HaruKan 20 :: 08. shikkoku no hane [black wings]

The fireworks were already starting, though the sun was still low in the sky. Haruka watched them from his rooftop perch, rising and exploding in tiny colorful pinpricks of light. When the ladder clacked against the edge of the roof, he didn’t bother to raise his head.

“Ah, this really is the best spot,” Kantarou said. “Look, you can see them even from this far away! Haruka, move over a little, we need room.”

“There’s plenty of room,” Haruka said, but inched to the side as Kantarou carefully crawled his way to sit beside him. Youko followed a moment later, in a new summer yukata — pale blue, with a red morning glory print, bought as an impromptu present. In one hand, she held a bundle of what smelled like snacks, and though Kantarou held out a hand for her, she picked her way over with delicate grace.

“It really is a nice place,” she said, as she sat down. “Haruka-chan, you’ve got good taste.”

Haruka shrugged. “I don’t come up here for that,” he said. He lifted his head to look over at her as she fussed with the knot of her bundle, slapping away Kantarou’s hands when he tried to help. “But it isn’t that bad.”

“Tonight looks like it’ll be clear,” Youko said later, after she’d worked the knot open and passed out crackers and rice cakes both. “Orihime and Hikoboshi will be able to meet tonight.”

Kantarou lit his pipe, and leaned his head back to exhale smoke into the air above them. The sharp smell of it stung Haruka’s nose. “Looks like it,” he agreed. “We’ll hang up the wishes later tonight, how does that sound?”

“That’ll be good,” Youko said. “Haruka-chan, you’re going to write some too, aren’t you?”

“Hmm?” Haruka raised an eyebrow at her. “Why should I?”

“Come on, it’ll be fun.” She leaned over and poked his shoulder. “It won’t hurt you to just be a little more friendly, you know. One wish, okay?”

Haruka looked at her for a long moment, then shrugged. “…Fine,” he said. “One wish.”

Youko beamed at him. “Good,” she said, and leaned back. Kantarou looked back and forth between the two of them, and shook his head.

“I don’t think it’s fair,” he said. “Why do you always listen to Youko-chan, and not me?”

“Because Youko doesn’t make stupid requests.” Haruka closed his eyes. Anything Kantarou would’ve said in response was drowned out by a distant whistle from the fireworks, and Youko’s excited clapping. He cracked one eye open just enough to see Kantarou’s outline against the sky, faintly wreathed from pipesmoke.

Some time later, a hand touched his shoulder, and Haruka opened his eyes to see that the sun had set and the sky had gone dark. Kantarou leaned over him, smiling, hovering closer than necessary.

“Haruka,” he said. “Come inside. We’ve got the papers and everything set up.”

Haruka blinked at him and sat up and stretched. The night was cool for a night in summer, and the air tasted of ozone and smoke, and in the distance, fireworks were still going up in a steady stream. “What time is it?”

“Almost seven.” Kantarou shifted his weight in careful degrees, until he was facing outwards, towards the city. “We thought we’d let you sleep until everything was ready.” He crouched down, and slid carefully towards the ladder, using his hands to brace his weight. “Come on, you promised Youko-chan one wish.”

Below them, the screen door opened. “Kan-chan, Haruka-chan,” Youko called. “It’s ready, come on!”

“Don’t keep us waiting,” Kantarou added, and disappeared down the ladder. Haruka waited until he heard them both retreat from the porch, then spread his wings and made the glide down to ground level.

Inside, Kantarou was drinking tea and twirling a pen between his fingers, three finished strips by his elbow. The sight was familiar enough that it gave Haruka pause for a moment — but Youko was sitting across from Kantarou, nibbling on the end of her pen with a look of intense concentration. A place had been set for him, complete with a cup of tea.

For a moment, he hesitated, then sat down and picked up a pen. The single strip of paper seemed to loom before him, almost like it was taunting him. He pressed the tip down.

“Ehhhh?” Kantarou leaned over his shoulder. “Haruka, what are you going to write?”

Haruka gave him a narrow look. “Mind your own business,” he said. “I can’t think when you’re hovering like that.”

Kantarou pouted. “I want to see what Haruka’s writing, though,” he said. “Come on, let me.”

“No.”

“Harukaaaaaa …”

“No.”

“But I want to see! Come on, Haruka!”

“Kan-chan, shhhh.” Youko put a finger to her lips, frowning. “Focus on your wishes, and let Haruka-chan write his own.”

Kantarou pouted but sat back. For a moment he just looked at the two of them, an undefinable little smile on his lips, then bent over the paper before him, scribbling something in quick, decisive strokes. When he was done he folded the strip in half and tied a strip of ribbon through it.

“Now can I see your wish?” he asked Haruka, wide-eyed.

“No.” Haruka turned the strip of paper away, hunching so that his shoulder was between it and Kantarou’s line of sight. After a moment he set the paper aside and folded it as well. Kantarou tried to sneak a hand over to snatch it and got his knuckles rapped for the trouble.

“All right,” Youko said, when she’d finished her own wish with a flourish. “It’s going to be a very bare bamboo branch, but it’ll be better than nothing.” She gathered up the handful from Kantarou and the one from Haruka and swished past, humming to herself as she went. Kantarou put his elbows on the table and his chin on his hands, watching Haruka.

“…What?” he asked finally, turning to meet Kantarou’s gaze again. Kantarou just shrugged.

“I’m wondering what you wished about,” he said. “Sure you won’t tell me?”

Haruka shrugged. “It’s not your business, what I wish,” he said flatly. “You might find out if it comes true.”

Kantarou pouted at him a moment longer and stood, heading out after Youko. Haruka trailed behind, watching as the two of them hefted the bamboo branch up, with the wish-bearing strips of paper tied amongst its leaves. Kantarou had his pipe again, though it was unlit, and his expression was thoughtful, his skin bleached by the moonlight.

“Look at that,” Youko said happily, spreading her arms as she turned a slow circle, looking up. “You can see the stars so clearly. You think the magpies will make their bridge, Kan-chan?”

Kantarou looked thoughtful. “I think so,” he said. “After everyone goes to bed tonight, they’ll gather and make a bridge of their backs, and even Orihime’s weight will be too much. Tomorrow, if we find black feathers everywhere, it won’t be Haruka’s fault for once.”

Youko giggled. Haruka crossed his arms and looked annoyed. “I don’t shed that much,” he said.

“You shed all the time,” Kantarou said, smirking a bit. “We just don’t point it out because it’s rude.”

As Haruka bristled, Youko spun around again, humming to herself. Kantarou met his gaze evenly, pressing the stem of his unlit pipe against his lips without taking a draw.

“So what did you wish, then?” Haruka asked finally, when it seemed that Kantarou would just stare at him without a word for the rest of the night. “You had a lot. Feeling greedy, huh?”

“Maybe, a little.” Kantarou shrugged. “I wished for a lot of things, really. ‘I want to meet more new and interesting youkai.’ ‘I want to earn enough money so I don’t lose my house.'” He sighed thoughtfully, then dropped his gaze. “‘I want to become worthy of Haruka.'”

Haruka blinked at him. “You –”

Kantarou only shrugged and said nothing, tapping the stem of his pipe against his lips again. His gaze was pensive and distant, watching the fireworks. Haruka wanted to say something, especially in the hole left by silence, and found nothing would come to mind. Promises and half-lies had carried them only so far, and what Kantarou was obliquely offering wasn’t entirely something Haruka was certain he wanted.

“…Or something like that,” Kantarou said suddenly, shrugging. He was grinning again, and other than a faint flatness to his mouth, the strange moment might have passed unnoticed. “Ah, what else — I asked for a rich wife so that we wouldn’t have to worry about money any longer, and for a longer deadline for the next novel, and –”

“Kantarou.”

“Haruka.” An oddly hopeful little smile touched his lips. “I wished for a lot of things.”

Haruka nodded, not breaking eye-contact. “You did,” he said. “Do you think they’ll come true, now that you’ve said them aloud?”

“I can hope, can’t I?” Kantarou tipped his head to one side. In the sky behind him, red and white light exploded in flower patterns. The glare and reflection made it hard to read the extra question in his eyes, but Haruka thought he could guess easily enough.

“You can,” he said at last. Relief went through Kantarou in a visible movement: his shoulders slumped just a little, and the tension at the corners of his mouth relaxed.

Youko did another spin on her heel, then began to head for the house. “I want some more tea,” she said, and Haruka didn’t miss the smirk she wasn’t even bothering to hide. “Kan-chan, Haruka-chan, play nice.”

