Salsa's on the trail of a local killer, but why has he been shutting Taketo out of his investigation? Taketo wants answers, but he may not like what he learns. (slash!)
"It's been a number of years since we last met in that park, hasn't it?" Shido said. "Surely you knew I'd be back for you. For both of you." He smiled at Taketo, as he continued to ring the small bell.
Taketo scowled back, furious. Shido's younger half-brother, Mitsuki Katsuragi, had been Salsa's first master -- and it had been Shido's attempt to separate Salsa from Mitsuki permanently that had resulted in his death. Shido was not only determined to kill Salsa, but he knew enough about what Salsa was to have come close the last time -- and Taketo had nearly died as well.
"Actually, I never left -- but you never once sensed I was here, did you?" Shido continued. "I took great care never to be close enough or involved enough that you could. I've had years to consider where I went wrong last time, to work out the obvious flaws with the destructive weight sound technique. As you've noticed firsthand, my hajuuon is much more powerful now, and this enclosed space accentuates it."
Taketo strained at the ropes, trying to ignore the growing nausea and dizziness. He remembered that Shido's technique was designed specifically for dog ears, to use a sound range that made them feel too heavy too move. Although Salsa had managed to drag himself a few lengths away from Taketo, he already looked exhausted.
To Taketo, Shido commented, "Of course, it's slightly more damaging now to humans who aren't shielded, but you won't be suffering from it long."
"You're a true humanitarian," Salsa said acidly.
"In fact, I am/," Shido said, irritably. "I'm a doctor. I /save people. I haven't killed anyone. All of those people killed each other." His lip curled. "I've been living openly in this city for nearly three years, yet you never discovered me. I had a clinic on the north side, which brought me into contact with all of them at some point. Ordinary citizens of different ages, different occupations, with one thing in common. Who'd expect that each of them harbored a willingness to kill someone else for a sufficient reward? Each accepted a downpayment, the name of a target, and basic instructions on how not to leave evidence.
"Naturally they couldn't have known that their own name would be the next one on the list," he said. "A tidy way of ensuring none would be tempted to discuss the matter again in the future. Beyond that I left the methods up to them. The result was sufficient variety to confuse anyone investigating."
"No, you gave them one other instruction," Salsa said.
"Exactly," Shido said. "So when did you finally notice? Really, the number of killings was more your fault than anyone else's. I made certain each left you an obvious note -- so if only you'd solved the problem in time, there would have been fewer deaths." He mused, "Seeing the so-called great detective Wild Half chasing his own tail like a fool made the time and expense worthwhile."
"You really are nuts," Taketo said, appalled. "You were paying people to kill each other, and you don't think you're responsible?"
"Be quiet," Shido snapped. "You obviously have no idea what you're talking about."
"Isn't that guy right there in the middle of the floor dead?" Taketo said, incredulous.
"Shido would say he didn't lay a hand on him," Salsa said. "So where's the wild-half poultry who's too cowardly to show his face?"
The air over Shido's right shoulder shimmered briefly, a large, white bird appearing in the same space, gripping the jacket with curving claws that were, Taketo noticed, wet and red. "Ah. Am I supposed to scream that you've besmirched my honor and attack now?" Crow said, shaking out his wing feathers. "Perhaps you should read a better grade of manga."
"Crow," Taketo said, sagging.
"What are you doing?" Shido said, annoyed.
"I see no point in hiding my presence any more," Crow said, staring down at them narrowly. "You know, I had no personal stake in any of this until you two gave me one."
"Please forgive us Crow kami-sama," Salsa said. "We didn't feel like dying for your amusement."
"Hmm, well, let me consider it," Crow said. "Request denied."
"Stupid tengu's been here all along, I think," Salsa said, disgusted. "Shido can't read minds. He can't influence people's thoughts. There's no way he could have safely known who'd be open to his offers without a wild-half in the background who could 'see' it. Crow could have told him everything he didn't already know about us. He could have hidden Taketo's presence out on the street from me." Salsa added, acidly, "So how are you enjoying life with your new master, Crow?"
