As you probably already noticed, this will be the final chapter of Dust and Ashes. I hope that you all enjoy it - after five years, you all deserve a happy ending :)
Snow fell from the sky in fat, lazy clumps. White blanketed True Cross Academy and draped down its graceful spires, and the students had begun to make bets on how long the snowfall would last. Some said one week, others said it would continue to snow until February. All were wrapped up in their thickest jackets and warmest scarves. All had red noses and flushed cheeks. All wished that the snow would end soon, with few exceptions.
Rin was one of the exceptions. His legs dangled beneath him as he sat on the rooftop, his nose buried in his scarf. Lights twinkled below him and cast gold against the snow, snow that was beginning to glow pale blue in the coming twilight. He could shadows drift through the windows, fires dancing beyond them. They were warm fires. Cheery. Comforting in a way that he desperately craved, though he was not entirely sure way.
He was sitting on a bed, chains rattling around his wrists, blood welling between the blisters ...
Rin flinched at the sudden memory, bright and hot, as pain flared through his temple. His pinched the bridge of his nose, his eyes squeezed shut. Again. It happened again. The first one, just a few months prior, had sent him to his knees. The second revolved around being whipped, and by the end of it he was vomiting helplessly into a trashcan. If it weren't for Yukio holding him up, he would have fallen into it.
Now, in the dead of winter, Rin had almost gotten used to the flashbacks. Almost. Mephisto was endlessly puzzled and claimed that it shouldn't be possible, but had simply shrugged it off. Yukio was furious, as usual, and accused Mephisto of meddling. But everyone else ...
Rin's hands bunched at his sides, hands that were calloused and covered in scars. Shiemi, Bon, Shima, everyone ... they looked at him with pity. As if he was the one who was being wronged, and not them. Shiemi had even apologized, once.
But it was Rin who should have been apologizing. After all, didn't they go into Gehenna to save him? Didn't they endure hell in order to bring him back? And Rin could see what it had done to them, too. The scars that hadn't been there before. The hollow expressions, the sadness when they thought he couldn't see, the way they flinched at loud sounds. Even Shiemi, whose contagious smile could brighten his entire day, had dimmed slightly. She still smiled at him. But sometimes, the smile didn't quite reach her eyes.
Rin opened his icy-blue eyes. Snowflakes melted on his eyelashes, and traced small tracks down his cheek.
Had he done something wrong?
He tried to think back. Tried to remember. When he had woken up, Bon had slapped his back and congratulated for killing Satan, but Rin didn't remember that. Didn't remember the army he supposedly led, didn't remember when Kurikara snapped and was burnt to ash, did not remember fighting for his life ...
... and demons were cheering and screeching from above, slamming their fists into the iron bars that surrounded the Pit ...
... and Rin tilted his head, bile rising in his throat. It burned, burned like fire, and tears blossomed in Rin's eyes.
Don't vomit, he ordered himself, pressing the back of his hand against his lips. He could feel his sharp canines cut through the skin, could taste the tangy metal of blood coat his tongue. Don't you dare ...
A cheerful shout had Rin turning around. Two gloved hands suddenly slapped the rooftop and Shiemi appeared soon after, her cheeks flushed from exhaustion but eyes bright with mischief. Rin forced his hand to lower, forced the bloody image from his mind.
"Shiemi," he murmured as she hauled herself onto the roof, her fur-lined boots scrambling for purchase. "What are you doing here?"
"To find you," she said, as if it was obvious. Maybe it was, and Rin instantly felt a pang of guilt. Why bother? Hadn't they searched for him enough already?
Rin's throat bobbed, and he turned back to the city light. "To find me?"
"Yeah." Shiemi sat next to him, grinning. Rin arched an eyebrow at her. It was strange, to see her so cheerful. "Mephisto finally got the Gate working again."
The Gate. Mephisto's pet project, and the only reason he hadn't been killed for his plot with Satan. The purpose of the Gate was to be able to communicate directly with Gehenna. Apparently, they had allies there now - a fallen angel named Sophiel, and a half-angel, half-demon named Raziele. Supposedly.
The thought of Mephisto left a sour taste in his mouth. His memories of Gehenna may be gone, but the memory of Mephisto giving him to Satan like a dog was still fresh in his mind. "Did he now," Rin finally said.
"Yeah." Shiemi, if she noticed Rin's foul mood, pretended not to notice. Instead she held a gloved hand towards him, fully expecting he would grasp it. "Do you want to visit it with me? Yukio will be there, and so will everyone else."
Rin contemplated it. The snowflakes melted into his pale hair, collected on the shoulders of his woolen coat. Finally Rin sighed and, with a feeble attempt at a smile, grasped Shiemi's hand. "Why not," he said, letting Shiemi help him to his feet.
Shiemi's answering smile made him grateful he had agreed.
"Ah, Rin. You're finally here."
