Yuri. His father had always known. It always came back to this, didn’t it? His father knew things, and he kept those things secret until he judged the time to be right. What else was he hiding from them both? Did a horrible secret also surround Yukio? He wouldn’t be surprised.

The teen sighed. He was already tired of doubting him. He just wished things could be said with no restraint. He just wished things could be simpler...

Speaking of the devil, the door to their room slid open, and in came Shiro, holding a large tray filled with food. The old man smiled his way as he closed the door behind him, saying:

“Good morning, Yukio! I see you woke up on time for breakfast. Wake Rin up before he misses it, once we eat we’ll go see the rest of the Sunrise ceremony.”

With a nod and a greeting, Yukio quickly closed the gallery and the phone, stuffing it in Rin’s backpack, and went to shake his friend awake. It took some effort, but the demon eventually mumbled a sign he was awake and swatted his hand away blindly, rolling his face in his pillow. He immediately lifted it off though, making a face at his own drool now spread on his cheek, and Yukio couldn’t help but chuckle at him. Slowly blinking awake, Rin slapped his hand on his sticky cheek and mumbled tiredly as he sat up, hair in a glorious mess.

“Mmmmornin’,” he slurred, hugging his blanket, most likely not even conscious.

He perked up as soon as food was put under his nose, though, and they all ate breakfast heartily while Shiro recounted their schedule for the day. First, the second half of the ceremony, which would lead them to the top of the mountain along with the procession and anyone else participating in the event. Then, they would head back down the mountain taking a different trail through Mount Mitake instead, which he swore was just as breathtaking. Overall, another busy day of walking, but one the two boys were looking forward to.

As the three of them followed behind the procession, which now consisted of a group of monks carrying a beautifully ornamented mikoshi, surrounded by children and men dressed as samurai, in a humble crowd that followed close behind as they began their ascension through the shrine grounds, Yukio found himself taking a moment to tune out. He focussed on the simple act of breathing in the freshly cold morning mountain air, pure and liberating as it was, and allowed himself to simply be taken by the flow of things.

Following the palanquin and listening to the Shinto prayers chanted by the monks, the boy almost forgot that this ceremony was for demons. He was only reminded of it when he saw them again, running through the crowd unseen by most, little shadows and harmless sprites and spirits that slid between their legs and danced and hopped around gingerly. He breathed out, and found himself unbothered by their presence. Some warm fingers and some cold beads brushed against the back of his hand, causing him to smile a bit more to himself. He extended his hand and held Rin’s palm in his, sensing that his friend was going through his own maze of thoughts and mixed feelings as well.

Maybe… that had been why they were brought here. As they climbed up the mountain in a line of strangers and demons, they came a little bit closer to understanding some things, though what exactly those things were, it was uncertain.

At the top of the mountain, when they reached the final set of stairs where the ceremony came to an end, Yukio turned away from where all eyes were set and looked back. From atop this platform, he could see farther than he had ever seen before, beyond the distant shapes of Tokyo, beyond the waving forms of distant mountaintops, beyond the clouds and beyond the world. He stood very still, and found himself shocked to be a part of this very world he was now gazing upon. It was simply… shocking. No grand reveals, no speeches, no overwhelming emotions. Just a simple realization.

He turned to face Rinka, found him looking at the same landscape. But… whatever he had realized was far from the simplicity that Yukio faced. He looked… incredibly saddened, by something that was beyond either of their control. Yukio gave a squeeze to his hand, and felt a quick response, a search for comfort. Yukio had a good idea what sadness ailed him.

Behind them, Shiro observed, quiet and thoughtful.