And then she was gone into the house, and Haruka frowned. “You always insist on being friends,” he said. “I don’t understand. We –”

“Haruka,” Kantarou said softly, “if we’re not over this by now, we’ll never be. And that’s not what I want.”

“Kantarou …”

“I told you what I wished for,” Kantarou said with a small shrug. “What about you, Haruka?”

Haruka said nothing, taking first one step, and then another, towards Kantarou. “Quiet,” he said.

Kantarou pouted, though his heart didn’t seem quite into it. “Haruka –”

“No,” Haruka said. He touched Kantarou’s chin with one finger, tipping it up. “I meant that I wished for quiet. Because I never get any otherwise.”

“Haruka –”

“And I don’t shed,” he added. “At all.”

Kantarou blinked, then smiled faintly. “No,” he said. “Of course you don’t, Haruka.” When Haruka took his pipe away, he didn’t protest, his smile growing wider. “Not that it’s a problem. I like your wings. They’re very pretty. They suit you.” He reached out daringly and put a hand on Haruka’s shoulder, squeezing as though he could feel the extra bone structure there. His hand was surprisingly warm.

Haruka caught his wrist and pulled it away. “You’re talking too much again,” he said. “Let’s go inside.”

Unsurprised, Kantarou smiled. “Sounds good,” he said. “Youko-chan has probably gone to bed then, hasn’t she.”

“It doesn’t matter if she has.” Haruka tugged a little at his arm. “Let’s go in.”

Kantarou’s wrist turned in his hold, until Kantarou’s fingers closed around his own, his smile quiet and even a little shy. He wasn’t afraid, though, and that surprised Haruka more than anything else. Youko was nowhere to be seen, though she’d left the lights on for them, like some kind of demented bread crumb trail.

“You can tell me no,” Haruka said, outside of Kantarou’s room. “This isn’t –”

“I know,” Kantarou agreed. He sounded more cheerful than anything else, his hands already up and fussing with Haruka’s necktie. “It’s all right, Haruka. I’m not going to run away crying from this.” For a moment his smile turned wry, almost self-deprecating. “It’s fine.”

Haruka looked at him and opened the screen door, pushing Kantarou inside.

After that, everything was easy: Kantarou stretched up onto his toes to kiss Haruka once before drawing him towards the futon. The kiss was unpracticed, but not inexperienced, and Haruka filed the thought away for later as he let himself be pulled down.

In spite of his chattering during the day, Kantarou was surprisingly quiet during sex; most of his vocalizations were whispers, low and somehow private, even when Haruka opened his gi and spread fingers down his chest and stomach. Kantarou was lean, but not well-muscled — his belly was soft to the touch, and his fingers had few calluses. When Haruka untied Kantarou’s hakama and slid a hand inside, he was rewarded with the loudest sound: a faint moan in his ear.

Kantarou also seemed preoccupied with Haruka’s back and shoulders, skittering light fingers over where the wings would sprout, as though testing to see if he could find any difference in the texture of the skin. After a moment, Haruka caught both his slim wrists and pulled them away.

“Leave those alone,” he said softly.

Kantarou only blinked back. “I like your wings, though,” he said. “Will you let me see them later?”

“You’ve seen them before,” Haruka told him, and kissed him again. Kantarou ended up yoking his arms around Haruka’s neck, rasping in his ear as they moved together, gaining speed and losing rhythm.

It was easier than Haruka expected to lose himself, counting the heartbeats until Kantarou jerked in his arms and whimpered, biting his shoulder with surprising strength. Haruka closed his eyes and kept moving and moving until light sparked behind his closed eyes and he collapsed atop Kantarou, his body feeling heavier than stone.

“Haruka,” Kantarou whispered into his hair, in the tone of a man sharing a secret. “Haruka …”

Haruka groaned and pressed his face into the crook of Kantarou’s neck and shoulder, and found he couldn’t make himself loosen his arms, not yet. “Shut up,” he said, without heat. “I thought I told you I wished for quiet.”

“I just like saying your name,” Kantarou said. “Let me see your wings?”

“There’s not enough room here,” Haruka mumbled. “Don’t ask for such stupid things.”

“It’s not stupid,” Kantarou protested, a pout in his voice. “Harukaaaaaa …”

“I’m tired,” Haruka said, and bit him with just enough fang that Kantarou yelped in surprise. “Tomorrow. Maybe.”

Kantarou sighed in his ear, and though it was resigned, it was more amused than defeated. “Haruka’s being mean,” he sighed, and then, just like that, he was asleep. Haruka kept his face pressed against Kantarou’s neck for long moments, listening to the sound of him breathing.

“Idiot,” he added, for good measure. It sounded like a lie to his own ears; the next time Kantarou asked, he thought he might actually agree. “Selfish bastard.”

And then he slept.

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HaruKan 20 :: 07. baito [part-time job]

Youko brings Kantarou tea whenever he stays up late at night, and if she finds him asleep, she puts a blanket over his shoulders and douses his lamp. As long as she’s known him, he’s been obsessed with finding the oni-eating tengu, and sometimes she worries how this is effecting his health.

“A tengu can look as monstrous as he wishes,” she tells him once. “He may not be what you expect.”

Kantarou just smiles and shrugs. “I know,” he says. “I don’t care.”

Searching for the oni-eating tengu is his life’s work, and possibly all he will leave behind. Everything else — the things he does to earn the money for them to survive, that’s all just side jobs to pay the bills.

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HaruKan 20 :: 06. This is mine

Kantarou wandered into the dining room, hiding a yawn behind one hand. “G’mornin’,” he mumbled. “Haruka, Youko-chan –”

“Ah, Kan-chan,” said Youko. “We have guests.”

“Eh?” He blinked and looked. Seated at the table were a young man and a young woman, both of them looking tired and worn. Youko had set out tea for the both of them, but from the looks of it, both cups were untouched. “Ahah … ah. I’m sorry. I’m not really at my best early in the morning.”

“It’s hardly early,” Youko muttered. “I tried to wake you over an hour ago, Kan-chan, you just didn’t want to get up.”

Kantarou ignored her. “How can I help you?” he asked, reaching for his bowl of rice.

The young man cleared his throat, his eyes darting from side to side. Up close, Kantarou could see there were dark bags under his eyes, matched by similar marks on his companion’s face. “Ichinomiya-sensei,” he said softly. “My name is Suzuki Kentarou, and this is my wife, Sachiko.”

She inclined her head briefly, and Kantarou could see strain lines around her small bowed mouth. “Sensei,” she murmured. Automatically, he nodded back, then turned back to Suzuki when he began to speak again.

“A few weeks ago, a ghost started haunting us.” His voice shook a little, and his wife turned away, facing towards the gardens. “I didn’t want to believe what it was, because I am a professor of science. I don’t want to believe that such things exist.”

Kantarou scratched his cheek, unable to help a weak little smile. “Lots of people don’t,” he said. “Even other folklorists don’t like to admit the truth.”

Suzuki bowed his head. “Yes,” he said. “It was … awful. This ghost appeared one night and began following me everywhere. Most of our servants have left, and even when we try to leave the house, she follows us. We’ve had no peace since she appeared, Sensei! We’re begging you –”

The bells on Kantarou’s wrist chimed gently, and Sachiko made a surprised sound, clapping her free hand over her mouth. Suzuki went pale.

Under one of the trees in the backyard — the one Haruka liked to frequent — there was a slim black figure lurking. Even from a distance, Kantarou could see it had exaggerated downturned features, and the rest of its body trailed off into a faint, dark wisp of smoke. He stood, moving around the table to the porch.

“Hello?” he called. His bells rang louder with each step he took. Behind him, Suzuki was making small choking sounds, and Sachiko was silent as a ghost herself.

The ghost drifted out from behind the tree, seemingly shy of the sunlight. She had long dark hair that drifted around her like wings, and she wore a plain white kimono. Kantarou narrowed his eyes to watch her lips move, and read Ke-n-ta-ro-u. A faint twinge moved in his chest — nothing outright painful, but enough to be a warning.

“Hey,” he said softly. “It’s all right. You’re among friends, you –”

She froze abruptly and shrank back, collapsing into herself then vanishing. As Kantarou blinked, surprised, Haruka said from behind him, “Now what are you doing?”

“Haruka!” Kantarou turned around, then shook a finger. “Don’t just come and surprise us like that! I was trying to talk to the ghost!”

“Ghost?” One of Haruka’s eyebrows angled up. “This sort of thing again?”

