“So what do you think?” Sano had sunk into the passenger seat of Hajime’s car with a sigh and leaned limply against the headrest before asking this question.

Knowing that the latter was intended as, “What do you think about Kaoru’s prospects for health and happiness?” Hajime made a brief shake of the head precursor to looking behind him in order to back out of the parking space. “It’s not promising.”

“You think so?” Evidently Sano was surprised at Hajime’s pessimism, but didn’t have the energy to express it at greater length.

“There probably isn’t a single part of her life that hasn’t been affected by this experience. Her entire life has essentially been broken.”

“You don’t think she can fix it?”

“At best she’ll end up living for her son. It won’t be her own life anymore.”

“I think… you’re wrong. I mean, it makes sense. But I think she’ll be OK.” And there it was again: that unaccountable surety Hajime had heard from Sano on a few previous occasions, as if Sano was privy to more information than Hajime, as if Sano was able to know rather than guess. As if Sano was divining without being aware of it. And when he added, “Anyway I hope she will,” the statement, rather than seeming, as it might have, a retreat from that certainty, seemed only a general expression of good will not at all incompatible with the absoluteness of the previous. Hajime could give no reply but a slight nod.

Tired and pained though he was, Sano’s mind was full and active. Perhaps a little too active, in fact; he was obviously thinking and feeling a number of things at once, which Hajime thought was sure to wear him out even faster. He needed to lie down for a while, sleep if possible; removal from Hajime’s presence might be beneficial as well. Since Hajime wasn’t going to dump him at home without his Percocet, however, he was currently heading back to his own house to retrieve it.

At the moment Sano was thinking about Kenshin, and feeling guilty for being so pleased that Kenshin was no longer haunting him. Now he could freely do all sorts of things he’d been less than entirely thrilled about performing for an audience (even if Kenshin had rarely been conscious of what Sano was up to), and get back to a daily life that didn’t involve perpetual rage. But of course he still found the circumstances of Kenshin’s death last year horrendous, pitied Kaoru profoundly, was glad he’d been able to help in any way, and wasn’t sure to what extent he should allow himself to rejoice that the ghost was gone.

Between Hajime and Kenshin there had been immediate disliking, but Sano’s experience with the dead man had been just the opposite. And that fact, along with the knowledge that Kenshin had been haunting him specifically because he’d recognized the potential for serious friendship between them, led Sano to feel a forlorn regret that was unexpectedly intense.

Sano hated the thought that he’d entirely missed the opportunity to make any kind of meaningful connection with Kenshin, that there was nothing he could do about it now and might never have been… and he anticipated an even stronger and deeper regret if, so close on the heels of that disappointment, he likewise missed the opportunity to make any kind of meaningful connection with Hajime. Opportunities seemed to be slipping from his grasp right and left.

Though Sano hadn’t said any of this aloud, it was entirely possible he’d wanted Hajime to hear it all. Either that or he’d been having a long moment of ineptitude attempting to keep his thoughts to himself. There were still times when it almost seemed as if Sano was incapable of that, though that assumption would not have been strictly accurate.

Sano had been improving on guarding his thoughts — and at a rate Hajime would have considered impossible for someone not actively training as a communicator — but somehow Hajime had also been adapting to Sano’s shields even as Sano had been learning to erect them. They’d been growing together, specifically alongside each other. Which meant that Hajime still picked up on as much of the surface level of Sano’s brain as he ever had. Perhaps more.

But this latest thought was nothing Hajime could respond to at the moment. Because he still wasn’t sure yet what he was going to do about Sano. If they became friends, would Sano’s continual attempts to become something more irritate Hajime too much? Would Hajime’s continual evasion of those attempts hurt Sano too much? Would it be a good idea to proceed in spite of that danger? Should Hajime plainly state that his interests lay in friendship alone, or just hope that Sano’s romantic attachment would fade in time if nothing was said? Or perhaps not risk continuing the acquaintance at all? But he wanted

This social nonsense was the type of thing he just didn’t have time for. Was it any wonder he lived with only non-human roommates five thousand miles from everyone he’d grown up with?

What really bothered him was that he wasn’t usually this indecisive. Was the question of whether or not to be Sano’s friend really so important, so potentially life-altering, that he could still be dwelling on it after so long, could still have made so little significant progress in reaching a solution to the problem?

