Somehow Hajime had been adapting to Sano’s shields even as Sano had been learning to erect them. They’d been growing together, specifically alongside each other.
Sano can usually deal with angry shades, but the one that’s currently haunting him is a little different. And though he and the exorcist he’s been referred to manage to solve the problem by the end of Spring Break, it’s a week that may lead to difficult choices.
Hajime had never slept on the sofa in his den. He knew it was comfortable enough to sit on, but, though he had once or twice dozed off during a DVD he’d thought would be more interesting, he hadn’t ever had occasion to test this seat’s functionality as a bed before. And perhaps this was why, though he’d been attempting to take a much-needed nap, he just couldn’t lie still. He had to rise, again and again, and go back to his bedroom to check on the young man he’d installed in his own, actual bed.
After a while, though, he was forced to face facts: this really had nothing to do with the comfort level of the sofa. Had it been merely that keeping him awake, he might have made himself useful — might have contacted Kaoru to let her know things were progressing, or might at least have tried to find Kenshin to attempt to see exactly how much more progress they needed to make. But, no, all he could bring himself to do was look in, over and over, at the motionless figure of Sano, and long to smoke a cigarette.
Finally he gave in to the unhealthy urge. He usually didn’t smoke inside the house, but at the moment he couldn’t quite bear to go farther away from his bedroom than just across the hall, in case Sano woke up. So he opened the windows in the den and hovered beside them at one end of the sofa as he poisoned himself and the air around him.
When next his inability to stand still brought him to face the interior of the room, he found Tokio looking up at him with an air both skeptical and a little concerned. He waved his free hand in the direction of the bedroom and asked, “Is Misao still in there?”
She began to lick a paw as she explained that Sano had a very high body temperature.
Hajime wondered if this was natural or if the young man had a fever. A fever was only to be expected. A fever could be controlled.
Tokio cocked her head. She’d been under the impression that Hajime was the one that had hurt Sano — but if he’d done it deliberately, why was he fretting about it?
Turning back to the window, stabbing the remainder of his cigarette into the ash tray on the sill, trying to combat the desire to light another, Hajime said harshly, “Yes, I was the one. I had no choice.”
But that wasn’t quite true. There might have been some other way to exorcize the greater-than-usual amount of shade Sano had absorbed. Though it was a technique he’d never really used, Hajime might have been able to attune himself to the energy and absorb some of it to take part of the load off Sano. But could he have figured it out in time? Or what they’d done before — the insults and the arguments and the actual fighting — might have worked just as well as ever, once Sano had awakened from the faint his unusual level of absorption had induced. But that had been the difficulty: it had rather seemed as if Sano never would awaken. The much-diminished pulse and respiration rate, the rapidly cooling extremities, and, worst of all, the completely inaccessible psyche behind an impenetrable barrier of shade…
Hajime didn’t remember ever having been so worried. And though his desperate measures had had the desired effect, had brought Sano back, that had only changed the shape of his worry. And Tokio was picking up on it.
Was this, she queried, one of those behaviors pack animals like humans engaged in? Had Hajime hurt Sano in order to establish dominance, and now he worried that he hadn’t gotten his point across thoroughly enough?
“Oh, I’m sure I made my point.” Then, in spite of his better judgment, he asked, “Why would you think I’d want to establish dominance?”
Tokio replied that it would be to make certain Sano knew whom he belonged to.
“And what makes you think he belongs to me?”
She stretched out so that the markings on her back seemed to ripple along her long body, which was her equivalent of a shrug. She’d never seen him this invested in another human before, so she’d just assumed that Hajime wanted to keep Sano as his mate. Humans sometimes kept mates of the same sex, she added wisely as she began walking out of the room. She personally didn’t see the attraction, but neither did she understand cars or bathtubs or why she and Misao were supposed to stay off the kitchen counters; Hajime undoubtedly knew all about human things like that. Then she added that it smelled bad in here, and was gone.
Hajime gave a soft, bitter laugh. So now even his familiar’s thoughts pointed that direction, did they?
He lit another cigarette.
He wasn’t blind to what Sano wanted. How could he be? Little as he’d ever been interested in anything of the sort, he wasn’t unaware of its existence or its importance in the lives of others. And Sano hadn’t exactly been discreet. His interest had developed rapidly — for all the hours they’d spent together, it had still been only a single week — but Sano himself had admitted that he made fast decisions, and Hajime supposed there had been wilder and hastier ones.
This would all be much simpler if Hajime could claim he didn’t like Sano, as that would neatly solve this little problem. But he did, in fact, like Sano. It was odd… he didn’t like many people… but he liked Sano, enough that he didn’t think he could bring himself to lie about it.
He liked the way Sano seemed to live so intensely and yet so lazily, somehow, at the same time. He liked Sano’s sense of humor. He liked that, aimless as Sano often appeared, still he had standards he passionately adhered to. He even liked the way Sano grumbled so much despite simultaneously seeming pretty happy with his life.
And perhaps some of this had been brought to Hajime’s attention only by the sight of Sano’s blood on his hands.
Insulting Sano, annoying Sano, even thinking badly of some of Sano’s life choices… that was one thing. But today’s experience had proven to Hajime that the idea of losing Sano was uncomfortable and agitating enough to be called, perhaps, painful.
But wasn’t he, in thinking thus, trying to hold onto something he’d never actually had? Maybe Tokio was right, and he was trying to establish ownership. Because though their relationship wasn’t exactly professional, they weren’t exactly friends either.
At some point during these thoughts, Hajime had finished his second cigarette and drifted yet again to his bedroom door. The room’s interior was dim, but still he could make out certain aspects of Sano’s face, and the faint light from the hallway on the curve of shoulders — one bare, one bulked up by white bandage — just above the blanket. Misao was visible as a perfect black circle at the young man’s side.
Friendship, though a rarity in Hajime’s life, was nothing distasteful. Friendship with Sano, he thought, was even specifically desirable. He would like to get to know a Sano that wasn’t enraged all the time. He would like to see where Sano’s geological fixation went, how the skinflint father would take the news. He would like to gather more evidence for or against his theory about Sano’s magical talents. He would like to talk to Sano about… well, anything, really. He could easily envision a lot of time spent with Sano with little more to do than what he believed people generally called ‘hanging out.’ He just… wanted Sano around.