“It’s part of my business, you know.” Kantarou puffed hair from his eyes, scowling at Haruka before he went to sit down across from Suzuki and his wife again. “You said ‘she,’ and it looked like the ghost was a woman. Was it someone you knew?”

“That …” Suzuki glanced away. “She –”

“If it’s someone you know, I might be able to help you,” Kantarou said gently. “I’ve had to deal with ghosts troubled by the need for vengeance before, so –”

“No, it’s not anything like that.” Suzuki bowed his head. Sachiko turned to him, laying her free hand against his shoulder. She looked tired and afraid, leaning against him perhaps more than was entirely proper, in public. “I … a friend from my childhood contacted me a few months ago …”

Kantarou looked at Sachiko, whose eyes were closed. “Ah,” he said. “And you didn’t feel the same way towards her?”

Suzuki shook his head with slow, ponderous deliberation. “No,” he said. “I liked her well enough. She was a sweet girl, but I was married, and –”

“I see.” Kantarou looked thoughtful. “Usually, though, a ghost haunts a place, not a person. There aren’t too many documented cases of that sort of thing.”

“Sensei, please.” Suzuki let go of his wife’s hand and bowed low, until his head was pressed to the tatami. “Please, I’m begging you! We haven’t had any sleep since she appeared, and –”

“It’s fine,” Kantarou said. “I’ll accept it.”

Suzuki looked up, wide-eyed. “You will?” he asked, his voice almost disbelieving. “Oh, thank you, Sensei, thank you, thank you –”

“One thing, though.” Kantarou leaned his elbows on the table, watching the two of them. “What was her name?”

“Her name?” Suzuki looked surprised for a moment, then looked away. “Agi Noriko. I hadn’t seen her for years, just –”

“That’s fine, you don’t have to tell me the story.” Kantarou got to his feet. “Give me a moment to collect my things.” He turned and headed back for his room, brushing past Haruka on the way.

“Ah, Kan-chan,” Youko called. “You didn’t eat your breakfast.”

“Save it for me, please,” Kantarou called back. “I’ll be back by lunch, I hope.”

Youko sighed, shaking her head. “It’s almost lunchtime anyway,” she muttered. “Honestly, doesn’t he even try to pay attention to the time?”

“I’m very sorry,” Suzuki said softly. “I didn’t mean to cause trouble, I –”

She immediately waved her hands and shook her head. “No, no, it’s fine,” she said. “Kan-chan just tends to forget things like eating when he’s tracking down youkai. Or ghosts, for that matter.” She shook her head. “Don’t worry about it. One more day isn’t going to kill him.”

“Of course it won’t,” Kantarou said, reappearing from the hallway. “Suzuki-san, if you would lead the way?”

+++

The Suzuki household was two stories tall and sprawling, with a high fence built up around it. Kantarou tipped his head back to study it, wide-eyed. Though it looked fairly new, there was a weight hanging over the entire estate. Kantarou took two steps towards the gate and almost tripped, clutching at his chest as pain exploded outward from there.

“Ichinomiya-sensei?” Suzuki hovered nervously beside him. “Are you –”

Haruka put a hand on Kantarou’s shoulder and gave him a small push. “It’s fine,” he said. “It means that there’s something there for us to find.”

Kantarou didn’t say anything, too busy catching his breath. After a moment, as always, the pain subsided, and he was able to straighten, walking slowly towards the house. At the gate, Suzuki produced a heavy key and unlocked it, then led them inside.

There were no lights lit in the long hallways, and all the windows were drawn; entering felt like stepping into a completely different time zone. Kantarou rubbed at his arms to ward off the chill. Other than a distant ache, his chest was fine.

“Ichinomiya-sensei?” Suzki sounded almost pitifully hopeful. “Do you think you can help us?”

Kantarou looked around. “I’d need more light,” he said finally. “Do you have a lantern somewhere around?”

“Ah.” Suzuki looked surprised for a moment, then nodded. “There’s, ah — I’ll go find one. Sachiko, wait here.”

For a moment, Sachiko frowned. She reached for her husband as he walked quickly away, then let her hand drop without a word, her eyes downcast. Kantarou watched her closely.

To his surprise, Haruka was the one who said, “So, what’s all this about, anyway? Your husband seems to know more than he’s saying.”

Kantarou winced. “Haruka! Couldn’t you be a little more delicate?”

Sachiko pressed her lips together and shook her head. “My husband was friends with this woman for years,” she said softly. “The last time we saw her was when he told her we were engaged. She … took it badly.”

“I could imagine,” Kantarou said, looking around. “And, ah, their relationship –”

“My husband has never been unfaithful,” she said, with a flat note of finality in her voice. “Whatever that woman wanted, he was always mine.”

Kantarou blinked at her some more, but said nothing. When Suzuki reappeared with a lamp in one hand, Kantarou hurried to meet him, taking the lamp. “Ah, thank you, Suzuki-san, that’s –”

“I’ll go with you,” Suzuki said, not quite looking Kantarou in the eye. “I … the ghost always appears around me, and it wouldn’t do you any good to look for it when I wasn’t around, right?”

Kantarou blinked, then shrugged. “If you think it’d be better that way, Suzuki-san,” he said. “In that case, you and Sachiko-san stay between me and Haruka. It’ll be safer that way.” He lifted the lantern, and peered down the hallway.

Suzuki bowed his head. “Right, Ichinomiya-sensei,” he said. “That way leads to the gardens, this way will take us to the servant’s quarters. We –”

“The gardens, first,” Haruka said, from the back of their little group. “It’ll be good for us to have a look around.”

Kantarou nodded. “At the very least, we can explore the outside before we check inside,” he said. “There’ll be more room, if we end up having a confrontation in the gardens.”

Sachiko said nothing, following silently after Kantarou and her husband. Whatever else she might have said was silenced.

Two turns later, the heavy silence was broken by the faint chiming of bells. Kantarou stopped midstep and looked around, reaching slowly to pull his juzu free.

A low, aching moan rose up from his left. Kantarou staggered back, bumping into Suzuki, who’d gone sheet-white again. From around a corner, the same woman who’d appeared in Kantarou’s own yard drifted out, her hands tightly clasped together and her head bowed. Her long hair was undone, trailing out after her like a long cloak.

Kantarou stepped forward, the prayer-beads of the juzu clacking together softly. “Noriko-san?” he called. “Agi Noriko-san?”

She didn’t seem to notice him, drifting gently down the hallway without turning her head. Her sobbing was loud enough to echo off the walls. Suzuki whimpered and clapped his hands over his ears.

And just like that, the ghost stopped and turned her head slowly towards them. She looked straight past Kantarou at Suzuki, now being supported by his pale wife.

“Kentarou-san,” she whispered. “You’re here.”

She began to move forward, then stopped as Kantarou stepped between them, holding the string of prayer-beads up.

“Noriko-san,” he said, a little too gently to be outright wheedling. “You’re Noriko-san, aren’t you? You shouldn’t be here. This isn’t a place for you.”

“My … place … ?” The ghost’s head twisted to an unpleasant angle, and she blinked at him. “Kentarou-san …”

“You’ve been dead for five years,” Sachiko said suddenly. Her voice rang in the air, shrill and sharp. “Why can’t you just leave us, already? Just go away! Kentarou isn’t yours, and he’s not –”

“Sachiko!” Suzuki went even paler at that. “You fool, don’t make her angry –”

The ghost fell back, as though the sound of Sachiko’s voice was a slap. “I,” she moaned, pressing her hands to her face, “I –”

“Noriko-san, please,” Kantarou said, cutting in again. He could sense Haruka moving behind him, crowding their clients further back, away from the angry ghost. “Please understand, Suzuki-san is still alive, so he can’t be yours. This isn’t a place for you.”

The ghost clutched her head and moaned. Kantarou risked edging just a few steps closer, his prayer beads in one hand, and his other outstretched in a friendly gesture. “It’s all right,” he said soothingly, stopping when she bared her teeth at him in warning. “I know you’re afraid. I can help you find your path again, where you belong …”

She shrank away from his head. “We promised,” she moaned, an echo in her voice. “We promised, Kentarou-san and I, we promised –”

“But neither of you could keep the promise,” Kantarou told her, still gentle. “You need to let this go, or you’ll never be able to rest.”

She raked her fingers through her long hair, tearing out clumps of it. Phantom bloody footsteps appeared under her as she drifted towards him. Kantarou remained steady, gritting his teeth against the spikes of pain in his chest. A restless ghost was nowhere near as threatening as an oni, but it was still uncomfortable to be around.