Whether or not he’d meant to project his latest set of thoughts, Sano had obviously been using his wordlessness as a period of rest for a more involved verbal conversation, and now as they pulled into Hajime’s driveway he sat up straighter and opened his eyes. But Hajime wasn’t entirely certain he wanted to have the conversation Sano was undoubtedly planning.

“Are we, um…” Pausing, Sano cleared his throat. From his look toward the house and back, it would have been easy to assume he was merely wondering what their plans for right now might be, and that he’d left most of the mundane question unspoken out of simple weariness.

Hajime could not assume. But he pretended to. “You wait here,” he said, just as if he weren’t interrupting at a possibly crucial moment and had no idea Sano had been about to (at least attempt to) say something significant. “I’ll be right back.”

Inside, he first threatened Misao with a return of the spray-bottle if she didn’t stay off the kitchen counters, then ignored her subsequent noisy questions about where Sano was and when he would be coming back. She’d really taken a liking to Sano, apparently. It was a shame she wasn’t the only one.

The young man looked as if he was ready for fresh start at his intended question when Hajime returned to the car, and if Hajime had managed to make up his unusually untidy mind he might have allowed it. As it was, he handed over the green bottle he’d retrieved from his nightstand and asked immediately, “Did you leave anything else in my house?” And he really hadn’t intended to sound cold or deliberately uninviting with this totally legitimate question, but apparently his intentions didn’t matter much.

“No, I don’t think so.” This somewhat defeated-sounding pronouncement from Sano was the last thing either of them said for a while.

The earlier reflections must indeed have been meant for Hajime to hear, for the walls were up full force now and very little was getting through. As they headed back to the Asian district and drew closer and closer to Sano’s apartment, the only mental voice Hajime was hearing was the one in his own brain urging him to invite Sano out to lunch between classes on Monday. Or something. Anything.

But what if Sano thought he meant it as a date?

Would even that really be so bad?

The parking space beside Sano’s car was available as it had been the other day, and Hajime pulled into it in continued silence. He hesitated, considering turning off the car, but thought better of the message that might send.

“I’ll probably sleep all afternoon,” was Sano’s muttered introduction to his real goodbye.

“Probably a good idea,” Hajime replied.

“So I guess…” When Hajime turned a little reluctantly to face him, Sano went on very seriously. “Thanks for everything.” He smiled weakly as he said, “Even stabbing me. I mean, this has all really been a huge big deal. I don’t know what I would have done if you hadn’t helped.”

“Neither do I,” Hajime smirked.

Sano gave a faint laugh at the insulting implication, but didn’t specifically respond to it. Instead he said, “I feel less bad about not paying you since Gains gave us both money, but you didn’t know that was going to happen… so… thanks for the free help.”

“It would have been worth it even without the money, since I had the chance to talk to a ghost.”

This statement, while perfectly true, seemed to serve as serious discouragement to Sano. Hajime was fairly sure this had all been leading up to another attempt at some suggestion regarding the future of their acquaintance, but now Sano’s usual straightforwardness appeared to have momentarily abandoned him. Funny how that quality and Hajime’s decisiveness both seemed in abeyance when it came to this one particular matter…

“Try not to overdose on that Percocet,” Hajime said after what could only be called an awkward silence.

Sano forced a laugh. “Guess that depends on how much it hurts.” And with this ambiguous remark he reached for the door.

Once standing on the pavement, he bent slightly and looked back into the car just as he had the last time Hajime had dropped him off here. And just like last time, Sano didn’t quite seem to know what to say. His brows lowered a trifle, as with determination, and he opened his mouth… and Hajime, almost without thinking, shot down his last attempt.

“Thank you for an interesting professional experience.” It felt like a defensive move, a sort of reflex against the idea of even discussing a potential romantic relationship.

“Yeah,” said Sano dully. “Sure.” He stood straight again so that his face was hidden as he added, “See you around.” And he closed the door without further ado and began walking away.

As this movement was being conducted rather slowly, and as Hajime thought the awkwardness would not be improved by his sitting here watching Sano’s long path toward the building, the exorcist put his car in reverse after only a few moments and vacated the parking space. He threw one last look at Sano’s retreating figure before leaving the lot and probably leaving Sano to think, despite the optimistic wording of his goodbye, that they would never meet again.

Whether or not that was true, Hajime simply didn’t know yet.

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