But Sano obviously wanted more than that. At this point, assuming he didn’t hate Hajime forever when he woke up and learned what had happened, Sano might even believe he was entitled to more than friendship. And though that was nonsense, still Hajime didn’t like the idea of disappointing him.
Of the type of relationship Sano probably had in mind, however… of the type of emotions that would prompt someone to form such a relationship, or at least would be expected to develop once they had… Hajime simply wasn’t sure he was capable. Even the more simplistic concept Tokio had suggested, that of seeking a mate — at least in the sexual sense — was something completely alien to him. And any sense less intimately involved than that, he was afraid Sano would not accept.
He didn’t want to hurt Sano, but, just as he had earlier today, he feared there was no other option.
“I have to say, it is nice to finally see what he looks like. I believe I never saw him during my life.”
Though the soft voice immediately to Hajime’s left and a little above him was unexpected, the exorcist thought he managed to hide his startlement fairly well as he turned to regard the ghost that had at some point appeared silently at his side. “You might not recognize him right now even if you had,” he replied; “he’s unusually dressed today. The bandages aren’t normal either. I think.” And as he said this, he took his first real look at Kenshin Himura.
Kenshin Himura was taking his first real look at the man he was fairly certain had been around him quite a bit just recently. The narrow eyes that currently returned his scrutiny were an unsettlingly light brown or even gold, and, like the other harsh features surrounding them, distinctly Japanese. Figure tall and lean, hairstyle odd and angular, clad in stark black and white, the man wasn’t the most friendly-looking of all the people Kenshin could have had his first post-dissolution conversation with. So happy was Kenshin, however, to be able to have a conversation with anyone that he wasn’t going to complain.
When the man finished his examination of the ghost and turned back to regard the sleeper in the room beyond, Kenshin was reminded of the topic on which he’d started the aforementioned conversation. “Is he all right? I missed what happened to him.”
“He’ll be fine,” said the tall man briefly. After a moment he glanced at Kenshin again. “So you didn’t go into the building, then. Sano was wondering why it was taking you so long to catch up.” Sano, Kenshin noted, was the name of the man they were discussing — the one he’d been haunting for… he wasn’t really sure how long.
“The place the red mist was coming from?” he answered the question, shaking his head and smiling wanly. “No. I think it’s safe to say I have had enough of that for one afterlife. When I got close to where Sano had stopped and felt how much more of it there was, I waited at a distance. And then… I was already under the impression that Sano was trying to help me, but I wasn’t ready for the red mist just to disappear all of a sudden.”
Though he spoke calmly, he knew he would never forget as long as he… existed… the abrupt withdrawal of the angry shroud that had kept him for so many uncounted days or weeks or months largely cut off from the world. He’d found he’d almost forgotten what that world was even like in his near-complete lack of ability to sense it properly. Suddenly able to see and hear and smell and taste again (though touch, it appeared, was not to be restored), he’d gone a little crazy for a while: losing track of his priorities, he’d floated aimlessly in sensory overload until the moment he’d realized Sano was once more on the move; then he’d retraced his… path… and followed Sano as he’d been doing since he’d first found him, and eventually come to this house.
“I did that, actually.”
This curt pronouncement dragged Kenshin back out of intense memory to the present, and prompted him to reply, “Then thank you very much.”
The man nodded slightly, then murmured, “Not that Sano wasn’t useful.”
It was a little odd how precisely Kenshin still seemed able to mark his own movements and gestures when he lacked a sense of touch. Consciousness of remembered muscular impulse, perhaps? It didn’t really matter; all that did was that he now found himself smiling slightly as he followed the man’s intent gaze back to the sleeping Sano in the bedroom. “He is a remarkable person, you know.”
Shifting, raising a hand to the doorframe, then stilling again, the man said nothing.
“I know you have talked to my wife,” Kenshin began a little more quietly, “so you may know that I was haunting her for a while…” He paused. He’d meant this as a comment about Sano, but he realized quickly that it was going to become an explanation or even a story, and had to backtrack and start at an earlier point. “When I died, I was not sure why I became a ghost. I was drawn to Kaoru, almost pulled towards her, which I thought was only natural; but there were no other ghosts around, so being one could not be entirely natural. I thought maybe I was allowed to stay so I could learn why she was so upset with me during that last month of my life. I thought maybe I was being punished for whatever I did to her… or maybe,” he added contemplatively, “for something I did years ago…”
All the intensity of the amber gaze had transferred to Kenshin now, though the man made no move to leave the doorway where he stood and still did not say a word. In the face of such obvious interest, Kenshin could but go on, though going on at this point was not necessarily easy.
“I watched her suffering… I watched her trying to be strong for everyone else, for Kenji — trying to decide how much to tell him and how to answer his questions — but she could not hide how much pain she was in from me, since I saw her when nobody else was looking.” Were the tears on his face just some sort of astral projection? Merely a memory of tears? And how, exactly, was he even aware that they were there, when he couldn’t feel them? He took a deep, false breath into lungs that, he supposed, no longer really existed.
“There has always been a sort of… pulling… feeling… I’m afraid I have no way to describe it any better than that, but it has been there since the beginning — since the moment I realized I was dead: something pulling me, trying to pull me away from here, I guess into whatever comes next. And Kaoru was what held me back. Watching her in so much pain and wanting to talk to her, to try and help her somehow, kept me from ever responding at all to that pulling… thing. And it got worse when I finally found out what really happened that night when I died.
“You would think a ghost would know all about his own death. Doesn’t it seem unfair to die and not know anything more than you did when you were alive? But I didn’t know the truth until I heard her say it out loud. I think it was the only time she has said it out loud since it happened, unless she told you…”
“She did,” the man — whom Kenshin was beginning to regard as his audience — nodded. “And don’t be concerned that she’ll get in any trouble for it; we don’t intend to tell anyone.”
“Thank you,” said Kenshin, intensely and sincerely. His first impression (more or less) of this harsh stranger wasn’t a very good one, but he deeply appreciated that the man had made this reassurance immediately and unbidden. He went on with his story. “She said it like a sort of prayer, as if by saying it out loud she might be able to get control of what happened and how she felt about it. It didn’t work, but it let me hear the truth about how I died and what happened before that.