Crow quivered with fury. "Do not confuse me with the likes of you. You really are the mutated monsters he says you are. My power is my own. Shido is my associate -- our aims happen to coincide."
"But you've taken care of your /killing/, so you're no longer useful," Salsa said pleasantly, "Mr. Next Target on the List."
Crow had no immediate response to that stray shot. Go Salsa, Taketo thought to himself.
"Shut up," Shido snapped. "Crow only hastened the inevitable for our Mouesa-san here," he said, nudging the body with his toe. "He should have taken care to examine the script for his inhaler. As a physician, I cannot be held responsible for patients who won't pay proper attention to their own health care."
"You . . . poisoned him with his medicine?" Taketo said.
"Hardly the first time for Shido," Salsa said, now furious.
Shido stared down at him. "Meaning what, exactly?"
Taketo was stunned. /Salsa?/, he thought -- but he still felt no response. Taketo knew, from Salsa himself, that Shido had mistakenly poisoned his half-brother Mitsuki, Salsa's original owner; Mitsuki had swallowed a pill that Shido had intended for Salsa. But Salsa also had told Taketo that Mitsuki, as he was dying, had made Salsa swear to never reveal the truth to Shido. Now Salsa seemed angry enough to finally break his promise to Mitsuki, one of the most precious people of his life.
"Meaning," Salsa said in a strained voice, "that Mitsuki may have been a saint after all. What worth he saw in you I will never understand."
"Crow," Shido said, teeth gritted, "if you would do the honors."
"A pleasure." A single flap of wings and Crow had lifted from Shido's shoulder and alighted on the floor, transforming immediately into his semi-human form: a tall, thin, pale man in leather and feathers, hair smoothly cropped at chin-length -- with two full sets of huge, curving talons. He clattered across the hard floor to where Salsa was still pinned painfully down by Shido's /hajuuon/. "My my. Shake, dog," he said to Salsa, straddling his back and pulling both of Salsa's wrists behind him. He bent Salsa's arms up to the point near breaking, then held them firmly in place with this back claws. Salsa clenched his teeth and grunted, pressing his forehead to the floor.
"Salsa?" Taketo could see how much it hurt.
"There we go," Crow said. "No, don't look down." He grabbed Salsa's chin and forcing his head back up: "Beg."
"Bastard," Salsa ground out. "I'm going to --"
"-- Be a good dog, right?"
Shido palmed the bell and dropped it into his pocket; the moment Shido quit ringing the bell, Taketo felt the paralyzing fog lift from his mind -- and Salsa began to struggle madly, trying without success to throw Crow off. Crow's expression set into a moue of disappointment, "Not much to do here, Shido. He's a lot weaker than before."
"Fine with me." Shido knelt down and slapped Salsa, hard, across the face.
"Salsa!" Taketo shouted.
"You will never," Shido said, "foul my Mitsuki's name with that mouth of yours again. I'm going to make sure of it."
Salsa glared at him, and licked the cut on his lip. He said, simply, "Marking."
Crow laughed again, and Salsa and Taketo both stared as Shido lifted his hand and wagged his fingers.
"What? You're not surprised that you couldn't mark my hand, are you?" Shido said. "The gloves are synthetics, you stupid mongrel." As Salsa scowled, Shido said easily, "Surely you've already noticed by now. Why did you think I chose this man? He owned this shop -- he wanted the money he'd receive from killing that other idiot, and from killing /him/," he gestured at Taketo, "to open it again."
"I, of course, wanted it for an entirely different purpose: The walls, ceiling, and fixtures of this cold storage room are a metal alloy, the floor and walls are coated with a layer of synthetic polymer for easier cleaning. None of them found in nature, so none of them capable of channeling your energy." He slapped Salsa again. "Did you seriously believe I'd forget what you did to my hands, last time? You fool, I've had years to plan this!"
