The last thing Tsukune expected on a Sunday morning was a call. He peeled himself out of bed and crossed the room to pick up his phone, leaving Moka to sleep a little while longer. "Aono speaking."
"I-it's Ikko. How are you?"
His eyebrows arched. "Ikko. Can't say I was expecting a call this early morning, but I'm fine besides. How are you doing?"
"Well..." He trailed off. "That's kind've why I'm calling, actually. Do you have a minute?"
One of the many skills Tsukune had cultivated, both in Yokai and since, was the skill to listen. Really listen. To engage with someone and weigh their words as delicately as he possibly could, to hold them up to light and see the truths refracted in inflection, in enunciation, in obfuscation. Those skills made him perk up now, ticking the corner of his mind. "Can you give me five to make a coffee?"
"Did I wake you up? This can wait-"
"No, no, you're good. I'm here for you."
"I'll call you back. Are you okay to speak about this now?"
"That's why I called...?"
"What I mean to ask is, are you in a private space where you don't have to worry about what you say?"
After a brief pause, Ikko asked, "Why do you sound like a therapist?"
Tsukune grinned. "You didn't answer my question."
"Yeah, I'm-Mizore's here, but I don't mind her listening."
"I do," he returned, "Can I speak with her?"
Shuffling. Murmurs. Mizore's voice replaced Ikko's. "Morning."
"You sound exhausted."
"We're both a bit rough."
Tsukune winced, but said nothing. "Listen, uh... if Ikko wants to talk, that's fine, but can you give him a bit of space to do that?"
"Sure. I'll go check in on Ruby. Lemme pass you back."
Ikko's voice swapped back. "Here."
"Alright. I'll call you back. You grab yourself a drink or whatever it is you need before we talk."
"You ever done this before?"
Another pause. "No...? It's just a chat, right?"
"Ikko, you don't call someone at seven in the morning for 'just a chat'."
"If you say so."
During their call, he'd ambled over to the kitchen. Tsukune set his phone down on the counter and looked at it, hands on his hips. He wanted to surmise the reason for the call, but knew that if he made assumptions now, he might not be able to help later, so restrained that curiosity and focussed on making a coffee.
Rustling caught his attention from the other room. Moka's voice, too quiet for a human to hear from this distance, sounded like a crystal chiming in his ear. "Who was that?"
"Ikko. Something's done a number on him. Coffee?"
Tsukune shook his head. There was a time when thirsty had one meaning, maybe two if they were getting excited. Now it only had one. Whilst he boiled the kettle, he made his way over to the fridge, pulling it open. Whereas most students might have a scattering of vegetables, some beer, maybe something resembling a decent meal, their fridge was reserved for two things. Milk-this was on the door shelf-and a cooler containing packs of blood. He grabbed the latter and pulled it out, cracking the lid. "Only a couple left." He observed, clicking his tongue.
"Mm. When's our next trip?"
"Urgh... coffee, please."
Tsukune chuckled, stowing the cooler again and switching it for a carton of milk. The diets of two vampires didn't leave much room for one to drink the other's blood, as much as one might enjoy it. Now, thanks to the MIO and a sympathetic monster at the local hospital, they had a steady supply of donated blood to skim from. This, along with other such accommodations, were the first steps in forming true co-habitation initiatives. Not that they could parade that fact: he couldn't remember the last non-monster they'd entertained as guests at their apartment.
He grabbed a second mug and the instant coffee, setting both down. Moka joined him, covering her mouth and yawning. Even having just tumbled out of bed, Tsukune couldn't believe his luck when he looked at her, a thought she rewarded him for by nestling easily into his chest. "Why is he calling you?"
"As a former Yokai Academy human, I can make an educated guess."
"You think something's happened?"
"We know something's happened." Tsukune nudged out of the embrace as the kettle came to boil. "He told us a little bit about it over summer, remember?"
"So... why now?"
Tsukune sighed. "My guess is he's struggling to deal with it."
"Processing what's happened. You spend so much time simply surviving the ordeals that come your way that you don't stop to process what's been happening. Add to that the headmaster's expectations and, well, he's probably feeling a little fraught. Looks like it's rubbing off on Mizore, too."
"She was there? Oh, thanks." Tsukune handed her mug over and she sipped, thoughtful. "Moving fast."
Moka regarded him over the lip of her mug, then rolled her eyes. "You are too cute."
"Nothing, Tsukune. Nothing at all." She giggled, turning her back on him. "I'm going to get my morning exercises in. Let me know how it goes."
"Hey!" he called after her, but no good. He put that tease to bed and concentrated on the matter at hand; Ikko. He picked up his phone, but not before hearing Moka's ring in the other room.
She answered hers, too. "This is Moka. Gin? Wait-slow down."
He dialled Ikko back, and he picked up on the first ring. "Tsukune?"
"Yeah, it's me. Are you-"
Moka's head appeared in the bedroom doorframe, all humour drained from her face. She held her phone out, and mouthed two words. "Fairy Tale."
"Oh, come on..."
"What?" Ikko asked. "What is it?"