“That’s right,” he said softly, as she came almost close enough to touch. “Noriko-san …”

“Kentarou-san?” she whispered, fixing her milky eyes on him.

Kantarou’s hand didn’t waver. “Not quite,” he said. “Kantarou. Ichinomiya Kantarou. Come on, Noriko-san, let’s go where you belong.”

“Kentarou-san, you look different.” The ghost named Noriko reached out, trailing her long fingers down Kantarou’s cheek. After a moment, a peculiar smile stretched her mouth. “I like it. Kentarou-san …”

” Noriko-san, you’re making a mistake,” Kantarou said evenly, though he took one step back. The ghost’s touch sent cold chills down his spine, which then seemed to gather over the center of his chest, where the scar was. “I’m not the person you’re looking for.”

“Does this mean you still love me?” The ghost lifted her eyes to his, almost coy. This close, she smelled like damp earth and old meat, and her breath on his cheek was icy. “Oh, Kentarou-san, I’m so happy …”

This time, Kantarou took a wide step back, trying to put some distance between the two of them. When she tried to follow, he held up the string of prayer-beads in warning. “Please, Noriko-san,” he said again. “I’m not the person you’re waiting for. I’ll help you, if you just let me –”

“What happened, Kentarou-san?” she asked. Tears gathered in the corners of her eyes and spilled over, leaving long thin red tracks down her cheeks. “We were so happy, and then you went away …”

“You were the one who left, Noriko-san,” Kantarou countered. “Suzuki Kentarou mourned you, and then went on with his life. I don’t know why you’ve woken up after all these years, but –”

“Kentarou-san,” the ghost whispered. “You’re still mine, aren’t you? All mine, no matter what that woman thinks.”

“Noriko-san –”

Her shape blurred before his eyes, and Kantarou yelped as she reappeared before him, her face a hairsbreadth from his. New stabbing pain ripped through him and he staggered, clutching at his chest. Noriko’s arms came around his head, holding him like he was some kind of lover, her cold cheek to the top of his head. Wrapped up by her, he found it impossible to breath — though he reached up to claw at her arms, he couldn’t seem to get a good grip.

“Kentarou-san,” she whispered into his hair. “Ah, Kentarou-san, I’m so happy we’ll be together. You’re mine, I’ll never let you go –”

Kantarou shoved at her, trying to loosen her grip. His lungs were beginning to burn, both from the proximity of the unhappy spirit and the lack of air.

And then, suddenly, the ghost’s arms fell away from around his head, and he was yanked backwards. He gasped loudly for breath. Even the stale, still air of the narrow hallway tasted good for that first moment. “Wha — Haruka?”

He was leaning in the crook of Haruka’s arm. Haruka held his shakujou forward, which for the moment seemed to be keeping the ghost at bay.

“Sorry,” Haruka said. He met the ghost’s eyes unflinchingly, and there were fangs visible when he spoke. “This one is mine.”

Kantarou stared at him, then yelped as he was unceremoniously dropped to the floor. “Haruka — !”

Noriko reached pleadingly for him, though she didn’t move past the threat of Haruka’s shakujou. Her lips moved silently, forming Suzuki Kentarou’s name over and over. Kantarou pushed himself onto his knees, looped the juzu around his fingers, closed his eyes, and prayed.

“Noriko-san,” he said quietly, “there’s somewhere else you need to go.”

At the end, though, she still stretched her hand out towards Kantarou with tears in her eyes. For just a moment, there seemed to be awareness in her face, and then she was gone. The sound of her voice lingered, shaping syllables Ke-n-ta-ro-u before that also faded.

Kantarou sagged back with a sigh, one hand over his chest. “Ahh,” he sighed. “I hate that part the most.”

A hand leaned into his vision. Kantarou looked up, and blinked at Haruka.

“Can you stand?”

“Yes,” Kantarou said, but took the offer of help anyway. “That was close. Maybe I shouldn’t have told her my name.”

“You lived,” Haruka said with a shrug. “Even if you screwed up, it turned out all right.”

Kantarou rubbed the back of his head. “I think that’s what they call a ‘back-handed compliment,'” he muttered to himself, then turned to Suzuki and his wife. “This should take care of the problem,” he said. “The thing is, if the ghost only appeared recently, if the last time you saw her was a few years ago …”

Suzuki bowed her head. “I don’t think she’s been dead that long,” he said hoarsely. He wouldn’t look at anything but his own feet.

“Suzuki-san?” Kantarou folded his hands into his sleeves. “Tell us, so we can make sure nothing else happens again.”

+++

“… so it turned out that Noriko-san called him and asked that he come meet her, a few days before the ghost appeared. He agreed, but chickened out at the last moment, and she ended up taking her life.” Kantarou nibbled on the edge of a senbei cracker, looking thoughtful. “A woman’s jealousy really is a powerful thing, isn’t it.”

“All love is jealous,” Youko said, as she handed him his tea. “It’s just that in all the stories, the woman is the one who gets left behind.”

“It’s unfortunate.” Kantarou tipped his head back and blinked at the clear sky overhead. “If I found something I cared that much for, I wouldn’t let it go in the first place.”

“You’d think that’s how it works,” Youko agreed. “But humans are awfully fickle, Kan-chan. You can’t ever guess what their hearts will do, not even if you are human. I think.”

Kantarou reached for another cracker. “Maybe,” he agreed. “But I’ve spent too much time chasing after dreams to just let them go, don’t you think?”

Youko tipped her head to one side and looked at him thoughtfully. Then she glanced upwards; they couldn’t see Haruka from where they sat, though he’d vanished for the roof nearly half an hour ago. “You’re a special case, Kan-chan,” she said. “You don’t ever let go of what’s yours.”

Kantarou grinned. “No,” he said. “I don’t.”

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HaruKan 20 :: 05. bi-dama [marble]

Haruka collects shining things: marbles, pieces of glass, scraps of metal, anything. He pockets them without thinking, and then hides them wherever he can around his room.

Kantarou finds him polishing a marble liberated from a ramune bottle and leans over his shoulder. “Tengu really are like crows, aren’t they?” he asks, and takes it from Haruka’s fingers. He holds it to the light and smiles at the sparks it creates. “Ah, pretty.”

The sunlight catches in his eyes, so they look wider than normal. Haruka has yet to find anything in that particular color.

He’ll have to keep looking.

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HaruKan 20 :: 04. chawan [rice bowl]

Sugino claimed that meeting Muu-chan was enough to make him throw away something as ultimately unnecessary as the tengu rice bowl. Kantarou’s hypothesis later was that instead of the actual rice bowl itself, Sugino had latched onto Muu-chan as a surrogate. It would, he thought, explain the excessive jealousy. Even a lovelove married couple’s bond wasn’t that possessive. (He thought, at any rate.)

“Do you think it’s possible?” he asked Haruka later. “To transfer that sort of attention to something else?”

Haruka looked at him, and then at the chipped, cracked rice bowl in his hands. “People are people,” he said, “and lives are lives. But a rice bowl is a rice bowl.”

“Haruka, that doesn’t really answer the question –”

“Really? I thought it made perfect sense.” Haruka blinked. “What’s so important about it anyway?”

“Because!” Kantarou dragged out every syllable. “You and Sugino-sama are the only two tengu I know, and I’m curious on whether or not it’s possible to transfer a tengu’s affection from that one bowl or cup to a living thing.”

Haruka blinked at him. “You …” he said. “Are you feeling all right? You’re actually sounding like a regular folklorist for once.”

Kantarou pouted, his brow furrowing. “Haruka!”

In response to his warning tone, Haruka shrugged. “I don’t know,” he said. “I’ve never felt that way for any living thing I’ve met.”

“Oh.” Kantarou sat back a little, frowning; he seemed to be genuinely considering his options. “Maybe if we go about it the opposite way? Haruka, is there anyone whom you hated enough to transfer your obsession?”

“That’s rude, calling it an obsession.” Haruka glared at him over the bowl’s rim.

“Come on, just answer the question!”

“… No. Not that I can remember.” Haruka tipped his head back with a sigh. “Maybe the person who sealed me. I don’t know.”

Kantarou froze for a moment, then looked down. “Oh,” he murmured. “Is that so.”

Haruka watched him for a moment, and when he was sure Kantarou wasn’t about to spring back with some other kind of silly joke or theory, he reached out and scuffled Kantarou’s hair, just a little.

“Don’t worry,” he said. “There are still others of our kind around. Knowing you, you’ll probably meet them someday, and continue your theorizing.”

Kantarou looked surprised, even as he automatically reached to straighten his hair. “Haruka …” After a moment, he shook off the strange mood and nodded, smiling. “Yes, you’re probably right. Thank you, Haruka.”