“When I knew Kaoru felt like a murderer because of what she had done, I wanted even more than ever to talk to her somehow. I wanted to let her know I did not — that I could never blame her, and that actually I knew what it… well…” No reason to pour out, in his wife’s absence, everything he wanted to say to her. “That kind of thing. I knew then that that was why I became a ghost. I can’t move on, no matter how hard it pulls me, until I tell her.
“But she could not hear me or see me; she had no idea I was there. I don’t know how long that went on. I don’t think I am aware of time the same way I was when I was alive; I have no idea how long I spent trying to communicate with her without being able to get even the smallest response from her.”
The man snorted quietly. “That sounds familiar,” he murmured, and left Kenshin to interpret the remark as he would.
“And then the red mist came. It appeared out of nowhere all of a sudden and completely covered me. I had no way of knowing what it was or where it came from, and, though I did not like it, at first I also did not consider it a problem.”
“It didn’t make you angry?” the man wondered with a raised brow.
“Not me,” replied Kenshin ruefully.
“All it did to me was cut me off from everything. I couldn’t see or hear anything around me through the mist, except for… well, I could still sense my wife and son, but it was not the same as before. Before, I saw and heard everything just like I did when I was alive, just like I can now. But through the mist, it was… a different sense. Something that was probably there all along, but that I never noticed until it was the only way I could find them.”
“A psychic connection.” Though the man’s tone was contemplative, the little nod he gave had no doubt in it. “Even people without any magical skill form bonds like that with others.”
Not entirely pleased with a pronouncement as of expertise from someone that hadn’t actually been part of this experience, but not wanting be impolite, Kenshin merely accepted the diagnosis with a nod of his own and continued. “Whatever it was, I was able to ‘see’ Kaoru and Kenji even through the mist, and there were even a few things relating to them that got through normally — whenever one of them mentioned the other out loud, I could still hear it — but most of what they were actually doing and saying I usually couldn’t make out. I can’t say for sure how long it took me to realize that the mist was affecting Kaoru — or, even once I did notice, how long it took me to decide that it really was the mist, or possibly me, and not some other cause.
“You probably know what it did to her. Yes?” Kenshin shook his head, remembering in powerless pity and frustration. “I never wanted to talk to her any less, to tell her everything I wanted to tell her… and inside the mist I felt that pulling sensation even less than before… so for me, nothing had changed except maybe to make me want to stay with her even more. But I couldn’t stay with her and keep making her situation even worse than it already was and her even more unhappy. I had to leave. I had no idea where I could go or what I would do, or even if I would ever see my wife again, but… I couldn’t stay.”
Again the man nodded, this time in a manner that suggested he’d had guesses confirmed by this. At the same time, his interest seemed to intensify as Kenshin was finally approaching what had been the point of his long narrative from the beginning.
“I just started wandering,” he said, “aimlessly.” Helplessly he lifted his spectral hands. Trying to describe the emptiness, the hopelessness, the misery of a search without an object, a path without a destination, of knowing he’d left everything he loved behind in more pain even that he felt… he wasn’t going to bother with the attempt. Instead, he let his hands fall to his sides and glanced into the bedroom. “And then I sensed Sano.
“I had already found that Kaoru and Kenji were not the only ones I could sense through the mist. There were people here and there, when I was moving around without any real place to go, who I could sense, a little. But Sano was… amazingly clearer, and more something I was drawn to, than anyone else. He was almost as clear as Kaoru and Kenji. I never met him while I was alive, so it probably wasn’t any kind of psychic connection — at least not one that I had already made. I think what I felt was… potential.
“He was not my friend, but he could have been. He was the kind of person I could have been friends with, best friends with. He was somebody I could have loved. I think I was drawn to him because I could sense all sorts of things about him, maybe things that would have taken me a lot longer when I was alive. It was like…” Kenshin paused, pensive, trying to think how to describe it, and eventually settled on a metaphor.
“Imagine flying over a tropical island completely covered in mist. You know there is a jungle beneath you; you know exactly what kinds of plants and animals are down there, but you can’t see anything through the mist. And then ahead of you, rising out of the mist and glowing, you see a volcano. That was what finding Sano was like.” Though certain misleadingly visual terms rendered this not entirely satisfying, Kenshin left it as it was, mostly because of the expression it had occasioned on his companion’s face.
“A volcano.” For some reason, the man had just the faintest trace of a glower between his eyebrows and at the corners of his mouth, and Kenshin got the oddest feeling that this guy was jealous because he hadn’t thought of the description first. “Yes, that’s Sano.”
“He could see me. He was the first person I encountered after I died who could, and that meant a lot. I thought it was ironic that I could not see him, or figure out much about him from what I sensed — not his name, or how old he was, or anything like that… but part of the feeling I had about him, that drew me to him, was that he could help me. I felt like he had the potential — whatever kind of magical powers you folks have that could help me, I felt like he had them — and that he was the kind of person who’d be willing to try.”
The man had gone back to staring into the bedroom. “I can’t be sure yet,” he said thoughtfully, “but I think he’s what we call a natural — someone who subconsciously uses all branches of magic, and masters anything he consciously tries to learn very easily. Naturals are very rare.”
“He’s certainly something special,” Kenshin agreed with a nod. “If I had not found him, I have no idea where I would be now. Though,” he added politely, “as you mentioned, I have you to thank for getting rid of the red mist.”
“That still wouldn’t have happened without Sano,” the man admitted. And now, finally, he moved away from the bedroom door, turning fully to face Kenshin and fixing him with a pointed gaze. “But there is a way you can repay the favor.”
Though Kenshin was more than a little impatient to get back to Kaoru now that the mist was gone and he’d explained himself to at least one of the people here, there was nothing to be said in response to that remark but, “I will do whatever I can.”
“I’m an exorcist.” A more thorough introduction, Kenshin thought, would have been appropriate at this juncture, but the man evidently didn’t agree. “Anything more I can find out about your current state would be professionally useful to me, if you wouldn’t mind answering some questions.”
An exorcist, was it? Probably about as close to the polar opposite of a ghost as you could get. Perhaps it was natural, then, for Kenshin to dislike this man, so he didn’t have to bother trying not to. “I’ll be happy to tell you anything I can,” he promised politely.
“Come with me, then,” the man commanded. And with one last glance in at the sleeping Sano, he moved away purposefully down the hall.
A number of points had Sano just a little worried when he properly regained consciousness.