Tsukune closed his eyes. "Fairy Tale stuff. Sorry, Ikko, can I-"
"Dial me in."
"Er-are you sure?"
"I need to know. Dial me in."
The readiness with which Ikko sharpened discomfited him. He made a note to speak to the headmaster about how hard he was pushing Ikko, and to speak to him about it, too, but decided that now was not the best time to have that argument. He asked Moka to transfer Gin's call over and added Ikko into the conversation. "What's going on?"
Mizore received the news of Yakumaru's death from Ruby, and one look at Ikko when she returned to his room told him that he'd found out as well. She climbed through his window to find him hunched over his laptop, phone nestled in the crook of his neck, talking urgently into it. "What's the ISBN? My English isn't terrible, I can probably manage, but... wait, hang on. There's a translated version."
He finally noticed her arrival, held up his hand to ask her to wait, and turned back to the conversation. "Okay, that's ordered. Thanks, Yukari. Speak later."
As he set his phone down and pulled at his face, Mizore realised that he'd received the news instead of talking to Tsukune about his nightmares. "Masumi's-"
"I know," she interrupted him, crossing the room and taking a knee in front of his chair. "And I know how badly you want to help, Ikko, but-"
"I'm just checking something," he said, looking across to his laptop. A file was downloading. "If Fairy Tale is after monster organs, then-"
"-we need to know what kind of-"
She closed his laptop. "Ikko."
The snap of his screen closing made him flinch, jolting him loose from his rambling. He glared at Mizore, eyes dark and heavy with bags.
"I get it." She leaned forward and took him into a hug. "But what're you going to do from here?"
"If I can just-" He began trying to prise himself from her embrace. "I need to know what they're doing."
He huffed, eventually wiggling out and folding his arms. "Fairy Tale's up to something, and I'm just... sat here, wallowing. If we don't get ahead, then they're just going to keep winning, right? So I need to figure out what they want with Masumi's... y'know. What they took from him."
Realising that he had been party to more visceral detail than anyone should be, Mizore clicked her tongue. "This isn't on you, Ikko. It's not your job to single-handedly decipher what Fairy Tale are planning. There's two organisations, one of them a literal government body, doing that job."
"They didn't get to us until it was too late to stop Kiria last time."
"That was before we knew they were on the up." Mizore countered. "Ishigaki's sole focus right now is figuring out what their next move is. Why do you think we heard about this so quickly?"
Ikko opened his mouth, but soon closed it again. He looked down at the floor.
"What?" she asked, "What is it?"
"I can't..." he mumbled. "I can't do nothing. Not when they're out there, when there's other kids like Haruhiko whose heads they're gonna fill with dangerous lies. Summer showed me just how useless I am when it comes to the real work the headmaster wants me to do. So I can't just sit here. I can't, Mizore."
"I'm not asking you to do nothing. But obsessing over what Fairy Tale is planning isn't going to get us anywhere the others aren't already looking into."
"Then what? What'm I supposed to do?"
She restrained her irritation with the headmaster. "D'you remember what your job was, when we went to Miss Marin's place?"
"Yeah. I'm Yokai's human ambassador. I'm there to 'bridge the divide between human and monster communities'."
"What part of that involves Fairy Tale?"
He pulled a face, as if the answer was obvious. "They seem like the biggest threat to both sides of that bridge."
"Okay, sure. But when they're dealt with, and they will be dealt with, what happens next? Who's gonna get back to the work of bridging those divides?" He took a moment longer to retort, and Mizore slipped into that gap to add. "Fairy Tale's only managing to do so much damage because of those divides, Ikko. If you're putting in the work, and if others join your efforts, then they'll have that much more difficult of a time reaching people who might otherwise be swayed. None of that has anything to do with picking fights, and it has everything to do with what you're good at."
His expression softened, his brow easing from it tense furrow, eyes widening ever so slightly. "What I'm good at?"
"What you're good at," she repeated, "Why I... why I'm here, and not out there joining the fight." His arms slackened next. Mizore sidled into his lap, finding a smile. "You're good at connecting with people, Ikko. Proving that things are worth sticking around for, worth putting in the work for. Any old idiot can get out there and fight Fairy Tale-hell, that's what we spent three years getting good at. I'm not saying it's not important; what I'm saying is that you're doing better things here."
He looked up into her eyes, the edge of anxiety cooling and slipping away. "How long have you been practising that?"
"I haven't," she laughed, "But I know that look, Ikko. When it get tough, it's easy to latch onto something that you can work on instead of dealing with the hard things. Believe me."
"Oh, I do." He found a smile. "I still remember you finding every excuse to game up here instead of studying."
"Exactly. Don't do that." She nodded. "Find some time to call Tsukune again, and don't get distracted. Promise me."
"Promise me, please."
"I promise," Ikko replied, shaking his head, "I think a murder is a pretty-" All of a sudden, his face emptied of emotion. "Oh, shit."
"What? What is it?"
Ikko covered his mouth. "Masumi's dead."
