Set in Stone

 

Chapter Eight

 

He ended up saving the retrieval for last – not only because it was the worst job, but because he didn’t wanna go in with anything of value on him that he’d end up having to replace or pay for. Usually if some punk stole his shit, he could get it back easy enough, but he’d spent enough time around Jungle to know not to underestimate them.

Fucking Jungle. Fucking Hisui Nagare. Fucking… Munakata. That bastard.

The rain had petered off into a little drizzle by the time they walked out of the train station and onto the street that would lead them through the residential area. The sidewalk was narrow in that part of the city, the houses thin and squished in together like they were huddling for warmth. Foot traffic was sparse at that time of day, and the roads were quiet but for a few cars here and there – most of them zipping by above the speed limit. As they turned to head down a different block, there was an impressive piece of graffiti art splayed across the wall that lined a nearby schoolyard – a snake biting a lion’s tail, and ‘bite back’ in large bold spray-painted letters above it. Inside the schoolyard, a group of kids were playing, and the sound of laughter and shouting made for lively background noise.

It was a familiar sort of place – not exactly the neighborhood he’d grown up in, but close. Would’ve been comfortable if not for… those guys.

“There’s a coven headquarters in a place like this?” Fushimi commented blandly.

Yata shot him a narrow look. “What’s weird about that?”

Fushimi shrugged. He seemed to be sizing up the area, in a lazy sort of way. “There’s not a lot of space.”

“What’s that got to do with anything?” He was getting defensive, even though Fushimi hadn’t exactly said anything derisive. Yata reached up to rub at the back of his neck, expelling a sharp sigh. “Doesn’t take a lot of space for rituals – you saw my apartment, right?”

“Mm.” Fushimi’s tone was thoughtful. “True.”

It didn’t seem like he was gonna say more, but something small and restless stirred in Yata’s belly. He couldn’t resist the urge to add, “Y’know, I grew up in a place like this.”

He wasn’t sure what he’d expected in response, but Fushimi turned to regard him with something almost like interest. “Nearby?”

“Huh?” Yata blinked at him, caught off guard. “Uh… no.” He recovered his equilibrium quickly, offering a small awkward shrug in response. “Other side of the city.” Not wanting to leave it hanging like that, he added, “This place just kinda gives off a familiar vibe, y’know? Guess it’s normal, though – I mean, it’s like my home when I was little, so yeah. It’s nice.”

“Is that right?” There was something inscrutable in Fushimi’s expression. He turned his head to regard his surroundings again; when he spoke, it was almost like he was mumbling to himself. “I guess most people would feel that way, huh?”

Something about the way he said it felt off, but Yata shrugged that aside. “Right!”

They had to walk two more blocks and then down another street before reaching the intersection that was sort of a crossroads between the residential area and the more industrial area. There was a construction zone that made the distinction that much more stark – large wooden structures and protective plastic lined the solid brick buildings that dwarfed the houses opposite them. It had been like that for as long as Yata had been coming here, as if the work was in constant limbo. He’d never seen any actual construction workers, either.

Sometimes he wondered if it was just a glamor spell of some sort, but it had never given off any ‘fake’ vibe, and he was usually pretty good about picking that shit out.

Whatever. Not like it mattered.

“I feel like I should’ve waited with my question from before,” Fushimi drawled, dispelling his umbrella illusion as he followed Yata through the opening in the plastic to the cramped temporary walkway. “It’s really hard to imagine a coven operating in a place like this. Is it even safe?”

Yata snorted in response, pulling around the rucksack to stow his own wet umbrella. “Probably not. These guys like it that way, I think.”

The sharp sound of Fushimi’s tongue clicking met his ears in response. “I haven’t even met them and already they seem annoying.”

“Yeah,” Yata offered another huff of agreement, “just wait.”

About halfway down the construction walkway, there was another opening in the plastic that lined the wooden path. It wasn’t too conspicuous, but behind it there was a boarded-up door. Yata reached through the plastic and rapped his knuckles against the wood. “Yatagarasu,” he identified himself, raising his voice to be sure it went through clearly.

There was a long moment of silence, and then loud, rapid footsteps approached from the other side.

The door, which looked like it should’ve opened outward, slid to the side instead. A platinum-haired teenager glowered out from between the boards. “What are you doing here?”

It fucking would be him. Yata resisted the urge to swear, frowning back. At least if it had been Yukari, all they’d get were some vague suggestions and a smug smirk. “Picking up for Munakata.”