He’d been swimming through the very uncomfortable type of chaotic and incoherent half-awake dream state he generally only ever experienced when his brain was muddled by medication, which was bad enough… but usually he found himself in his own bed upon his unsettled full awakening. This bed was completely unfamiliar — and the immediate would-be cheerful thought in the back of his head that it smelled like Hajime was rather more disquieting than comforting, since he wasn’t aware that he knew what Hajime smelled like.
Similarly, he could swear up and down that he’d been hearing Kenshin’s voice while he slept, much more clearly and realistically than any noise his dreams could have provided… but he didn’t know what Kenshin’s voice sounded like. He didn’t even know where Kenshin was, and hadn’t for… how long had it been?
Then, something was… off. Something was different, something was missing. That he recognized this so distinctly and certainly, but could in no way define precisely what had changed, was frustrating and simultaneously surreal. The knowledge was barely beyond his grasp, and that made him doubt it was actually there, doubt his own senses. All but one.
For the factor that gave him the most unease was the pain. He thought this was specifically what had awakened him, since it had been increasing for some time and must just have reached a level where he couldn’t sleep through it anymore. Which made sense, since it was a raging ache that at first seemed to have his entire upper body in a hot, tight grip. As he breathed shallowly and slowly turned his head, however, he came gradually to realize that it was centered in his right shoulder.
Actually, movement brought him a few answers. When he noticed the tiny warm body curled into an impossibly tight spiral at his side, her furry flanks expanding gently with each sleeping breath, he was convinced beyond any doubt that he was in a bed that might reasonably be expected to smell like Hajime — whatever that might smell like. Then, the nightstand nearby was host to a green plastic bottle with a big, otherwise-blank white label across which was scrawled, as with a Sharpie on an inconveniently curved surface, Percocet — which explained the drug dreams.
This nightstand was — thank god! — on his left. Some discomfort resulted even from moving his left arm, but he could at least do so. What he couldn’t do, yet, was sit up in order to avail himself of the glass of water that was neighbor to the green bottle. He almost wasn’t capable of getting the bottle open, one-handed, horizontal, and barely coherent as he was, but fortunately it didn’t seem to be the most medically official prescription ever dispensed and lacked a child-proof lid. The viciously disgusting flavor of the two pills he fished from inside and attempted to swallow made him long for the water, but that was an unattainable ambition for now. So he lay still trying not to think about the taste in his mouth or the sensation of the bulky pain killer moving slowly down his esophagus.
What the hell had happened to him was something he would rather like to figure out, but, though the bandages on his right shoulder seemed a good place to start, he wasn’t quite up to the amount of movement or probing of the painful area that would be required to seek the answer. Instead, he concentrated on another answer he was slowly becoming aware of.
He wasn’t angry. At all. That was the large-scale change he’d been sensing since waking. He’d come so close to forgetting what it felt like not to be angry, not to have at least a little red shade tainting everything he thought or did, that it had taken him this long to recognize its absence.
They’d done it. He was free. He was no longer haunted by a shade.
Whether or not he was still haunted by a ghost was a different story. Where was Kenshin? Had he really been there, talking, while Sano slept? Perhaps he’d said goodbye; perhaps Sano would never see him again — never truly see him except in a ruined photograph in the office of the man that had caused his death and set all of this in motion.
What had happened back at the Seido building? How had Sano gotten from there to Hajime’s house minus shade but plus some kind of really painful injury? Had Gains perhaps decided that Sano, uncontrollably irate after absorbing so much angry energy, was a threat to security, and had him shot? And in that case, had something unpleasant happened to Hajime as well? Where was Hajime?
Logically, being in Hajime’s house, Hajime’s bed, meant that Hajime himself must be present and well enough to have arranged those circumstances. But still the thought that he as well as Sano might have been hurt at the Seido headquarters was enough to galvanize Sano into much more vigorous activity than he’d previously been planning for any time soon. He jerked the blanket aside, startling a protest out of the suddenly awakened Misao, and sat up.
The Percocet definitely hadn’t kicked in yet; the pain radiating from his shoulder made his head feel dizzy and pressurized and his stomach nauseated. But he fought through it, swiveling his legs off the side of the bed and propping himself on his left hand.
Misao had wormed her way out of the bedding that had been thrown over her, and now was stretching toward him looking bleary and perhaps a little annoyed that he’d so abruptly interrupted her nap. Not quite ready to rise, Sano reached out the hand on which his weight had previously rested, feeling a little precarious as a result, and clumsily scratched the little ridgey area between the cat’s ears. “Hey, Misao,” he said. It came out in a rough whisper. “Where’s your familiar?”
She sat down beside him, eyes half open as she accepted the caress, and replied that Hajime was in the den across the hall.
The fact that he’d perfectly understood her meow was something he would have to wonder about later. For the moment, he drew a deep breath in preparation for forcing himself to stand. This turned out to have been a mistake, for the swelling of his chest also affected the injured shoulder and left him reeling where he sat for a few pain-blinded instants. But as his legs seemed unhurt, he forced them to lift the rest of his body into an upright position. Immediately he stumbled unstably forward into the nearest wall, but he didn’t seem to be in any danger of actually falling, and with such a solid guide could make his way around to the bedroom door, the hallway beyond, and the other door across from him.
It seemed to be evening, as the house without any lights turned on was dim. A clock stood on Hajime’s nightstand, but even had Sano been at a better angle to read the red numbers while looking in that direction, he’d been too focused on the pain killer to note the time. But at least there was enough fading daylight through the windows behind the couch in the den to show him the sleeping figure of Hajime.
Against Sano’s bare skin, the coolness of the doorframe that was currently supporting him after what had almost been a leap across the hall made him wonder vaguely what had happened to his shirt. But mostly he was just sagging in relief at the sight of Hajime unhurt before him. Of course the fear that Hajime might have been hurt had been a fantastic one in the first place, but that didn’t make the relief less palpable, less emotionally overwhelming, or even, at this point, physically problematic. He couldn’t move an inch; he was sure he really would fall to the floor this time. So he just let the painted wood continue to support him, and stared as the light faded.
‘Crush,’ he feared, was no adequate term. It didn’t matter that it had only been a week; he was seriously into this guy. Which was funny, since Hajime’s behavior hadn’t given Sano any overwhelming reason to like him.