Rather than lean down to hug him again, Mizore took to her knees and looked up towards Ikko. The shock of the news had finally begun to disperse, and now the horror that was the truth of the matter sank in. "He is." She confirmed.
"What do we do? I-I mean, Kia's gonna need to know, and... oh, god..."
"Let me deal with that." She assured him, keeping her voice as calm and level as she could. "I'll get Ruby to gather them up an we'll talk to them together, alright?"
Ikko nodded, though the revelation still gripped him tight. "He's been murdered, and the first thing I think of is what Fairy Tail is planning to do with the body. That's..."
"That's shock, Ikko." She interrupted, placing a hand on his knee. "Your mind needs time to process that news, so it latched on to something you could do in the meanwhile. It's normal."
He took a slow, shuddering breath. "They killed him."
"We'll find out why. Everyone at Yokai is safe, okay?"
He nodded, shakily, and Mizore caught herself cursing Tsukune for letting him find out this way. "I need to make some calls," she said, reaching for her phone, "I'll be right here, Ikko. Just grab me if you need anything."
Another nod. She could do very little to pull him from this, she knew, and so settled for offering what comfort she was able. She squeezed his leg as she stood, dialled for Ruby, and set about making preparations.
The advantage of being so isolated on the sixth floor made itself apparent that morning. Ruby and Mizore gathered the girls, Ikko, and Judo in the communal kitchen of their dorm, not wanting to cause a scene for on-lookers by using one of the ground floor common rooms. They took to chairs or perched on counters, still in their pyjamas and stifling yawns. Kaiyo wasn't there - but then why would she be, Ikko wondered? She wasn't a part of this horrible business. Better to keep it that way for now.
Ruby delivered the news, presenting only the facts that they needed to know. Masumi Yakumaru had been found dead, and the MIO suspected foul play on Fairy Tail's part. No mention of his butchered corpse, or the fact that Kiria was in the area when the murder went down. He made drinks whilst she spoke, the robotic task giving his mind something focus on that wasn't staring at the faces of his friends, trying to understand how they were processing the news.
He caught glimpses without trying, however. Kia held Etsuko's hand, her knuckles white with how tight she squeezed. Her eyes freely darkened, a sign of the emotions tearing through her Guise even if she kept the rest of her face rigid, stony. Judo played stoicism a little better, his arms folded and his eyes closed. Whatever he felt, he kept it locked down. Su clicked her tongue but asked no questions. When he handed her coffee over, she squeezed his arm with an ungloved hand, and he felt her dreadful curiosity as keenly as he did his own. He lingered in that touch, feeling a kinship with his senior, and hoped that she felt it too.
"What do we do?" Etsuko asked, putting a voice to the same question Ikko had asked when he first learned of the killing.
"We let the MIO complete their investigation." Mizore said, firmly. "We're not here to ask for your help. Each of you has a connection to Masumi, good or bad. You deserved to know the truth, but the matter of his death and anything that comes out of it isn't for you to worry about."
"The Headmaster is heading out to Daisen this afternoon to join the investigation," said Ruby, "Whatever happened, the outcome has his personal attention. Whoever did this will see justice."
Moving past Su, Ikko reached out to Kia and placed a soft hand on her shoulder. She flinched, shocked by the touch, but did not remove it. "We can't do anything from here, anyway," he said, "We're students. We can train and study in preparation for our next outing as ambassadors, but until that time, we're at Yokai."
Ruby nodded. "If anyone wants to speak to a professional about this, we have grief counsellors available. Just say the word and I'll make the arrangements."
Everyone looked at Judo. When he regarded their shock, he explained, simply, "Whatever his choices, my heart knew him as a friend. I must grieve that way."
"Alright. I'll make the arrangements and contact you privately. Everyone else, you know where to find me."
She and Mizore departed. As they left, he caught Mizore's eye. She smiled gently, nodded once, then turned away.
Etsuko muttered a curse. "I can't believe it."
"I can." Kia spat. "Prick got on the wrong side of the worst people. What did he expect?"
Judo's chair scraped. He left without saying another word, ignoring Ikko when he called out to him. "No-one deserves this." Su said, quietly.
"What?" Her voice pitched up, filling the room. "We're just going to forget the shit he pulled? How he treated everyone in this room?"
"No-one's saying that," she replied. "Only that... it shouldn't have been like this. He was expelled for everything he did."
Ikko found himself helpless, unable to say anything. Kia, too, lost her words. Still clutching Etsuko's hand, she threw herself back into her chair with an infuriated huff. Her girlfriend squeezed her hand, shaking her head. "I never thought I'd hear Fairy Tale's name again, let alone have them pull... this. It's awful."
"It is," Su sighed, pushing her hair out of her face. She stood. "But as much as we might want to do something, Ikko's right. Let's leave the investigation to the MIO, and do our best to prepare as much as we can for the next time we might run into them."
They lingered there, in awful silence. As sensible as the idea had sounded, Ikko's heart clung to the irrational desire to everything except prepare. He wanted to be out there, investigating with the MIO. Seeing Fairy Tale answer for their crimes. Instead, he simply folded his arms and waited for someone else to speak.