(Happy birthday to you~ happy birthday to you~)
No matter how noisy the world around him becomes, he can still hear that song in the back of his head–warbly and thin, cracking on the highest notes, always on repeat. It never gets any louder or any fainter–it is always just there, teasing at the edges of his awareness with the promise of some kind of reward at the end of all things. If he fought harder, ran faster, pushed himself to the very end of his endurance and beyond, then maybe he’d evolve, and he could leave behind this nagging feeling of pieces missing and that song, always that song in the back of his head–
(Happy birthday to you, happy birthday to you~)
The blond general in front of him takes a last deep drag off his cigarette, then flicks it off somewhere to the side. He exhales deeply and then grins through the smoke. He raises his right arm, which glows white for a moment as his Innocence activates, unfurling out into the shape of a scythe. His smile is wide and full of teeth that look too sharp to fit properly into a human mouth.
“Brat,” he says, in a long low drawl, “you’re a thousand years too early if you think you can take me on.”
Rage bubbles up inside him. It is the same anger that always lingers inside him, twisted and black in the pit of his stomach, crawling nervously up and down his back–ringing echoes in his ears in counterpoint to his master’s birthday song. It gathers into his throat until it bursts free as a scream and he shifts form, shedding the pathetic human disguise for the modified body that his master created for him. He launches himself forward, his claws extended and his own teeth bared, rage and hate both fueling his charge–humans, humans, humans, he hates them so much, he wants to rip each one apart and taste blood on his tongue.
(Happy birthday, dear–)
The world goes white.
He wakes with a horrible sour taste in his mouth and silence in his head. It’s so strange that it takes him a moment to realize this, and when he does, he sits bolt upright, so fast that his stomach churns. He has to press both hands over his mouth and breath hard through his nose for long moments before the desire to vomit passes. Even after, he presses his forehead to his knees and feels a chill creep over him until he’s shivering so hard that his teeth chatter.
Movement at the corner of his vision catches his attention and he turns his head just enough to see what it is: a mirror. The room is too dark to see that clearly, but he sees his face and realizes that he cannot remember when this happened–and, he thinks, that it’s all wrong. The curve of his face is too soft, the hair and eyes are the wrong color, and when he moves his fingers to see his chin, he thinks, there should be something there, but all he can see is smooth skin. He moves his hands from his mouth to touch at his face, exploring it, and he thinks: That’s wrong. That’s wrong. That’s wrong. It’s all wrong.
(but that’s not all of it)
He knows this face, but it’s not his face. He knows these eyes and the sullen twist of this mouth, because he’s seen them before, moving, talking, covered in blood–
(“Teito, why, why would you do this?!”
“Mikage, Mikage, I’m sorry–“)
This time he can’t stop it; he lurches for the side of the rough cot he’s been sleeping on and is noisily, violently ill over the side. He clutches the side of the bed and retches several times, but all that comes out is thin bile and black oil. He stares at the puddles they form on the floor without really seeing them, shivering again. He remembers the way that soft skin and fragile bones tore apart under his fingers (spindly robotic too many joints and stiff with newness) and the wet slick heat as he settled himself into his new skin (teito’s skin teito’s blood teito’s screams) and opened his new eyes (cloudy with tears and some of those were even his) and the Millennium Earl put a hand over his eyes and cooed Happy birthday, Mikage.
A door opens. Mikage’s head snaps up and though his stomach churns with the movement he throws himself backwards across the bed until his shoulder hits the wall. His hands curl, threatening to change, and he watches as a man steps in.
He is both tall and broad-shouldered, with neat auburn hair and a pair of thin glasses perched on the end of a sharp nose, and he is not the general that Mikage faced before. He is dressed all in black, but on his left breast, over his heart, is the rose cross of the Black Order. He does not look particularly surprised to see Mikage awake, nor that there is a mess on the floor. He pushes his glasses up his nose with a single decisive gesture and says, “Stop that. You’ll just hurt yourself.”
Mikage shakes his head. The man tuts at that and says, “It’ll pass. The first hour is always the worst–your mind is still adjusting to your modification.”
“Mm,” Mikage says, and winces a little at his voice–Teito’s voice–“Mod … ification … ?”