But he couldn’t help it. Hajime was so admirably, drivingly purposeful that it was as if Sano, breathless and unable even to protest, was just caught up and swept along. Hajime always seemed to know exactly what needed to be done, and didn’t hesitate to do it. Similarly, he always knew exactly what he wanted — what he wanted to do, what he wanted to learn, what he wanted to be — and pursued it without reference to anything or anyone. He’d chosen to work in the branch of magic he liked best rather than the one in which he had the most natural skill; he’d chosen the profession he wanted, the way of life he wanted, in spite of the overbearing desires of his family. He was all about will, all about choice, and the things he willed and chose always seemed to be fundamentally right.
‘Nice’ wasn’t exactly a word Sano would have used to describe Hajime… and yet, though he would never postulate as much aloud to the man himself, he believed that Hajime had chosen exorcism not merely because the actual work involved was interesting, but because he still wanted somehow to help people, to better lives by eliminating some of the evils that arose in them, even if those people and those lives were not really to his taste. It was a backward sort of charity that Sano probably shouldn’t have found as intriguing and attractive as he did.
Because, god, Hajime’s taste… what was Hajime’s taste? If he preferred to disdain everyone, to put on politeness like a creepy mask in order to interact with a world he wasn’t interested in being a real part of just for the sake of destroying shades and then retreating… then this little infatuation of Sano’s was undoubtedly hopeless. He thought they’d had some fun together; he thought Hajime had shown signs of enjoying Sano’s company… but perhaps that had only been a businessman making the best of time he was forced to spend with a non-paying client in the pursuit of gathering information about a potential asset. All just professional.
But Hajime did have at least one friend; that was how Sano had interpreted the suggestion of lunch with that Chou guy, anyway. And if he had at least one friend, there was nothing saying he couldn’t have at least two. And if he had at least two friends, there was nothing saying he couldn’t have a boyfriend. Unless he wasn’t into men at all, which was a topic of research on which Sano hadn’t been able to make any progress whatsoever. Not by action, attitude, or anecdote had Hajime given a single hint as to what his sexual orientation might be. He didn’t read as gay, or bisexual, or straight; he didn’t read as anything. On that score Sano was utterly confounded, and hadn’t quite had the nerve to ask outright.
So long did Sano stand in the doorway of the den with eyes and thoughts directed intensely at the man on the couch that any sunlight from outside had completely faded and the Percocet had started to take effect before he remembered where he was. Misao had abandoned him at some point, having yawningly remarked that he was boring and gone back into the bedroom. And Sano had straightened, he found; as the pain had faded somewhat he’d mostly stopped leaning on the doorframe. Now he looked interestedly down at his bandaged shoulder.
Gingerly with his left hand, he sought out the tape that held in place the outer wrap circling his shoulder and armpit. Peeling it carefully back, he was able to loosen it so as to get at the layers beneath. The bottom one was taped directly to his skin, and painful to work free far enough to see under, and even when he’d managed it he couldn’t make out a thing in the current darkness.
Returning to Hajime’s bedroom and closing the door, he flipped on the light and took another look. A bathroom mirror might have been a better option, as this angle wasn’t the most convenient, but he was going to lie back down in a second here and didn’t feel like leaving the room again.
He’d never been shot, and only had Hollywood’s word on what a gunshot wound looked like… and on this evidence he determined that such was not the nature of this hurt. Beneath the stitches, the injury ran in a neat, perfectly straight line such as might have been formed by a precise hand holding a scalpel.
Or an equally, or perhaps even more precise hand on the hilt of a sword.
“I can, easily. If you want me to stab you.”
Oddly, and maybe at least in part because the Percocet was making him a little weird in the head, his initial reaction to this discovery was weak, breathy, and nearly uncontrollable laughter as he sat down on the bed, clumsily re-sealed the tape, and re-tightened the outer layers and the wrap around his shoulder. There was, he couldn’t help thinking, some irony in finding this just after he’d been reflecting on how and why he liked Hajime so damn much.
So that was how… that was why… yes, that explained just about everything. And everything suddenly just seemed really funny and stupid. He staggered back up, with a lot more pain than sound in the breaths that expanded his chest, and moved to turn the light off and crack the door in case Misao wanted out while he slept. This last was something it was definitely time to be doing.
Necromancy, though it had turned out to be within his abilities, was nothing Hajime had ever practiced before, which meant that just about every word Kenshin had spoken yesterday had required specific concentration on Hajime’s part to understand, and the entire ordeal had left him even more mentally spent than he’d already been. He’d slept long and hard, so much that he’d arisen with no clearer idea of the comfort level of the den sofa than he’d had yesterday afternoon. And now it was Saturday morning, a little later than he usually rose, and he was going through a headachy process of making breakfast for two when he wasn’t quite sure when or if the second party would want it.
The cats had remarked leadingly that the sausage smelled interesting, then been distracted from that topic by their own breakfasts, and Hajime had taken some aspirin with his coffee as he started the meal on his own, before he heard noises from the hall. Slow footsteps sounded on the wood floor toward the bathroom, the door to which opened and closed.
Then (unsurprisingly, as Misao had galloped out of the kitchen the moment she’d detected signs of Sano’s wakefulness) the bathroom door opened and closed a second time, accompanied by a grumble that sounded something like, “I’ve had enough of people in the bathroom with me lately.” Sano would probably be equal parts relieved and irritated to learn that Kenshin usually hadn’t been able to see or hear his normal activities during the period of haunting.
A few minutes later, a rumpled-looking young man, hair plastered into a smooth slope in back so it came to a sort of jagged point at the top, entered the kitchen. Hajime, leaning against the counter beside the stove, set down his breakfast plate and braced himself.
Sano aimed a single finger at him and said just as pointedly, “Peacemaker Kurogane.”
This was not at all the greeting Hajime had expected, so he just raised a brow.
“I was in a shit-ton of pain last night,” Sano explained, “because for some reason it kinda looks like somebody might have stabbed me with a sword…” He paused with a frown. “And I swear I’ve heard that in a movie somewhere. Anyway, every time the Percocet wore off, I got up and wandered around for a little before the next one kicked in and I could sleep again. And I was looking through your shelves, and I discovered your dirty little secret.”
“Where you’ve heard my name before?”