“Nagare never said there was a pickup.” The kid sneered back at him. Gojo Sukuna had the biggest attitude problem Yata had ever had the displeasure of coming across. And, unfortunately, a hell of a lot of power to back it up. But right now he looked like the bratty teen he was, ripped jeans and ill-fitting T-shirt completing the picture. “And who’s that guy? Some new shitty member in your shitty coven?”

Yata bit back the immediate, angry response. Not fucking worth it. “Yeah, I’ll tell Anna you said so,” he gritted out, and had the satisfaction of watching Gojo’s face stiffen and grow red. Somehow or another, those two were classmates – and she was the only member of Homra he didn’t bad-mouth. “He’s not a member, just a…” The word ‘friend’ was on the tip of his tongue, but he managed to chew it back in time. “He’s with me.”

“Duh.” Gojo rolled his eyes, fixing Fushimi with a belligerent look. “You – what’s your name?”

Fushimi looked down his nose at Gojo as if studying an insect, then shifted his gaze to Yata slowly. “Do I have to answer this brat?”

When it wasn’t directed at him, somehow that attitude was awesome. Yata couldn’t help his answering grin. “Nah.” He turned back to Gojo, who looked about ready to commit murder. “Hisui’s gotta be waiting for us – sure you wanna leave him hanging?”

Gojo glowered at them, shifting from one to the other for a second or two, and then snapped, “Stay there!” and slid the door shut so fast it banged against the handle.

Yata heaved a sigh, reaching back to ease the tension at the back of his neck. “Pain in the ass,” he muttered.

Fushimi clicked his tongue. “I’d happily strangle this stupid brat.”

That at least got a huff of laughter from Yata. “Least you gave ’im hell – that was pretty cool, by the way.” He tipped his head a bit, feeling hesitant for no real reason as he offered up a genuine smile.

Fushimi blinked at him, raising a hand to adjust his glasses as if to mask his reaction. “You’re easily impressed,” he muttered back, gaze flickering away from Yata as his eyelashes lowered.

It was an oddly endearing reaction. Yata wasn’t sure why but his cheeks warmed all the same. “Yeah, well… ‘enemy of my enemy’, right?” He shrugged and let it drop there, feeling weirdly awkward. “If we’re lucky, Hisui’ll just give him the quartz to pass on to us and we can get the hell outta here without going in.” It wasn’t likely, but still possible if Hisui was busy with something.

“Mm,” Fushimi agreed, and clicked his tongue again. “Are the rest of them as bad as this?”

Yata didn’t even hesitate. “Yup.”

Fushimi’s frown deepened. “Great.”

There was no chance to respond to that, because the same loud footsteps from before approached and the door was flung open once again. Gojo glared at them both, reaching out to rap his knuckles against the wooden planks barring the entrance. They swung open as if they were all attached to a solid door. “Nagare said come in,” he grumbled, stepping back to give them space, “so hurry it up.”

Of course things couldn’t be that easy. Yata let out a soft ‘ch’ under his breath, moving to step forward.

“Is there a protection ward on this place?” Fushimi asked abruptly, halting him in his tracks.

Oh yeah… right.

“’Course there is,” Gojo answered impatiently, shifting irritably from foot to foot as he waited. His gaze narrowed. “Why, you got something to hide?”

Fushimi ignored him, gaze fixed on Yata instead. “Did you want to tell him first, or should I be a surprise?”

The prospect was too good to pass up. Yata grinned back, showing teeth. “Hey, everyone loves surprises, right? Let’s go.”

The corners of Fushimi’s mouth turned up; he let out an amused huff, shutting his eyes briefly. “Just remember this was your idea,” he murmured.

“What are you two blabbing about?” Gojo demanded suspiciously, as Yata moved through the doorway into the dark, empty room beyond. He took a few extra steps to leave space and turned just in time to catch Gojo’s jaw drop as Fushimi followed him, wings flaring out and horns sprouting from his head. “Wha… what… the hell?

“That’s a good way to put it,” Fushimi drawled. His illusionary clothing shifted back into place, covering the expanse of pale-skinned chest that had automatically revealed itself when he’d stepped in.

A tiny thread of disappointment wormed its way into his thoughts; Yata shelved it firmly. Not now.

Gojo rounded on him, eyes blazing. “You brought a demon here? Are you crazy? Wanna start a war or something?”

Yata shrugged. “Hey, Munakata probably said something to your leader before we got here.” He spread his hands, widening his smirk. “Not my fault Hisui doesn’t pass that shit on to his doorman.”

Another furious flush crept onto Gojo’s cheeks. “Nagare’s gonna kill you,” he growled, and then managed a smirk, eyebrows lowered almost dangerously. “I hope he lets me do it.” Turning sharply, he headed for the back of the room. “C’mon!”