“I didn’t do anything.” He snagged the last grain of rice out of his bowl and then laid it on the table, clapping his hands. “Thanks for the food.”

As he got up and walked away, he paused long enough to glance back. Kantarou had picked up his rice bowl, and was turning it over with careful fingers. Given the way Kantarou tended to throw around or abuse his rice bowl, Haruka began to tense.

Kantarou glanced over at him, catching his glance, and gave him an enigmatic smile before setting the bowl down and walking away in the opposite direction.

Sugino thought Muu-chan was enough to represent his discarded rice bowl. Maybe there were others who felt the same way about some special person, scattered across Japan. Haruka personally didn’t understand that kind of fixation on a fragile living thing, which could break as easily as porcelain, and was not so easily put back together. Youkai or human, anyone a tengu encountered tended to fall apart.

Haruka didn’t believe it was possible, no matter how much Sugino whined and wailed about Muu-chan’s lax affections, or how jealously he challenged Kantarou for them.

But for just a moment, he thought maybe he could imagine.

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HaruKan 20 :: 03. sakura [cherry blossom]

Kantarou will take any excuse for a break, and going to see the cherry trees in bloom is a perfect opportunity. He whines and cajoles and threatens until finally Haruka and Youko both give in, and they head for the park.

Once there, Kantarou leans with his back against a tree and sips sake slowly, beaming at the world, and Youko sits with her hands cupped, trying to catch falling blossoms. They chatter back and forth, cheerful as children on a holiday.

Haruka watches Kantarou and the dappling of light and shadow over his smile, and doesn’t say a word.

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HaruKan 20 :: 02. mune no kizu [chest wound]

Youko is the one who tells Haruka about the scar on Kantarou’s chest. It’s late and they’re both a little drunk; Kantarou has already fallen asleep, slumped against Haruka’s shoulder and snoring gently.

She pours herself a fresh cup of sake and blinks owlishly at the two of them. “You know,” she says, “ever since you came to us, Haruka-chan, Kan-chan’s been a lot more careful about his side business.”

Haruka blinks back at her. Kantarou is a warm and heavy weight against him, and the pressure makes his arm tingle a little. “Careful?”

Youko nods, then stops, looking dizzy. “Kan-chan doesn’t like to stop and think things through,” she says, and reaches out to tug at some of Kantarou’s hair, which makes him whine and swat clumsily at her in his sleep. “Ah, he nearly gave me a heart attack when he came home bleeding and torn up.”

“Bleeding?” This catches his interest, and he straightens a little. Kantarou slumps a little more, so that he’s leaning more against Haruka’s chest than his shoulder now. Haruka looks down at him, squinting to try and focus. “Kantarou?”

“Not *now*, dummy,” Youko says, with a little hitching giggle in her voice. “When he got the scar, right here.” She flattens her palm against her own chest, in roughly the correct place. “He was chasing after you when he got it, you know. What he thought was you. Something like that.”

Haruka pours himself more sake, and watches as she collects her thoughts. Her expression is pensive, almost distant.

“There was a rumor that you were sealed away in some family shrine outside of Tokyo,” Youko says at last, touching the rim of her cup to her lips without drinking. “Kan-chan went to investigate, and found a whole nest of vengeful spirits. And he was a whole lot younger than he was, so he wasn’t prepared at all.”

“And they hurt him?” Haruka shifts a little to adjust Kantarou’s weight against him. It is hard for him to imagine a younger Kantarou, maybe one a little less sly, a little more genuinely earnest about what he did.

“They hurt him,” Youko agrees softly. “I received a call from the master of the house, and all they said was that Kan-chan was in the hospital. By the time I got there, he was stabilized, but …” Her fingers tremble briefly, and the sake she’s trying to pour spills. “Ah –”

Haruka pulls out a handkerchief and offers it to her. She takes it and blots the stain on her knees. He thinks she may have exhausted all she has to tell him, but then she says, “I saw what had happened to his robes, after they’d pulled them off him. There was blood everywhere. We couldn’t get all the stains out, so he ended up having to get a new one. It was … really expensive, more than we could have afforded at the time, but …”

“But you got by,” he says. “Somehow.”

“Reiko-san helped with that,” Youko murmurs. “Kan-chan landed his first actual book deal with the publisher while he was recovering.” Her lips press together. “I don’t think they ever really healed him, either — those human doctors.”

Haruka blinks at her. “No?”

“He was cut by an oni, Haruka-chan,” she says. “That goes deeper than human medicine can reach. By the time I arrived, the curse had already set.”

Kantarou murmurs something in his sleep, and they both fall silent, watching him. He lifts a hand to rub at his eyes, which blink open for a moment, staring into space, then drift shut again.

“It’s just a little,” Youko whispers. “Just a tiny fragment of intent. By the time I noticed it, it was a part of Kan-chan.”

Haruka’s brow furrows. “Kantarou has part of an oni’s ill will … ?”

“Some,” Youko says, and holds up her fingers, just a pinch apart. “This much. I gave him boar’s hair and green tea, and it didn’t come out, it was that little.” She sighed. “And you know, I also hoped that if it hurt him to get near an oni, he’d remember to be a little more *careful*.”

“Was he?”

“No.” Youko looks wry now, setting the handkerchief aside. “No, he wasn’t. Not until he met you, Haruka-chan.”

Haruka frowns at her, at the man sleeping on his shoulder. “That makes no sense,” he says. “If there was something he wanted to protect, why would he do stupid things that could get him killed?”

Youko looks at him thoughtfully, and shrugs. “Kan-chan has always done as he wants,” she says, which is not an answer at all. “We should get him to bed.”

“Or we could leave him out,” Haruka says, even as he slides an arm around Kantarou’s shoulders and under his knees, lifting. “Serves him right, getting drunk and sleeping on people like that.”

“Be nice, Haruka-chan.” Youko grins, though, as she leads the way to Kantarou’s bedroom. “You don’t know what he might do in retaliation.”

Haruka glances down at the man in his arms. Kantarou is drooling a little in his sleep, even, though he’s smiling, like his dreams are nice. “… You’re probably right.”

“I’ve lived with Kan-chan longer. Of course I’m right.” Youko opens the screen and gestures Haruka inside. “And Haruka-chan?”

He pauses in the act of laying Kantarou down onto the futon. “Yes?”

“Kan-chan stopped doing reckless things when he met you,” she says. “I think it’s because he found what he really wanted to protect.”

She closes the screen and pads off before he can say a word.

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HaruKan 20 :: 01. suzu [bells]

“Why don’t they ring?”

Kantarou looked up from his manuscript, blinked twice. “Haruka?”

Haruka pointed to the bells on Kantarou’s wrist. “They ring whenever a youkai is nearby,” he said. “But I noticed, they never ring when Youko or I are around.”

“Ah, this?” Kantarou lifted his hand up and covered the bells with his other hand. He thought for a moment, then brightened, as though he’d struck upon some great epiphany. “It’s because you’re mine.”

Haruka stared at him. Kantarou blinked back. “… What?”

“Well, it’s true, isn’t it?” Kantarou leaned one elbow against his desk, balancing his pen between his nose and upper lip. “I mean, after all, I named both of you, and you’re bound to me. That means you’re mine, so the bells don’t react.”

Though he seemed pleased by the explanation, Haruka continued to stare at him. “I don’t think I like that reason,” he said at last, leaning his shoulder against the wall. “It makes me uneasy, somehow.”

Kantarou turned to him, all wide-eyed innocence. “Aww, Haruka-kun,” he said, his voice pitched higher than usual. “It can’t be that bad. I’m a good master, aren’t I?”

Haruka just looked at him. “I hope you don’t want me to actually answer that,” he said.

“Ouch.” Kantarou rubbed the back of his neck, then sighed explosively, giving an exaggerated shrug. “Ahh, then again, maybe you don’t want to embarrass me, since I’m so kind and generous, giving you guys names and a place to stay –”

“Kantarou.”

Kantarou sighed, dropping his pen into his hand and tapping the end against his cheek. The motion made the bells on his wrist chime gently. “But that’s the truth of it,” he said finally, his gaze downcast for a moment. “You’re mine, so …” He glanced up through his bangs, something unreadable in his eyes. “Is it that bad?”

For just a moment, he sounded quiet and almost sad — just a faint flash of something that Kantarou never explained, but that Haruka thought, from time to time, he recognized. Haruka stared at him, then sighed.

“… It could be worse,” he said at last.