“Well, yeah, that too, but I mean that you like anime. Yes, Misao, hi. Sorry I wouldn’t let you in the bathroom. Good morning.” Though the little cat had been meowing nonstop for Sano’s attention, she didn’t actually have anything to say; so once he’d satisfied her by bending briefly, stiffly, to pet her, she shut up and headed for Tokio’s food bowl in case her elder had left anything behind for her to steal.
Hajime wasn’t going to point out that, to have been looking through the shelves his DVD’s were kept on, Sano would have to have been in the den — hovering near the sleeping Hajime, in other words, which was something the waking Hajime didn’t really want to discuss. So he just said, “I like some anime. Sometimes.”
“Yeah, well, you made it sound before like you thought it was all stupid or something. But this is a series I’ve even seen — because my name’s in there too — and here you have it on DVD, and I remember now it has you in it, seeing ghosts and everything.”
Hajime didn’t feel like checking the inordinate amount of pleasure Sano was taking in this perceived triumph; in fact, he had to smile a bit at the suggestion that he himself actually featured in the series in question, and the indirect idea that he’d been named after an anime character rather than the historic figure that character represented. He did feel the need to point out, however, “All I implied before was that getting all your Japanese culture from anime was stupid.”
“Yeah, OK, fine.” Sano started to shrug, winced visibly with an audible intake of breath, and canceled whatever he’d been planning on saying next. Hajime thought it was something about never having been to Japan, but couldn’t be entirely sure when the walls were up.
“Do you want breakfast?” He turned toward where he’d kept the second half of the meal warm. “It’s eggs and rice with sausage.”
“Is that your way of apologizing for stabbing me in the shoulder?” Sano wondered, stepping forward to join Hajime at the stove and look down into the pan.
“It might be,” said Hajime neutrally. He couldn’t quite bring himself to apologize for something he really had believed was necessary, but he was sorry that so much discomfort had been the unavoidable result.
Sano’s immediate, “Then I accept,” came as a bit of a surprise, and Hajime turned just as quickly to search the young man’s face for any insincerity, for suppressed resentment. He found none. Moreover, Sano gave him half a grin and continued in a quieter tone, “It’s kindof extreme, but you wouldn’t have done it if you didn’t think you had to. It hurts like all kinds of hell, but…” Apparently he barely remembered in time to restrain a second shrug. “It’s kinda cool too.”
Hajime didn’t bother trying not to feel intensely relieved at this reaction. “Idiot.”
“Yeah, well…” Sano’s grin twisted to demonstrate just how much pain he was still in — as if Hajime couldn’t already tell. “I’ll probably punch you in the face for it next time I’m mad. And don’t do it again, OK?”
“I’ll try not to.” Hajime gestured to the dishes he’d set out for Sano’s use and changed the subject. “I have coffee or orange juice, if you’re interested. Or there’s water. I don’t recommend mixing beer with pills.”
“Yeah, I’m already spacey enough. Though it’s not so bad when I’m not laying down. Uh, water sounds good. I think orange juice or coffee would make me sick right now.”
Though Hajime had previously been eating bachelor-style standing up beside the stove, he now transferred his things to the dining table beyond the doorway out of the kitchen while Sano dished himself the remainder of the breakfast mess and filled his cup from the tap. When he joined Hajime at the table, Tokio immediately took up a place beside his chair and started demanding that he give her sausage.
Hajime vetoed this with, “It’s not good for cats.” Then to Sano he remarked, “Those stitches have to stay in for at least a week. I’ll pay for you to see a doctor, since I assume you won’t want to go back to the U.S.Seido on-site surgeon.”
“Guh, yeah, was that who put these in?” said Sano through a full mouth. “I mean, not like he didn’t do a good job or anything, but…” He shook his head. “I guess a yakuza would have a surgeon on their payroll just hanging around, wouldn’t they…” When Hajime nodded, he added, “No wonder that Percocet bottle looks so black-market.”
Hajime didn’t bother to mention that he’d double checked with Gains how quickly a qualified medical professional could be summoned before going through with his extreme measures; nor that he’d rubbed down the end of his sword, before touching Sano with it, with some chlorhexidine solution he hadn’t wanted to ask why Gains had on hand; nor did he wonder what Sano’s prior experience with black-market Percocet might be. He just reached out at a hand in the next convenient interval and touched the startled Sano’s forehead.
“You don’t feel feverish,” he said as he compared the temperature with his own.
“Nah,” said Sano, recovering quickly from his surprise. “Just in pain and kinda stupid.”
Hajime forbore from taking advantage of this opening, and continued his breakfast in silence.
Presently Sano asked, “You got any ketchup for this?”
With a skeptical look, Hajime gestured wordlessly toward the refrigerator in the next room.
“Oh, I see how it is,” said Sano as he rose. “Apology only goes so far.”
“Any moron who wants to ruin good cooking with ketchup can go get his own.”
“And yet I see you have ketchup here.” The grin was audible in Sano’s voice as he made what he believed was a clever follow-up to this remark: “What I haven’t seen yet is any good cooking.”
Hajime snorted faintly. Then he ignored the casual way Sano, upon returning to the table, picked a piece of sausage off his plate and offered it to Tokio. Then he ignored the laughing way Sano, having thus mortally offended Misao, dug out an even bigger piece for her by way of amends. It wasn’t improbable that each cat would find she didn’t like sausage very much anyway.
“That’s an interesting tattoo you have,” the exorcist said at last, thinking of the shirtless, muscular back that had just been turned on him as Sano had rummaged through the fridge.
“Oh!” Sano started, then winced as the motion must have hurt his injury. It was clear he’d completely forgotten about his tattoo, or at least never considered that Hajime would have seen it by now. At the same time, Hajime was picking up on some embarrassment on the topic strong enough to leak through the barriers in Sano’s head. “Uh, yeah…”
Pursuing this advantage, “You must really think you’re a badass,” Hajime said with a smirk.
“I am a badass,” replied Sano defiantly. “And you better have a new shirt for me.”
“Somehow I got the feeling that one you had on yesterday wasn’t exactly one of your favorites. Tokio, stop that.” Having, as Hajime had expected, deemed the sausage uneatable, she’d been trying to bury it, and the scraping of her paws on the wood floor was getting annoying. Neither the cat’s behavior nor Sano’s attempt at changing the subject, however, could keep Hajime from centering right back on the real topic at hand. “What in the world made you think it was a good idea to put the kanji for ‘evil’ permanently on your back? Especially that big?”