Yata waited while he opened up the trap door in the back corner, dim light from the opening glowing through. “Little shithead,” he muttered under his breath as Gojo climbed down the ladder and out of sight.

“That’s an understatement,” Fushimi murmured in response, and clicked his tongue. “After you, I guess.”

“Yeah, sure.” Might as well get this over with.

The ladder didn’t go down all that far. At the bottom was a short, narrow hallway leading to the main room in this dank, poorly lit basement. It had been designed – for some dumb reason – to look like someone’s bachelor pad. The tiled walls had a greenish tint, the carpet under the sofa and TV was threadbare, and there were boxes piled atop the cabinets and fridge. Gojo was lurking near the back, slouched against a wall near where a tall man in a priest’s robe was diligently hanging laundry from a wire. He paused every so often to lift a can from the counter behind him and take a long swig.

How’d you expect clothes to dry with no airflow in here, huh? It had to be some kinda spell they used, but the point of it wasn’t clear at all. Yata really didn’t get these guys.

Hisui Nagare himself sat on the couch, a tablet in his hands. He was dressed in an oddly formal way, black pants and suit jacket over a white shirt, but his hair was unkempt. When Yata stepped forward through the open door, he looked up from his work with a smile. “Ah,” he said, “Yatagarasu. Good of you to come.”

Yata clenched his teeth, but didn’t bother reminding him not to use the nickname. It wouldn’t make a difference. This guy could be frustratingly oblivious of other people’s preferences and feelings. “Can we just make this quick?”

“Of course. Iwa-san,” Hisui addressed the tall man, “would you be able to find the quartz that Munakata requested?”

“Sure thing.” Giving the shirt he’d hung one more tug, the man – Iwafune Tenkei – stepped back. He offered Yata a shrug and a smile and then turned to examine the drawers behind him. “Now where the heck did I put that…?”

Coulda got it ready when you heard I was here, assholes…

“I appreciate it,” Hisui responded smoothly, and let his gaze slide with obvious interest to where Fushimi had stepped up beside Yata. “What an extraordinary friend you’ve brought. Won’t you introduce us, Yatagarasu?”

Fushimi clicked his tongue before Yata could respond. “I’m fine with being a stranger.”

“Is that so?” Hisui blinked, tilting his head a bit as if trying to get a read on the situation. “I’m afraid I’m not quite familiar with the salient points of demon etiquette.  My apologies if the request was impudent.” He set the tablet aside and leaned forward in his seat, bracing his elbows on his knees and creating a bridge with his hands, on which he rested his chin. It was an oddly hunched posture for him. “Perhaps I’m getting ahead of myself. I have a particular interest, you see.” He smiled again. “I’m very curious about the extent to which demonic illusion challenges reality.”

That must have been a pre-arranged signal, because faster than Yata could blink, Iwafune spun from the counter, pointed a gun at Yata’s head with uncanny accuracy and fired.

The instinctive rush of alarm and panic at being shot at struck him in the same instant that the shot itself rang out; Yata flinched back automatically…

… And barely managed to catch sight of a projectile from beside him catching the bullet mid-flight and knocking it aside.

The shock hadn’t quite faded but his body was already tensing for action; Yata whipped his head up just as Fushimi spun up two more throwing knives and slung them with practiced ferocity at Hisui, Iwafune, and Gojo, shifting as he did to place his body between Yata and them.

The reality of that deliberate movement stunned him even more than the sudden attack. Yata felt his breath catch in his throat, so sharply he nearly choked on it, and couldn’t help but stare at Fushimi’s back, tense and poised with his wings at full span. What is he…?

As expected, the knives bounced back harmlessly from their marks, falling to the floor in tandem. Hisui sat up straight in his seat, looking thoroughly pleased with himself as he regarded Fushimi. “It seems as though your demonic rank is quite high, to create an illusion of that caliber.” His eyes gleamed with interest. “As expected of Munakata’s protégé. I’m impressed.”

The tension seemed to ease off of Fushimi all at once; he straightened, letting out a sigh. “A trick, huh?”

“Hey, asshole!” Yata shook aside his own shock, focusing on glaring at first Iwafune and then Hisui. “The hell was that about, huh? Don’t just fucking shoot at people!” He balled his hands into fists. “You wanna start a fight?”

Gojo stepped away from the wall, placing himself between them and Hisui. “Try it, Shittygarasu. I’ll take on you and your pet demon both!”

Yata balled his hands into fists. “What was that!?”