Taketo bit his lip, determined not to draw attention. Salsa had started to claw off the ropes cutting into Taketo's wrists when Shido and Crow had interrupted them. Salsa's marking hadn't been directed at Shido at all -- the rope around Taketo's wrists had writhed loose, and slid off. So Taketo had immediately taken a long, silent breath and begun to pick at the knot, thinking furiously. If he could undo his ankles as well without anyone noticing -- then what? He could knock Crow off Salsa or at least loosen his hold, but wouldn't that give Shido enough time to resume his hajuuon? But if he went for Shido directly, what could Crow do about it that wouldn't require breaking his hold on Salsa? Shido couldn't possibly be tougher than Taketo's Obaa-chan, could he?
"Asshole, hey!" Salsa was swearing, just as the white pants leg came into Taketo's field of vision. Taketo's stomach bottomed out.
"With my eyes, did you really think I wasn't going to notice?" Crow said, disgusted.
"If you'd only been patient a little longer," Shido said, "I had every intention of cutting you loose. As it is, you're going to find this uncomfortable." Taketo looked up, just as Shido blew a handful of powder into his face.
"Taketo, don't breathe that in!" Salsa shouted.
"It won't matter," Shido said, stepping aside easily as Taketo coughed and kicked out at him. "It's a contact poison."
Taketo suddenly felt dizzy and off-balance again; in spite of his efforts to hold himself upright, he slid over onto his side, his entire body growing numb.
"What the hell did you do to him?" Salsa snarled. "Shido, Taketo has nothing to do with this -- why don't you just let him go?"
"My own formulation -- a fast-acting, short-duration powdered form of the /hajuuon/," Shido told him distantly. "No permanent effects that I know of. He should feel fine by the time we've left." He sorted out a small bundle of handkerchief from his pocket. "He stays because he has everything to do with this -- he's your master, after all."
"No, he's /not/," Salsa snapped. "I was leaving Taketo as soon as I'd finished this case. He's more of a hindrance than a help, anyway."
Taketo went slack with shock. Even Shido and Crow looked surprised, Taketo thought. What does Crow see? Why'd he nod at Shido? Does that mean Salsa . . . he's telling the truth? Taketo's chest ached. Salsa?
"As I'd expect from a dog like you," Shido said, recovering. "So it's just as well that I caught you now." He dropped to one knee beside Salsa and shook the handkerchief free, holding up the contents for inspection. It was a small, dark opalescent sphere, that emitted a soft, reddish glow. "Do you know what this is?"
Taketo and Salsa both stared at it. Taketo had seen stones like it before: He'd even seen his own moonlight stone when a wild-half named Akamichi had ripped it out of his body, years ago. It was the crystalline repository of a wild-half's owner's feelings, and the source of a wild-half's power. But Taketo's had been /white/.
"That old woman outside of town with the cats," Salsa said flatly. "I doubt she was one of your patients."
Taketo heard Shido's surprised intake of breath. "Well," he said, "perhaps you have some deductive skills after all. You figured that out."
"That all the other killings were to divert attention from that one?" Salsa said, lowly. "Yeah. I figured it. The others were rather utilitarian. Killing the woman's pets too made it a pretty extreme outlier."
"Crow had identified the target's location, but wasn't certain which one it was -- the little monster was hiding its nature too well," Shido said, annoyed. "We had to flush out, paralyze, and kill every creature we could find on the premises. Better safe than sorry. It probably had powers of some sort and might have been waiting for an opportunity to use them. We couldn't take any chances."
Taketo felt sick to his stomach.
"I think," Salsa said grimly, "your definition of monster is a little too narrow."
Shido slapped his palm to the floor by Salsa's face in full fury: "If you know what this is," he said, "then you were lying before. To me. To /Mitsuki/! You knew what would happen after this had formed. You /knew/."
"I didn't," Salsa said, looking away. "I've had a few years to figure things out, too."