Shifting abashedly and looking at his plate, Sano explained. “Well, I’d just turned eighteen and gotten a pretty big tax return… I wanted to do something that would prove I was an adult and… an individual… and all that… I thought some kanji or other would be a good way to, you know, express my Japanese heritage or whatever… and this one looked cool… and plus it was kindof a rebellion against my parents, since they think only bad people get tattoos at all…”
Glancing up and finding Hajime still smirking at him, Sano frowned and went on in a more serious tone. “I can’t be sorry for the kind of person I was in the past, even if I did decide to write it really big on my back for some reason. You don’t get where you are without having been where you were.”
Impressed that Sano had made it through that last verbal tangle, Hajime withheld his remark that he didn’t believe the young man nearly as far removed from the rebellious teenager phase as Sano himself apparently did. He merely nodded his agreement with the totally just sentiment.
Now Sano was blushing faintly. “Plus it still looks cool,” he mumbled in conclusion. Following up a quick shoveling of the last of his breakfast into his mouth with a long gulp of water, he rose hastily and added, “I need to go take some more Percocet.”
The first thing Sano had to say when he came back into the kitchen where Hajime was loading the dishwasher was, “Where’s Kenshin, by the way?” He’d been so distracted by Hajime himself that he hadn’t gotten around to asking. Which was funny, when Kenshin was so important, but, Sano supposed, not exactly unprecedented.
“He went back to his wife,” Hajime answered. “I told him we’d meet him there to help him talk to her as soon as you were feeling up to it.”
Sano would have remarked, ‘As soon as you find me a shirt to wear,’ but feared that would lead back to the topic of his tattoo. So instead he said, “I’m glad he’s doing OK now.”
“If you call being dead ‘doing OK.'”
“Better than being dead and breaded with someone else’s crazy anger.”
“Did you get to talk to him? About the afterlife and everything, I mean? Find out all sorts of stuff that’ll make Aoshi totally jealous?”
Closing the dishwasher with what Sano thought was unnecessary firmness, Hajime looked annoyed. “Aoshi… I’m going to have to call him, aren’t I.”
“You did promise,” Sano reminded him, though not without sympathy. And then a much-belated thought struck him in response to the word ‘call.’ “Hang on,” he said with a frown of his own. “What time is it?” Starting to panic just a little, he spun completely around, searching the kitchen for a clock.
“9:24,” said Hajime, and then — Sano could sense and guess more than see that this was the case — watched in amused skepticism as Sano began frantically patting down his pockets and cursing.
Remembering eventually that he’d seen some of his personal effects on the nightstand, beside the clock that might have prevented this disaster if he’d taken note of it earlier, Sano hastily left the kitchen. Trying not to think about the necessity of Hajime’s having put his hands into Sano’s pants pockets in order to empty them of wallet, keys, and cell phone so Sano could sleep more easily, he ran to the nightstand and grabbed the last of these items.
It was dead, of course. These days, if he didn’t charge it overnight, that was always the case in the morning. He swore.
“You had a couple of texts yesterday,” Hajime volunteered from where he’d followed to the doorway of the bedroom and now was watching Sano’s frustrated efforts at getting his phone to turn on. “It seems like your excuses for not going out with your friends lately haven’t been very good.”
“No, they haven’t,” Sano agreed. “I’ve been saving all my good excuses and terrible lies for right now this very minute. Can I use your phone?”
With a smirk Hajime retrieved it from his pocket and handed it to Sano. Then he walked away, presumably to offer some privacy, and soon after Sano heard what sounded like the front door. Privacy was unlikely, however, as two cats had entered the room, taken a seat on the bed, and were now watching him with interest. He turned his back on them and, after the few seconds it took to dredge up a number he usually relied on programmed contacts to remember, called work.
No less than eight minutes and one somewhat disastrous climbing cat adventure later, he went back into the kitchen and returned the phone to its owner, who was now sorting through what must be yesterday’s mail. With a sigh Sano leaned against a nearby counter and said, “Well, I don’t think they’ll fire me. Sucks for them I know it’s more trouble to train another new maintenance guy than put up with this kind of bullshit from me… but the manager who’s in there right now is pissed.
“He wouldn’t believe I got in a huge fight and got stabbed and then I was too high on Percocet to call two hours early this morning like you’re supposed to. I’m going to shove this shoulder and all these stupid bruises in his face the next time I see him. God, and it’s going to suck working with this,” he added with a groan. “You know how much lifting I have to do? I can barely even move this arm yet.”
“The Seido doctor wanted to put it in a sling,” Hajime informed him, not looking up from the mail, “but I didn’t think you’d appreciate that.”
Sano thought about it, and decided he was probably right. He preferred even a slight amount of usability, painful though it was, to having that arm completely immobile. Work was still going to hurt for a while, though.
“This may help if you do get fired,” was Hajime’s next statement, handing Sano an envelope.
With what the exorcist was currently doing in mind, Sano was for an instant extremely confused; but then he saw that the envelope was entirely blank and realized that Hajime had not, in fact, randomly given Sano some of his own mail. He pulled the unsealed flap out from where it was tucked, and extracted the contents. Observing the back of what was clearly a check, he flipped the little piece of grey-blue paper around and examined it.
The elbow he’d propped against the counter (the left elbow, of course) slipped somehow, and he staggered sideways, then forward. It took a surprising amount of time and effort to catch himself and reach a balanced upright position again.
“Holy fuck!” he managed finally from right in the center of the kitchen. The vehemence of the exclamation startled Misao, who had already retreated to the doorway when he’d stumbled, into darting into the hall and out of sight.
“Gains wrote one for each of us,” explained Hajime, who was clearly entertained at Sano’s astonishment. “I did remind him what my actual rates are, but I didn’t try very hard to argue him down.”
“Holy fuck,” Sano said again, staring unblinking at the digits in the box. Just in case he might suspect that the amount was written incorrectly, there it was in letters on the adjacent line too. He knew that at some point his mind would start racing over all the possibilities that came with this much money, but at the moment it was mostly blank with shock.
“You’ll note it’s dated the 26th.” Hajime, finished with his mail, was now just looking at Sano as he held up a matching unlabeled envelope that presumably held his share of the absurd payoff of yesterday’s adventure. “Gains isn’t stupid. He warned me that if we played some kind of hypnotic trick on him to make him feel better just temporarily, it would be in our best interest not to attempt to cash these. But if the next week goes by and he hasn’t had any kind of relapse — which, of course, he won’t — the money will be there.”