“You have yourself back,” the man says. His tone is no-nonsense. “But you’re still the Earl’s creation; nothing we can do can fix that. In here, though, you’re fine.” He taps a finger against his temple. “That’s what matters. Now that you’re awake, though, there are a few last adjustments–”
“Hey,” says another voice, and that one Mikage remembers from their brief fight; a moment later the general from before swaggers into the room, shouldering the first man aside. He still has on the long coat of the Order, wide open to expose his bare chest, which is embarrassingly free of any injury. Mikage doesn’t remember much of the battle, but some small part of him is rankled that he hadn’t managed to land a single hit on this general. “The brat just woke up. Give him a moment.”
His companion gives him a withering look, over the rims of his glasses. “Timing is essential in something like this,” he says. “The longer he’s awake without the last tuning, the more likely his original programming will kick in and–”
“For fuck’s sake, Four-Eyes, he’s a goddamn kid,” the general snaps. “Give him a break, yeah?” He pulls a half-empty pack of cigarettes from a pocket and thumps the bottom to push one up, then takes it between his lips, though he does not yet light it. He looks at Mikage and raises an eyebrow. “And you, you could’ve fooled me,” he says. “Face like that, I could’ve sworn you were a girl.” His grin is brief, not quite a leer.
His companion covers his face for a moment. “Is that why you brought him back …”
“It’s ’cause he was a kid,” the general says, without skipping a beat. He jerks a thumb at himself, then, and says, “I’m Frau. The mad scientist over there’s Castor. Welcome back to life, kiddo.”
Mikage bites the inside of his cheek. Oil spreads across his tongue. “No,” he says miserably. “I didn’t want …” He looks at his spread hands. “Teito …”
Frau watches him a moment, and says, “Losing someone always drives you a bit crazy. You wanna make something of it, you help us out.”
“Help–?” He glances up, flexing his fingers still. “What do you mean?”
“You know what we are, obviously,” Frau drawls, and now he fishes a box of matches out of his pocket, using one to light his cigarette. “You know we’re fighting your boss. He’s the one who talked your sweetheart into doing that to the both of you.” He makes a gesture at Mikage that somehow encompasses the whole of him and the terrible situation. “You wanna make it right, you can help us.”
Mikage looks at his hands again. They’re Teito’s hands entirely–there’s the scars on the knuckles from their third year in school, and the little ragged patch of skin on the thumb where Teito used to bite when he was nervous. The skin sits on his metal bones with a settled familiarity, but he feels utterly, unavoidably alien in his own body. He blinks hard, but there isn’t enough life left in his flesh to properly cry. From the corner of one eye, he sees Castor start forward again, and this time Frau doesn’t stop him; a moment later, cool gloved fingers take Mikage’s chin firmly in hand, pressing at the hinges of his jaw until his mouth opens. Castor puts something on his tongue that tastes unbearably salty on his tongue, then presses his mouth shut, holding it as Mikage struggles and squirms, until whatever it was has dissolved away entirely.
“The method’s not perfect yet,” he says. “The Earl keeps upgrading his designs to make them harder to hack. It’s a challenge.” He smiles when he says it, and Mikage shrinks away just a little, wiping the back of his hand over his mouth and coughing a few times to clear his throat before he speaks.
“Teito,” he whispers. “What happened to Teito? If I’m here, then he’s …”
“Who knows?” says Frau. He tilts his head back and exhales smoke. “Maybe he’s still in there with you. Maybe he’s waiting in Heaven. That’ll be up to you to find out, when you’re done.”
Castor shoots him a sharp, unreadable look. “Frau,” he says. “That’s–”
“Up to the kid,” says Frau. He looks at Mikage, meeting his eyes directly. “You in?”
Mikage flexes his hands slowly. The images of blood and Teito’s tear-stained face are beginning to fade, though the bitterness in his throat lingers. He wipes at his mouth with his fingers, rubs at his cheeks, tugs at his hair. He thinks of the last time he saw Teito smile, backlit by the sunset with the wind in his hair, finally relaxed enough to trust someone else with the awkward pieces of himself. Mikage curls his fingers and presses them to where his heart would normally be, and finds the silence there nearly as terrible as the Earl’s singing voice in his ears.
He closes his eyes, then opens them again.
“I’m in,” he says.