“There’s no need for that, Sukuna.” Hisui settled his hands in his lap with polite diffidence. His eyes were still on Fushimi. “I expect you’ve noticed by now, but this room is warded against physical harm to any living being within its walls. My apologies for not mentioning it. It was necessary.”

Fushimi clicked his tongue, but didn’t answer. When Yata tilted his head to catch a glimpse of his face, he noticed that those grey-blue eyes were narrowed, fixed sharply on Hisui.

What the hell? Yata turned a glare in that direction as well. “Was that s’posed to be some kinda test or what?”

Iwafune chuckled. “I guess you could call it that.” He’d stowed his gun and was reclining against the counter, beer in hand. In his free hand, he hefted the chunk of rose quartz that Munakata had requested. “You wanna hand this off to our guests, Sukuna?”

“Huh? Why should I?” Gojo shot him a petulant look. “Do it yourself!”

Iwafune sighed. “Kids today. No respect for their elders.” He pushed himself away from the counter, crossing the room and even stepping around Fushimi with an apologetic grin to hand the quartz to Yata. “Thanks for your hard work.”

“The results were most enlightening,” Hisui added, pleasantly.

Yata scowled at him and then at Iwafune’s back as he retreated across the room, before letting out an agitated huff and depositing the quartz into his empty rucksack. Finally! “Shoot at me again and I’ll fuck this place up.” With a final glare for the inhabitants of the room, he turned to leave. “C’mon, we’re going.”

“Hah! I’d like to see you try, Shittygarasu!” Gojo taunted.

“That is the lamest insult I’ve ever heard,” Fushimi muttered, just loud enough for his voice to carry as they moved through the door.

Yata snorted. “Right?” He tossed a smirk over his shoulder at Gojo, who glowered back at him. “Like a grade-schooler trying to act tough.”

“What? You got a problem?”

Fushimi clicked his tongue, pausing at the base of the ladder for Yata to go on ahead of him. “What I have is a headache. What a noisy brat.”

“You’re telling me.” Yata let out a soft ‘ch’, climbing deftly toward the opening and hoisting himself out so that Fushimi could pass. “He doesn’t get any better the longer you know him.”

“Somehow that doesn’t surprise me.”

Yata made a point of leaving Jungle’s front door wide open when they were through. Gojo was going to come up and close it pretty quick, but it still felt satisfying in a petty way to leave it like that. “Pain in the ass,” he muttered, pushing through the plastic of the construction zone with more force than was really necessary. He pulled his umbrella out of the rucksack, holding it ready to open when they reached the edge of the walkway.

Fushimi was right on his heels. “You weren’t kidding about that.” He clicked his tongue. “I hope you don’t go there often.”

“Not that often.” Thankfully. The interest in Hisui’s eyes kinda bugged him, though. “Hopefully he doesn’t start asking for a bunch of shit just ’cause you’re with me…”

“I doubt it.” Fushimi clicked his tongue again, lips curling. There was a frustrated edge to his voice. “He already got exactly what he wanted.”

“Huh? You mean that shit about your powers and all?” Yata frowned. “I didn’t really get what he was after. That was some kinda test, right? But why’s he so interested in you?”

“It’s not me.” Fushimi shook his head. His frown deepened. “I’m pretty sure that was aimed at the Captain. Nothing to do with me – unless…” He furrowed his brow, and then shook his head again. “No. That can’t be it.”

Yata stared at him, baffled. “What the hell are you talking about?”

“Obviously I don’t know the details, but it seems like the Captain has some kind of feud going on with that Hisui guy.” Fushimi shrugged. “Or maybe it’s a one-sided thing on Hisui’s part, but I doubt it. He outmaneuvered me too easily for the Captain to take him lightly.” He clicked his tongue again. “This wasn’t so much a test for me as scoping out what kind of force the Captain has behind him.”

“Seriously?” Yata blinked, surprised, and then narrowed his eyes. Kusanagi would probably wanna know if that wasn’t something he’d already picked up on. “You think he’s planning an attack?”

“Who knows,” Fushimi responded, slipping back into that drawling tone. “Could be just a battle of wits. I wouldn’t put it past the Captain.” He reached up to push his glasses higher on his nose. “Either way, it’s not like I’ll actually have anything to do with it. I can’t manifest on this plane without a contract.”

That was news to Yata. “Huh. Really?”

“Yes, really.” Fushimi’s voice was flat. “Only the elite ranks can – and there’s not all that many of them.”

“Oh.” Speaking of contracts, though… Yata shot him a sideways glance, the question he’d been holding back on asking surfacing immediately now that they were outside. “Hey… about earlier…” It felt awkward to ask, especially when Fushimi’s gaze shifted to him, but he had to know. “That bullet was coming for me, not you. Why’d you – ?”