Kantarou looked surprised, his pen hovering over the sheet. “You mean that?” he asked, somewhat tentatively. “Really?”

Haruka looked away. The weight of Kantarou’s gaze was oddly heavy, settled on his shoulders like a physical thing. “Really,” he agreed. “I don’t mind that much.”

Kantarou’s bells chimed faintly as he moved, and in spite of himself, Haruka looked back in time to catch a wide, oddly relieved smile. He didn’t say anything when he went back to work, and Haruka thought: maybe this is progress.

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Hammock

Hoenheim put the hammock up before he left; she can remember lying in his arms as they swung gently, and the sound of his heartbeat in her ear. Sometimes, she stares at it, watching it sway in the breeze. It looks as empty as she sometimes feels, and somehow, that makes it a little easier to bear.

One day, she finds her sons there instead, curled together with Winry like puppies in a basket. Al leans his head on Ed’s shoulder, Winry on his chest. In the dappled shade, they are eternal, these children of summer.

Trisha leaves them be.

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Playing Along

The thing is, though he cries and pouts and acts nothing at all like the stories Shido-san has told her of Raitei, Ginji-san still moves more quietly than anyone Madoka has ever known. Even Mozart, napping at her feet, didn’t stir until he said, a bit shamefully, “Madoka-chan?”

She turned her face to the sound of his voice. “Ah, Ginji-san,” she said. “Shido-san isn’t in right now, if you’re looking for him …”

“Eh, actually …” there was a heavy pause, and Mozart whined a little as though in response. She wondered what sort of face Ginji-san was making. “I was hoping to talk to Madoka-chan instead.”

“To me?” She tilted her head. “I would be happy to help you, but what do you need?”

“Ummm, well.” The sound of his voice moved, and Madoka turned to follow it; over the years, she’d learned that people were more comfortable if she still faced them, even knowing that her eyes won’t see a thing. “Madoka-chan. Do you remember the violin you lent Ban-chan last year?”

“Oh,” she said. “I do. It was a Burgess violin, made by an American. A very good instrument.” Not quite as noble or poignant as her Stradivarius, but certainly still a wonderful instrument. “Why?”

“Um,” said Ginji-san. “I know it must be expensive, but — I was just wondering if — I’ve been saving some, Ban-chan doesn’t know about it, I–”

“Ginji-san?”

“Could I borrow a violin?” he blurted, more in a single breath than anything else, canIborrowaviolin. “I was hoping, you know, we’ve been doing okay, we’ve got an apartment for a few months at least, so–”

“Ah,” Madoka said. “You’d like Ban-san to play for you again?”

He squawked and sputtered, but he didn’t actually deny her question. Madoka smiled.

“That violin is my backup,” she said. “I practice with it to remember that not all instruments need to be Stradivarius to sound wonderful.”

“Oh.” He sounded dejected. “No good, huh? Ehehh, sorry to bother you then, Madoka-chan–”

“However.” She got to her feet, hearing Mozart stand as well, his warm flank against her leg. She walked to the cabinet where her violins were kept and opened the doors. “These are things that should be appreciated, and not just kept up on display like trophies. Instruments should be used for music.”

“Madoka-chan … ?”

Madoka opened the case and and ran her fingers gently over the strings of the violin, smiling at the harmonics plucked off. “Ginji-san, I’ll lend this to you on one condition.”

“Eh? Ehhh?” He sounded hopeful now, so much more pleased than before. “What sort of condition? Whatever Madoka-chan wants, I’ll do it–”

Madoka took the instrument down and turned towards the sound of Ginji’s voice, smiling.

“Make sure Ban-san plays it,” she said. “And make sure that you listen.”

+++

“Ahhhh?” Ban’s glasses slipped just enough for him to give Ginji an incredulous stare. “The violin again?”

“Pleaaaaase?” Ginji clutched the case to his chest, looking wide-eyed and hopeful and disgustingly cute. “Please, Ban-chan, after Madoka-chan was so nice to lend it to us …”

“Feh!” Ban snorted. “Like we’ve got time for that? We gotta keep working, Ginji, or else we’ll be evicted in no time!”

“Ehhhhhhhhhh!” Ginji wriggled, his eyes dewy. “But Ban-chan–”

“No buts!” Ban scowled. “Stop that, you look like a moron.”

“Ban-chan,” Ginji burbled, not relenting from that ridiculous puffy-cheeked face he was making. “C’mon, Ban-chan, we’re not working now, it’s too late for work, you said so yourself.”

“It means I want to relax,” Ban griped. “Relax! Where I don’t have to worry about–”

“Ban-chaaaan–”

“–anything like–”

“Pleeease?”

“–this, so get out of my face!” Ban put his hand on Ginji’s forehead and shoved back. “Idiot, let me enjoy my evenings off!”

“But Ban-chan, Ban-chaaan, we don’t even have a radio, there’s nothing to dooooo, c’mon, just one song? Just one?” Ginji managed to slip under Ban’s hand and latch onto his arm, dewy-eyed and gnawing on his sleeve. “C’mooooooon …”

“The hell, Ginji, get off!” Ban shook his arm hard; Ginji, on the other hand, remained tightly attached. “Eels aren’t supposed to be clingy, damnit!”

“Ban-chan, c’mon, Ban-chaaan–”

“Ahhh, get off!” Ban shook his arm again. “Look, moron, I can’t play a damn thing if you don’t let me use both hands!”

Still wrapped around Ban’s arm, Ginji’s eyes lit up. “Eh, really? Really? Ban-chan will?”

“It’ll make you shut up, won’t it?” Ban gave his arm another shake. “Let go.”

Ginji did, landing on the ground with a plop. Like someone presenting a trophy, he took up the violin case and held it out to Ban, bright-eyed and beaming over it. “Ban-channnn~”

“Yeah, yeah,” Ban muttered, though his hands were careful when he took the case, and more careful still when he lifted the instrument up. “Whoever heard of borrowing an instrument like this, anyway?”

Ginji didn’t answer, but he hugged his knees to his chest, looking up at Ban with large hopeful eyes. It was the same sort of face that usually conned an extra slice of pizza or a coffee out of Natsumi, and sometimes a sandwich out of the yarnball. It was cute and wide-eyed and innocent, and it never failed to get to get on Ban’s nerves.

“I don’t remember much,” he said, and put the instrument under his chin. He plucked a few notes, testing; despite its transport, the violin was still remarkably in tune. “Don’t get your hopes so high.”

Ginji beamed and tilted his head.

+++

This was what Ginji heard: a rippling scale that bloomed into a greater silvery cascade of sound. He’d heard both Clayman and Kadsuki discuss art before, with metaphors and meaningful language that he’d never quite been able to grasp — and he thought maybe if they could hear this too, they’d have all the clever words to explain this unnamed song.

It sounded, he thought, sort of like how all his wistful dreams of the outside world had felt, back during his time as Raitei.

It kept changing too, the song: high and almost too shrill for a moment, then deep and sawing the next. Ban’s fingers were light and fast across the strings, and while he didn’t have Madoka’s confident grace, he still showed no hesitation as he played.

Somehow, it made Ginji’s throat hurt, just a little.

Even Ban’s face changed, and the most Ginji could come up with for that was he looked less grumpy, less cynical of the world — a lot more like the nice person that even Ban himself didn’t want to admit he could be. Ginji put his chin on his hands and watched that, and thought he liked that part maybe as much as Ban’s playing itself. Despite the open window and the sounds of traffic just outside, it sort of felt like being encased in a bubble of sound, which bent to outside influences, but didn’t snap.

He wouldn’t, he thought, go so far as to wish this could continue forever — but he rather hoped his memories of it would remain clear always.

And eventually the song ended: Ginji watched Ban’s long fingers vibrate to a stop, and the stillness left behind seemed louder than anything else. For a moment Ban didn’t even move, standing still with the violin beneath his chin, and then he opened his eyes. He looked at Ginji and raised an eyebrow.

“What’s with that emptyheaded staring look, ahh?” he said. He lowered his instrument, keeping it tucked in the crook of one arm. “Told you I was out of practice, if you’re not satisfied, it’s your own damn fault.”

“Um,” said Ginji. “That’s not it, Ban-chan …”

“It’s not? Were you listening?” Ban’s expression turned saronic. “Your hearing going on you?”

“It was good,” Ginji protested. “Ban-chan, you have talent! Maybe at Madoka-chan’s next concert, you could–”

Ban cut him off by grinding knuckles on the top of his head. “Hardly,” he said. “She’s got true talent, I just hack it.”