 

~~~

 

On their way down from the mountaintop, a humble, quiet descent back to the lodging, they were torn out of their silent stupor when a somewhat familiar voice called out behind them.

“Oh hey! It’s the monkey guys from yesterday!”

Surprised, Rin and Yukio both turned in unison to spot the Kyoto trio from the night before, with the one who had been stuck in the tree - what was his name again? - waving toward them. They both slowed down a bit, letting them catch up to them along the stairs.

“Hiya!” Rin immediately regained his good mood, or maybe he was masking whatever had taken hold of him atop the mountain with a smile, and waved. “The Kyoto guys, right? Pretty neat ceremony up there, huh?”

The grinning teen came to walk beside Rin, and while he started talking as casually as though he knew them since forever, Yukio briefly spared a glance toward his father, only to see him busy talking with someone in a familiar black uniform. He wondered, only for a brief moment, if he was using the excuse of being a dad with his two boys like he had said in the train, only to brush that aside and turn his attention back to the present. He had missed a bit of conversation, it seemed, because what he caught next also caught him by surprise.

“But yeah, enough about the ceremony stuff. You guys can see them too, right? It’s how you got that scarf back yesterday, right?”

“Shima!” The short shaved teen slapped him on the arm, though that did little to stop him. “You can’t just bring that up to anyone…!”

“Uh, yeah I can,” Shima snorted toward his short friend, “I just did.”

The taller of the trio - Bon if Yukio recalled - gave an irritated sigh and took his friend by the sleeve to forcibly pull him away, taking his place next to Rin on the stairs.

“Don’t mind him, he’s an idiot,” he said, pulling a snort out of the disguised demon next to him. “Can’t even introduce himself before asking questions, pff. I’m Suguro Ryuji, by the way.”

“I’m Shima Renzo!” Shima proudly said from his side of the group.

“And I’m Miwa Konekomaru,” the shorter teen timidly said, pushing his glasses up his nose in a manner Yukio was more than familiar with.

“Nice to know you guys have names,” Rin laughed, making Yukio chuckle in response with a shake of his head.

“I’m Okumura Yukio,” he decided to introduce himself, holding out a hand for Suguro to shake.

“And I’m Rin!”

“Just Rin?” inquired Konekomaru, to which Rin shrugged.

“Just Rin.”

Yukio quickly pondered whether speaking of this was a good idea or not, but his logic was gravely hit by the altitude, which probably affected his ability to doubt strangers, so he decided to go along with it, after sneaking another quick glance toward his busy father.

“So…” he started, hesitantly. “You guys can see demons?”

Rin turned to him, evidently surprised he’d brought it up himself - while Yukio was surprised Rin hadn’t done so himself yet - but didn’t say anything as Shima looked much too pleased with his guessing game.

“Ah-ah! I knew it!” he exclaimed, only to hush down. “You do see them too!”

“Only Shima and I can see them,” Konekomaru quickly explained. “Bon doesn’t have a Temptaint yet.”

“Sucks, ‘cause he missed out on a lot of the cool stuff here,” Shima commented.

“Hmph!” came from Ryuji as he crossed his arms, his frown ever so constant on his face. “I’ll be getting it soon enough. I’ll finally see what you guys are all talking about.”

Yukio recalled what he had heard the day before and perked up, looking over to the taller teen.

“That reminds me… you mentioned you wanted to come study in Tokyo? Are you… going to enroll in True Cross Academy?”

The other turned his way, looking surprised, then a pleased smile came up on his face, proving that though his frown was almost constant, it wasn’t mean in any way.

“Yeah, I will,” he replied, making Yukio grin in response. “I’m working to get all the scholarships I need for it. I need to go there to achieve my goal.”

“Oh hey!” Rin cheered, taking Yukio’s hand to squeeze it. “Yukio’s gonna go there too!”

“Great!” Ryuji smiled, holding out his fist so Yukio could fistbump it, though he hesitated briefly before doing it. “You lookin’ to become an Exorcist too?”

“You… could say that,” Yukio smiled timidly.

“We’ll be following Bon there too,” Konekomaru said, Shima nodding in agreement. “Our temple is affiliated with True Cross, so it’s only normal for us to go.”

There was a moment where everyone turned to each other, all knowing smiles, and they all knew they’d see each other again at the same school in two years. It felt like a perfect moment where fate had decided to make them meet right now.

“What about you, Just Rin?” Shima turned to the glamoured demon. “You goin’ to True Cross Academy too?”

Yukio was quick to spot the hesitation in his friend’s face before it dissolved into an apologetic smile and a tilt of the head.

“Me? Nah, I probably won’t.”

“Mh? Goin’ someplace else?”

“Nah, I just don’t go to school. S’not really for me. But I’ll bet you’ll still see me hanging around! If Yukio’s there, I’m probably not far behind, hehe!”

Yukio tried to ignore the way Rin’s hand squeezed his own tighter at that moment, and the way his own guts twisted.

“I’m sorry to ask like that, but… are you two brothers?” Konekomaru inquired, much to both of their surprise.

“I wish,” Rin laughed, with the other concerned nodding with a wishful smile. “But nah, we’re not.”

“What makes you ask?” Yukio asked toward the shorter teen, who shook his head.

“Oh, it’s just that I thought you two looked really similar.”

“Now that I look at it, yeah,” Suguro nodded, bending over to properly look at them both. “It’s the face.”

Rin and Yukio both looked at each other, trying to see what they were talking about. It was the first time someone brought up that fact, and though he really enjoyed the little daydream that they could be blood brothers, Yukio smirked at the idea. It was just that. An idea. The similarities were most likely a coincidence, nothing more.

“Well, we’re already best buds, so we might as well be bros!” Rin laughed out loud, snaking an arm around Yukio’s neck to awkwardly hug him from the side. “Right, bro ?”

“You know,” Yukio choked under his demonic hold, “I’ll take that name anytime over my other nickname.”

Other nickname?” Shima smirked, curious as a snake. “Please, do share!”

And Yukio immediately hated the grin Rin gave, so he quickly slammed his hand over his opening mouth so he wouldn’t utter that name.

“It’s nothing!” Yukio quickly said instead. “Right, Rin?”

Rin smirked at him with his eyes, but he gave a nod and an affirmative muffled hum that Yukio still didn’t fully trust. Shima snickered while the others gave amused laughs, but before anyone could bring up another subject, they were already arriving at the bottom of the stairs, back in the village, and both groups had to go their own way.

“I guess we’ll see you again at True Cross Academy,” Ryuji waved over to them. “Work hard, Okumura! Get those scholarships, we might get in the same class.”

“Yeah, you too! Have a safe trip back to Kyoto!”

Yukio waved back, and then, just like that, they were all gone. For a moment, Rin stood there, simply smiling his way. He looked satisfied in the same, simple way he did when he successfully completed a complex dish.

“What?” Yukio inquired.

“Nothing.” The demon kept smiling. “I’m just proud of you, Yukio.”

“Huh? What for?”

“You’re getting better at this. You’re not even in high school yet and you’ve already made friends there. I’m just glad.”

And as Rin took his hand back in his and pulled him along to where Father Fujimoto was waiting, Yukio was at a loss for words.