“Of course it was,” Fushimi interrupted him, and clicked his tongue, turning to face forward again. He’d retracted his wings, tail, and horns again, and with his hunched posture and sour expression, he looked completely human. “I wouldn’t have to do anything if they’d shot at me. Guns are no use against demons.”

“That’s not what I’m asking,” Yata insisted, his eyes still on Fushimi’s face as he did. “Why the hell’d you save me? You didn’t know about the ward, so you thought it’d kill me, right?” He narrowed his eyes. “Wouldn’t that be good for you? No more contract.”

There was a brief second of hesitation – not much of one, but with all of his attention focused on this, Yata definitely felt it. Fushimi dipped his head forward slightly, his frown seeming to deepen again. “That was… instinct. I reacted to your emotions.”

“My emotions?” Right, he had kinda panicked there, hadn’t he? Somehow, that answer was dissatisfying, though… Yata frowned. “So because I got freaked out, you moved without thinking?”

“Something like that.” Fushimi clicked his tongue yet again, looking disgruntled. “Seriously… again…”

“Huh? ‘Again’?”

“Never mind.” Fushimi picked up his pace, materializing an umbrella as he reached the end of the walkway and pushed through the plastic. “Like I said, it was just instinct. That’s all.”

That’s all? Something was still nagging at him – some fact or memory that contradicted that last bit – but Yata couldn’t quite put his finger on it. He hurried after Fushimi, passing through the plastic and staring at his back as he brought up his own umbrella.

His back. Right – that was it. The image of Fushimi’s tense back as he placed himself in front of Yata. Even just thinking about it sent chills through him – a kind of gratifying rush that he couldn’t explain. He hadn’t really needed it, but… He protected me. Even after knocking that bullet aside.

Somehow, that thought… gave him kind of a nice feeling.

Fushimi was a few paces ahead of him; Yata jogged to catch up. “Liar,” he said confidently, leaning forward to peer at Fushimi’s face again. “You moved in front of me before throwing knives at those guys – which was awesome, by the way! You’re pretty good!” He smirked when the compliment earned him a glance. “But seriously, you’re gonna call that instinct?”

The expression on Fushimi’s face was nonplussed; this time the hesitation was much more noticeable. He clicked his tongue, turning away again. “I told you, I wasn’t thinking,” he muttered, almost resentfully. “You’re reading too much into this.”

“Heh!” That reluctant attitude felt like a confirmation somehow. He’s not as uncaring as he acts, huh? The thought made him feel like a little of the distance between them had been crossed; Fushimi had saved him, even if it wasn’t really necessary, and Yata couldn’t help but warm up to him a bit. “You should be more honest, y’know. Trust me a little. S’not like I bite or anything.”

“You should learn – maybe then you’ll be quiet.” It seemed to occur to Fushimi what he’d just said, and some of the irritation faded from his expression. He let his eyes grow lidded, offering a twin to Yata’s smirk. “Actually, I could teach you.” When he spoke again, his voice was pitched lower and he drew his words out deliberately. “Unlike you, I do bite.”

The unexpected innuendo brought warmth rushing to Yata’s face; he sputtered for a moment, thrown off track. That’s kinda hot, his traitorous brain supplied – a thought he clamped down on immediately, pushing it to the far back of his mind. “Wait – that’s not what I – ”

“Hm?” Fushimi drew the hum out mockingly. “What did you mean, Misaki?”

“I – wait, hold up a second!” Yata scowled, glaring through the flush he could still feel on his face. “I never said you could call me by my first name!”

“Can’t I?” Fushimi’s gaze was smug. “I thought you said I saved you. Doesn’t that put us on a first-name basis?” Drawing each syllable out with relish, he added, “Misaki.”

“Ugh.” Yata glared at him, thoroughly disgruntled. “I take it back. Nothing about you is awesome.”

“Weren’t you the one talking about honesty just now? Hm, Misaki?”

“That’s totally different! Anyway, stop calling me that! We’re not that close, asshole!”

“Really? Is that the kind of gratitude you show to your savior?

“Seriously, shut up!

Even as they bickered on the way back to the train station, Yata still couldn’t shake the memory of Fushimi’s body deliberately moving between him and the perceived danger – or the shiver it sent through his own when he considered what it meant. Something had changed between them for sure this time, although he didn’t really know how much difference it’d make. He couldn’t tell where it would lead in the end either, but…

As surprising as it was, it turned out Fushimi Saruhiko was a guy he could trust with his life.

 

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