Sano’s tone was still breathless with disbelief as he wondered, “You sure he wasn’t just completely lying? I mean, this is– shit! This is a fuckload of money here! And he wrote another one for you? Who has that kind of money?”
“He wasn’t lying.” Hajime shrugged. “Of course he might change his mind between now and next week, but he was sincere enough at the time. He was mentally exhausted and not guarding very well.”
“Oh?” Sano was interested, but he couldn’t look away from the check in his hand even as he spoke. “What else did you pick up from him?”
“Among other things, that Enishi knew he was going to die. Gains didn’t know how Enishi knew, but he was sure he did.” Now Hajime set down the envelope and walked across the room. Pausing at the door, he added, “It was another yakuza member who assassinated him, by the way. We both guessed that, but Gains’s thoughts confirmed it.”
Sano followed him almost without realizing what he did. But he forced himself to tear his eyes from the check in order to navigate the hallway, and in doing so was also able to participate a little better in the conversation. “So Enishi saw that coming, and that was probably why he did that shit to Kaoru and Kenshin just before.”
Hajime nodded in grim agreement as he stepped into his bedroom and went to open the closet.
“Do you think he knew Kenshin would become a ghost?”
“I don’t know,” Hajime said slowly. “If he was a diviner, he might have. And if he did, it makes his revenge less limited than we thought.”
“You know… I bet… I bet that wasn’t even the revenge he really wanted. Just the best he could do on short notice when he realized someone in the organization was going to kill him. I bet he had something a thousand times worse in mind, but he just couldn’t pull it off in the time he had left.”
“You may be right. Here.”
Between thinking about crazy Enishi and horrible revenge and the check that seemed to be burning hot in his hand, Sano had noticed neither what Hajime was doing in the closet nor what that closet contained — and the latter, he realized now, was something he really was quite interested in and should have looked into last night during his painful interludes of aimless snooping around. Now the time it had taken to work through his distractions, and to realize that what Hajime held out toward him was a shirt, had been long enough for the exorcist to have closed the closet door and prevented Sano’s seeing anything inside.
“Thanks,” said Sano a little blankly, accepting the offering. A moment passed before it even occurred to him to examine it, but, to his disappointment, the scenario that popped into his head at the same time — wherein Hajime had nothing but nice dressy stuff he didn’t want to give Sano, and therefore had been forced to dig back to the back of his closet where he kept all the embarrassing remnants of his youth like hair-band concert shirts, one of which Sano now held — did not appear to be playing out. It was merely a short-sleeved and rather casual-looking black button-up. He did wonder what kind of music Hajime liked, though.
“Soundtracks,” said Hajime succinctly, with twitching lips. In a bit of non sequitur he went on, “Oh, and Gains formally apologized for any offensive remarks he might have made under the influence of shade anger.”
As he sought the least painful method of pulling the right sleeve onto his arm and shoulder, Sano snorted. “Funny how that doesn’t make him less of a homophobic dick.”
“The truth about people comes out when they’re that angry. It’s one of the reasons red shades are such a problem; people don’t want that kind of truth coming out.”
Glad that Hajime had stepped away so Sano now had his back to him, and therefore the exorcist couldn’t see his concerned biting of lip at this statement, Sano recalled uncomfortably that he’d been even angrier than Gains on a few occasions in Hajime’s presence; he’d been stupid and irrational and violent, and he would really rather not have it known how much he suddenly feared Hajime thinking this was his true nature.
But Hajime either read the thought — he’d picked up that one about music just a bit ago, after all — or guessed it some other way. “Don’t worry,” he said. “All I’ve learned about you is that you’re an idiot. And I could have figured that out without any help.”
Deeply relieved, relaxing from a tenseness he hadn’t even realized he’d adopted — actually, that was probably what had given him away, and it also hurt his shoulder — Sano grinned. “You know, there’s no shade left to get me to work off… you don’t have to keep calling me an idiot.”
“It seems to have stuck, though. Everyone needs a nickname.”
The buttoning process was slow and painful with a right arm that would really rather not move at all, but Sano continued to grin anyway. Because a nickname, however rude, implied a continued acquaintance. Friendship, even. Maybe? He sought to test the theory: “I’ll have to come up with something just as nice to call you, then.”
And Hajime was definitely smiling as he replied, “Let me know when you decide on something.” He took two more steps away, apparently in preparation for leaving the room. “Your shoes are on the other side of the bed. Are you ready to go meet Kenshin?”
Still fumbling with buttons, Sano answered that he would be as soon as he’d had a chance to fix his hair, then listened to Hajime’s footfalls moving around the house. Some too-low-to-be-intelligible exchange with at least one of the cats in another room reminded him that he’d forgotten to bring up the matter of an apparent communication skill he’d never realized he had, but that could wait for another time. At the moment he was too busy for it — too busy reflecting that maybe things weren’t quite as hopeless as he’d been thinking they must be.
His Own Humanity is an AU series set in modern-day America (plus magic) featuring characters from Rurouni Kenshin (primarily Saitou and Sano) and Gundam Wing (primarily Heero, Duo, Trowa, and Quatre). In chronological order (generally), the stories currently available are:
Sano enlists the help of exorcist Hajime in discovering the nature of the unusual angry shade that's haunting him.
Best friends Heero and Quatre have their work cut out for them assisting longtime curse victims Duo and Trowa.
During Plastic (part 80), Cairo thinks about thinking and other recent changes in his life.
A look at how Hajime and Sano are doing.
A look at how Trowa and Quatre are doing.
A look at how Heero and Duo are doing.
A meeting between Kamatari and Wufei.
Couple analysis among Heero, Duo, Trowa, and Quatre.
Quatre undergoes an unpleasant magical change; Heero, Duo, and Trowa are forced to face unpleasant truths; and Hajime and Sano may get involved.
During La Confrérie de la Lune Révéré (parts 33-35), Sano's 178-day wait is over as what Hajime has been fearing comes to pass.
During Guest Room Soap Opera (part 3), Cathy learns a lot of interesting facts and Trowa is not happy.
A few days before the epilogue of La Confrérie de la Lune Révéré, Duo and Sano get together to watch football and discuss relationships and magical experiences; Heero listens in on multiple levels.