“Owowowow, but Ban-chan, you could, owowow–”

“Right,” Ban said dryly. “I’m going to believe an uneducted punk who can’t even tell the Venus de Milo from the Statue of Liberty–”

“They look the same,” Ginji began, then yelped when Ban’s fist came down harder. “Owww, Ban-chaaan!”

“… Besides,” Ban said finally, and stepped back. Ginji looked up, blinking hard. “I can’t just let you handle the GetBackers by yourself, can I?”

Ginji rubbed the tender spot on the top of his head. “Eh?”

“Idiot.” Ban flicked a finger against Ginji’s forehead. “If I did that, what would you do?”

Ginji considered. “Become a groupie?”

The comment earned him another brief smack. “Classical musicians don’t have groupies, moron! It’s higher-class than you could afford, so don’t even bother.”

Ginji rubbed his abused head again, pouting. “I was just saying,” he said. “It might be nice if more people could hear you play.”

Ban put the violin away with the same careful reverence he’d taken it out, loosening the bow with precise sharp twists of his wrist. “No point,” he said. “I’m out of practice enough that only idiots like you could find something to appreciate in it.”

Ginji paused. He watched Ban’s face.

Ban-chan, he didn’t say, could it be that you–

Ban glanced over at him and scowled. “Sheesh, you’re making that same stupid face again,” he said. “Cut it out, you look like a freak.” He closed the lid of the violin case decisively, then fished a cigarette from his breast pocket. “Look, I played for you. Happy?”

Abruptly, Ginji beamed. “Yeah,” he said. “Yeah! Ban-chan’s the greatest!” And then he launched himself up at Ban, tackling him around the waist. “Ban-chaaaan!”

“Eh, hey, what, let go, you damn eel!” Ban slapped a hand against Ginji’s forehead and pushed. “What are you, some sort of squid, get off!”

“Ban-chan, Ban-chan, you’re the greatest, thank you Ban-chan~”

“Idiot, let go, I’m gonna–”

In a tangled mess of wrapped limbs they fell, right on top of the violin in its case.

+++

“It’s not so bad,” Madoka assured Ginji, running her fingers carefully over the top, where the neck had snapped. “This should be easy enough to fix.”

That was something of a lie — the instrument would never quite be the same, even if Niccolo Amati himself rose from the dead to fix it. On the other hand, she certainly hadn’t been doing the instrument much justice, leaving it to languish in its display case for so long.

Ginji whined, sounding almost exactly like Mozart. “Ma, Madoka-chan …”

“Did he play for you?” she asked, pressing a finger gently to the splintered wood.

He paused, and his silence felt more like reminiscing than a scramble for an excuse.

“Yeah,” he said at last, his voice warm; she didn’t need to touch his face to know he was smiling. “He did.”

Madoka turned her face towards the sound of his voice and smiled back.

“Good,” she said. “I’m glad.”

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GetBackers drabbles

Babylon [Teshimine]

He had not thought that taking in one little boy could affect him so much.

When he closed his eyes, he saw the child Ginji had once been, wide-eyed and in love with the world, who’d curled against him in fear of thunderstorms and giggled at his silly stories.

When he closed his eyes, he remembered the tiny scrap of a boy who’d trusted him so openly that first day, who’d followed him without question despite his own fear.

But when he opened them, he saw the pale cool face of Raitei, and mourned the loss of that happy child.

***

Signature [Akabane]

The first kill had not been beauty blooming out of necessity. He knew some people believed that, and it made him laugh.

He killed the first time because he’d been bored, and hours of reasoning with a fussy, nervous client had worn even his patience down. When the other man finally turned aggressive, he left himself wide open and died without a sound.

When it was over, he stood there and admired how the blood looked on the wall. It surprised him, how very easily the scalpel cut through muscle and bone.

The “J,” however–that had been an accident.

***

Breathing [Himiko]

She remembers Yamato teaching her to breathe.

“In a way, it’s like being born all over again; you have to learn to do it properly”–those are his words, which she carries with her even today, two years later. Even in a roomful of poison gas, finding breathable air isn’t difficult.

In, out. In, out. The same, but still so different–and years later she still has some trouble maintaining it if she loses her calm.

Her professionalism is so important to her because otherwise, she inhales wrong and finds herself threatened with drowning in a sea of clean air.

***

Voices [Yukihiko]

Usually, he hears their voices in his head as a restless murmur. Except for Natsuhiko, they are content to sleep, and wait until there is a fight. If they speak, it is amongst themselves, somehow, and he is rarely involved.

Occasionally, though, they find something to pique their interest.

The feeling of shifting out, losing himself temporarily, is one he cannot get used to. He never has any warning–just a blur, a whisper, and his stomach dropping down to his ankles.

Unlike the others, he stays to watch, rather than sink into sleep and wait for his next turn.

***

Friend [Maria]

She is a woman of the present, though her roots lie deep in the past.

When the boy first comes to her, terrified behind his bravado, she smiles and decides to play his foil.

She has no interest in being a mother, and her biological clock has long since ticked itself out. But she can be a friend, a cheerful tormentor, to this strange child that her old teacher has sent her.

Thus she prods, she plays, she needles him out of his sadness.

And when he disappears from her home without a word, she laughs and wishes him luck.

***

Ghosts [Clayman]

She knows all about ghosts, though she is not her mother. They whisper to her softly, all the echoes of her childhood condensed, hidden within art:

I am sitting at Mother’s feet and watching her paint a sunflower, golden and bright …

I am standing in the doorway as Mother opens herself to Renoir and weeps with his shared sorrow …

I am bringing Mother tea with lemon, because it has become winter and she will not leave her attic studio until this final painting is completed …

They follow her everywhere. She doesn’t mind–she’d be lonely without them.

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for waiting now

Should anyone outright question her, Winry won’t deny she hasn’t at least thought about it. After all, Edward Elric is smart and handsome, moves with grace–and not a single girl in Rizenbul doesn’t remember how utterly devoted he was–is!–to his family. Winry can only imagine what other girls think, in all those distant cities that Ed and Al visit, charmed by Ed’s looks and reputation.

They don’t know that he hates milk with an irrational passion, or that he sleeps with his limbs sprawled everywhere, the picture of puppyish abandon. They don’t know that he prefers early mornings and late nights, and that the lack of sleep sometimes makes him testy.

They don’t know what is written inside his watch, and the significance of those words.

Winry knows, and she has still wondered, a few times. There have been a few other boys who’ve dropped by the shop over the years, red-faced and stammering. One or two even brought her flowers. She thanks every one of them, and then gently sends them on their way. In her heart, she feels she is waiting for something, someone, and so cannot say yes to the ones who come courting. Her grandmother says that is the way of the young, and clucks her tongue before turning back to her work.

Ed is the only one she has seriously considered, and that embarrasses her to admit. The few times she has seen him, since he and Al left, he has never quite looked at her. He’s always busy staring ahead, into an uncertain future, his goal always propelling him forward. Sometimes, she thinks Al is the only real person in his world.

She is practical, but she also dreams, and she wants more than someone who does not quite notice her. There are memories she has of Trisha Elric that she has not shared with the woman’s sons–of Trisha weeping into Winry’s mother’s arms, as her father stroked the shining brown hair; of her grandmother’s anger, tempered into gentle words, as they tried to promise Trisha she was not failing her sons, that she could do it alone, that it was not her fault that her husband had left.

Winry remembers crouching behind the door and watching this, and feeling a cold sick twist in her stomach that took her years to understand.

As much as she loved Trisha Elric, she does not want to become her. The idea of always staring out a window at a departing back breaks her heart, and then makes her angry. It’s hard enough that she has to smile and wish them a safe trip when neither of them have made promises to return. It should not be expected that she just accept and wave as they go. Journeys cannot be predicted, but as long as you have a family to come home to, then you should.

Ed cannot do that, she knows–not yet, at least, and every time she sees him, she begins to think not ever. His heart and soul are tied to the road, too bright and brilliant; stopping would be the death of him, even after his heavy limbs are made new. Winry thinks about maybe kissing him and blushes, then tells herself sternly no. There are too many complications, especially at this point in their lives.

And she could make him stay, she knows. If she smiled at him, opened her arms to him, then she could coax him to her, and keep him close. For a while, she would be able to stand by his side alongside Al, and catch him when he stumbled.

But then, she knows, his expression would change; he would grow shifty, restless, prowling the house, tightlipped and unhappy. And just as she does not want to be his mother, she knows he does not want to become his father: so if she catches him, he will stay, and with her own fingers, she will have reached out and snuffed out his light. She’d have him, and be the envy of hundreds of girls around the country, but in the holding, pieces of him would be lost every day.