Rin shoved his hands deep into his coat's pockets as the world shifted into shades of blue. Ever since Gehenna, he had perfect control over his flame. He usually kept the blue fire at a short leash, but when it came to Mephisto ... well, reminding the demon of his heritage never hurt. Mephisto had the decency to lower his gaze, and Rin's eyes glanced over Mephisto like he was nothing. Instead, he focused his attention on the Gate swirling behind him.
It was a thing of beauty, and horror. It was also massive, and it's mirror-like surface flickered with shades of red and brown. Behind it he could see what looked like mountains; a castle perhaps, made out of black stone, with a small village at its base. The rest was smudges of color, as indistinct as a mirage.
"Why am I here," Rin finally said. His voice cut through the quiet, and exoricsts glanced towards him with a touch of fear in their eyes. He was the one who killed Satan, after all.
Not that he remembered. But very few knew that, if Yukio was to be believed, so he kept up the charade. A little notoriety never hurt anyone.
An arm was suddenly thrown around his neck, a strange semblance of a hug. "You brat," Shura said, "we thought that this could help spark some more of your memories."
Rin's gaze darkened. So far, all of his memories of that place were terrifying. Do I even want to remember anything more?
"Why would you do this for me?" Rin finally asked. He gaze flitted from Shura, then to Shima. Shima lifted his hands in surrender, so he looked to Konekomaru instead. Konekomaru dropped his gaze. Izumo pushed Bon in front of her, Bon made some half-ass comment about how killing Satan had been his dream, so he might as well remember it. Shiemi flushed bright red when Rin's gaze landed on her, and Yukio ... Yukio just shrugged.
"It a surprise," his twin finally said. Yukio had deep bags beneath his bleary eyes, but he was smiling. Smiling despite the fact that he had screamed himself awake that morning.
Rin's eyes narrowed. That's suspicious.
"Anyway," Mephisto said, suddenly clearing his throat. "Shall we begin?"
Rin's head snapped to the demon. "Begin what," he hissed, but at that exact moment, the Gate began to glow. Runes danced across its edge, a complex dance that shifted the contents of the Gate. What had once been a featureless, indistinct landscape, was now a castle's interior. Long hallways, cracked stones, but new carpet. Fresh paintings on the wall. A single plant, a hideously deformed palm, green and thriving in a corner.
It looks different, Rin thought with a frown, but was immediately confused by the thought. How would I ...
Of course. Rin rolled his shoulders. I've been there before. A strange trembling echoed through him, a nervousness that settled deep in his gut. Fear. He feared this place.
Yukio stepped beside him, the Gate reflected in his glasses. "This is where Satan kept you captive," he whispered.
Rin's jaw clenched. That explains it.
Finally the Gate seemed to stop flickered and shifting. Reflected within its mirror, a white-haired girl with shoulder-hair stood solemnly in what looked like a throne room. Her eyes, one violet and one silver, brightened as the image cleared. Beside her, a boy with light-pink hair began to smile a wild, wicked smile.
Rin's eyes flew wide.
"Hey there," the pink-haired demon said. His teeth were sharp, his pink eyes bright with mischief. Scars rippled across his face as he spoke, but Rin was not frightened in the least. "It's been a while."
"It hasn't even been half a year," Yukio said from beside him. Even Yukio seemed to be a little more relaxed, his shoulders less stiff. "Everything well on your end?"
"Yes," the silver-haired girl said. Her smile was soft, almost gentle, as she continued, "We've freed all of the remaining slaves, and are in the process of rebuilding proper living quarters for all of them."
"Keeping busy," Bon said.
Her smile brightened, but only just. "Yes. We're always busy it seems, but I prefer this sort of work."
"Any sign of Satan?" Shura said, still standing beside Rin.
The boy's gaze flicked towards her, but not before pausing at Rin. "No," he finally said, focussing entirely on Shura. "We don't expect him to return for some time."
Konekomaru audibly sighed with relief; Isumo slapped him on the shoulder and told him to get a grip.
"Also..." The boy turned to Rin again. Rin froze in place; the boy smiled. But the smile was without the edge, without the wildness. "Hey, baby bro. Remember me?"
So you're the brat that this place has been uproar about.
"Raziele," Rin said without thinking. Raziele grinned, his canines sharp and bright. "And Sophiel." Sophiel smiled at him, her mismatched eyes lighting up.
And Rin - Rin found himself grinning as well, a crooked smile that felt as familiar as a favorite jacket.
"Yeah," he said, and his voice echoed around the room. "I remember."
Ahhh I am so bad at endings, but I hope this was okay!
Anyway, it feels good to finally finish this story. To all of my readers, old and new - thank you so much for joining me on this five-year journey. I know I haven't been updating as often as I should have, but thank you for being so patient with me.
So, as my final words to you all, this story is dedicated to all of you guys: the readers. I wish you all nothing but the best. Dream big, live your best possible life, and keep on reading. Read anything and everything you can. After all, "the world belongs to those that read" - Rick Holland.