"He has one, doesn't he?" Shido said, gesturing at Taketo. "How long would it have been? Before his became full? Before you killed him and ate him?"
Taketo shut his eyes. He remembered: Actually, it hadn't taken long at all. Shido doesn't know that? he wondered. But he and Salsa had been fortunate enough to have met Ginsei first, who'd warned them of what they could expect. They'd forced the werewolf inside Salsa out into the open prematurely; they'd managed to separate it from Salsa and kill it, before it could kill Taketo.
But Salsa said nothing.
"Housecats are independent little freeloaders," Crow commented. "I rather think that must be why they hadn't completed their bond. But this stone is definitely full, so it would have only been a matter of time. It ought to be more than sufficient, don't you think?"
Sufficient for what? Taketo thought in a panic, as Crow began to pry Salsa's jaws open with his free hand: "Open wide and say 'Ahh!', there's a good dog," he said. They're not going to . . . ? But they were -- Shido was stuffing the stone into Salsa's mouth, while as Salsa was struggling under Crow's grip, frantically trying to spit it out again.
"No!" Taketo tried to move, only succeeding in propping himself up on one wobbling arm.
Shido held Salsa's nose, grunting, "Damn it . . . almost in . . . there it goes!"
He could hear Salsa's howl, as Taketo convulsed. At that instant, inside Taketo's own body, something had gone blank, cold, empty. Salsa . . . ? But every trace of Salsa's feelings had disappeared. Taketo was, for the first time in so very long, isolated. His chest began to ache again -- in a different place entirely now.
"Shido," Crow was saying. "That boy. Why did he --?"
"No, I don't know either." Taketo was aware, in a distant way, that Shido was prodding him, feeling his wrist. Now Shido was brushing something damp away and lifting his eyelid, but at that moment, Taketo couldn't see anything past the ache inside him. "He seems fine otherwise. We can leave them." Shido was cutting loose the ropes around his ankles.
"Now that we've dealt once and for all with your idÃ©e fixe," Crow was saying impatiently, "perhaps we can move on my plans?"
"Go ahead," Shido said. "I'll be with you shortly." Taketo heard a flapping of wings.
"Shido," Salsa said. His voice sounds strange, Taketo thought. "His so-called plans. Do you realize what he's intending to do with that junk you've been cooking up to increase his power? He's not satisfied with lording it over that mountain of his."
Taketo cracked his eyes open now. Shido had paused in the doorway, one palm resting on the door. In his other hand were the remnants of the ropes from Taketo's wrists and ankles. "I don't care," he said.
"How can you not care!"
"Mitsuki was all I ever cared about," Shido said. "That was what you took away from me." He looked at Salsa, and continued dully. "Now that I've finished with this, nothing else matters to me. Crow included."
"Shido, damn it!"
"I have not been happy -- not for a single day, not for a single moment -- since Mitsuki died," Shido said. "How could I be? You said that Mitsuki was the most important to you. But he's dead. And here you are. Alive and /happy/, with someone else entirely."
"It's not like that," Salsa said heavily.
Shido's palm, flat against the door, clenched. "You claimed that you never would have hurt Mitsuki," he said. "So there he is -- your new master. Prove it. I want to see it." Bitterly, he added, "But I know what I'm going to see: 'The monster in their midst: beloved pet dog kills own master and man who tried to intervene'. So it's over now."
Shido walked out the door, and quietly shut it behind him. Taketo heard the latch slam into place, followed by a sound of something hammering. Some kind of wedge? he wondered. He studied the body on the floor for a few moments. Very dead, he decided. Was that guy really going to kill me?
And, finally, he tilted his head enough to see Salsa. He'd crawled into the opposite corner, and was huddled there with his back to the room. With his back to Taketo. He's a dog again, Taketo confirmed sadly. Something about Salsa's shape was subtly wrong.
Taketo was just puzzling over this difference when the room went black.
"Cut the power," Salsa muttered. "Thanks for that at least, bastard."