Al would never forgive her. She would never forgive herself.

Prudence does not stop her from wondering, though; Ed is casual enough around her home, going around in boxers and undershirt without a second thought. As an automail mechanic, she knows his body and many others by sight and definition, and though she is always professional, there are definite times where the impulse to touch is difficult to restrain.

But every time she sees him now, she thinks at him, I’m still waiting, and he never hears. “That person” has not come to her, nor has she found him, and it is getting harder to imagine him with Ed’s face and voice. Even so, she still wants to kiss him someday, just to see what will happen. It will not be anything grand or spectacular, she is certain, but maybe–for just a moment–she can see him smile the way he did, long ago.

Cleaning up, she finds a golden hair, too short and the wrong color to be one of hers, tangled and bent on a couch cushion. She wraps it around her fingers and stretches them until the hair breaks into many pieces, which she then throws away.

There’s still a lot of work to do, and they are traveling farther away from her with every step. For now, she has to accept Trisha Elric’s role and be content with knowing they’ll both come back to her–occasionally, sporadically, sheepish smiles and awkward grace. For now, she has to hold on to knowing that within her, she holds pieces of both the famous Elric brothers that will be handed over to no one else. That is something a hundred thousand sighing, starry-eyed girls will never have over her.

And Winry is no alchemist, but she knows the value of things. You need something of equal value if you want to get anything in this world.

So she will do the most important thing, and be patient. Maybe someday it will be enough, but even if not–she carries what matters most, in her heart.

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Follow Through

Sometimes he dreams of walking down long, narrow black hallways, where hands stretch from the walls and pluck at his hair and clothes. He walks to the echo of his footsteps and a low, almost subliminal sound. It takes him an embarrassingly long time to recognize it as a heartbeat.

He walks and he sees there are doors, stained and faded, appearing out of the woodwork like short bright stabs at something undefined. The first one he tries opens to a small vegetable garden. He listens to the woman singing to herself and turns away before her sons come running up, eager to show off their latest achievements.

At the second, crystal walls flash and wink at him; he is mirrored in a thousand scarlet faces. This is the only place he hears voices: they rise and fall here, blending together into an indistinct cacophony. On the floor there are black spiraling patterns that stretch out into red depths and vanish. He takes one step in and feels pain shoot up his legs; there is a barrier here he cannot yet cross.

The third door shows him a wind-blasted desert.

The third time he finds it, he goes in.

ii. fools and kings

The tea is bitter and a little spicy on his tongue. He drinks it slowly, and doesn’t actually look around.

This way lies madness, and really, the waking world is strange enough.

“It’s dangerous, coming here,” says his host. “Alchemists truly are foolish.”

He shrugs. “You’re just a figment of my imagination,” he says. “I’m dreaming this. You’re not real, but since you’re here, maybe I’ll be able to get some answers if I ask you.”

“You presume a great deal.” His host sits back, solemn and still. His entire body might have been carved by wind and sand from rock, but for the hard brightness of his red eyes. “The answers you seek aren’t here.”

“I want to go home,” he says. “This other world, it’s — there are some fascinating things here. But it isn’t home.”

His host says nothing.

“There has to be a way,” he says. “The Gate, or some other way–”

“Things are laid out according to their proper place.” His teacup is taken from him, and between one moment and the next, it vanishes. “You’ve upset the balances far too many times.”

“I know,” he says, “but it’s not like I can stop just yet.”

iii. to one who lives there

He’s read before about sex being like rebirth, and that just maybe the secrets of all existence lie here, in the heated movement of two bodies locked together. There are books in his father’s library that mention this in veiled metaphor, and maybe he’ll learn something from this sacred act.

But really, it’s just uncomfortable. There’s sand in his mouth and sourness on his tongue. His entire body feels stretched and broken; he does not think he was meant to move like this. Every breath makes his throat burn, like he’s swallowing the desert heat. There are vast empty spaces between the gaps of two bodies, but somehow, impossibly, he reaches out and manages to cross them.

All is one, one is all. He recites this in his head until the individual words no longer make sense.

After, he stares blankly upwards and draws patterns in the sand with one finger. His host says nothing, replacing his clothes with solemn dignity.

“This solves nothing,” he says, and his voice blends with the rising wind. “You learn nothing from this.”

He traces the symbol of his brother’s life, and then smoothes it away with his palm.

“Actually, I think I did.”

iv. breakaway

Sometimes he dreams of walking down long, narrow black hallways, where hands stretch from the walls and pluck at his hair and clothes. He walks to the sound of his own footsteps, and an overwhelming heartbeat.

But then he wakes.

He sits at his desk and ignores the food his father leaves; he has a thousand plans and discarded theories, and he will see one of them through. Inspiration flowers and fades and is reborn within him.

He sketches out what he can remember of the hallways, the crystalline room, the desert, and writes phrases from holy texts across his own penned lines. Moving too fast makes his stomach ache, and even if everything was a dream, it was real enough for its duration.

This solves nothing. You’ve learned nothing.

One hint would be enough, he always thought, and he thinks he has found it, at last. Even the greatest distance can be crossed: life and death are fragile as paper, so why not distance, why not reality?

Before he leaves, he burns those notes. The heat of the fire is more intense, less pervasive, than the desert.

Nothing looks back from the flames: just ash, and that soon fades.

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echo

Rose looks at him sometimes, and thinks she knows why his brother loved him so.

He’s always careful with her son, with the dog; he’s always so studious when he’s helping Winry or Pinako, and there is a light in his eyes that reflects the same sun that gave his brother’s eyes their color.

Sometimes she looks at him and loves him for it.

And other times she remembers the smile on Ed’s face when he sent her away; she remembers looking at him and feeling her voice strangle in her throat again, stifled as it had been for so long. She wanted to tell him, she remembers, that he is why she did not give in to despair and slit her wrists when she first realized she was pregnant; she wanted to tell him that his words have resonated in her, more strongly than any of Cornello’s teachings.

Winry has told her that she’s very transparent; that she cannot hide anything because her face is an open book. Rose does not believe this is true — because Ed looked straight at her when he told her to leave, if only for a moment, and he saw nothing.

Or, perhaps, he was blinded by the sun that melted the wax of his wings. She will tell her son this story, when he is old enough to understand.

Sometimes, she looks at Alphonse and hates him for the pieces of his brother he still carries. His face is not as sharp as Ed’s, and his eyes are duller, bronze rather than gold, and though the sun is bleaching his hair, it’s still not the same. His movements are slower, smoother; his grace is less unique, less sharp-edged and himself.

Sometimes, she looks and she hates the fact that Ed loved him enough to leave them both.

It is raining today, and that is a strange thing; Liore was too close to the southern border of Amestris to have that much rain, but here in Rizenbul, there are true seasons, rebirth and life and fading and death. Rose stands at the window and places her fingertips against the cold glass, breathing fog.

The door opens, and she looks up, and sees Alphonse standing there, dripping wet and cradling something in her coat. Surprised, she turns to him, and he gives her a wry smile — he knows she hates him sometimes, she thinks, and he forgives her for it.

He is better than her for that.

“Rose,” he says, and winces as the wind blows, cutting through his wet clothes. “Can you get me a dry towel, and warm up some milk?”

“Milk?” she says, surprised. “Why –”

A small mewl cuts her off, and she sees a small, sodden head lift up from the folds of Alphonse’s coat. A kitten, she realizes, barely larger than two of her fingers put together, its eyes closed and its ears plastered to its small head, moving its head blindly in the air.

“Rose, please,” he says. “Milk –”

She moves before he can finish, going to the icebox and opening it; there is only half a bottle left; Alphonse drinks it more than he does water. She knows, from what Winry has said, that Ed hated milk.

For a moment, Alphonse disappears down the hallway, without bothering to shed his shoes in the process. He leaves large wet footprints behind him. She looks at them a moment, then pours milk into a saucer and sets it on the table. When he returns, there is a towel draped over his head, and two in his hands, bundled around the kitten, who is mewling and struggling weakly; she can see the way the folds shift in Alphonse’s hands.

“He’s really young,” Alphonse says, bumping a chair out with his hip and sitting slowly. “I don’t know if his mouth can open big enough for this.”

She drifts closer, not quite to his side, watching as he places his burden in the crook of one arm and dips a corner of the towel in the saucer. “Where did you find him?”

Alphonse gets milk on the kitten’s nose. It squeaks at him, and he carefully blots it away before trying again. “Down the hill,” he says. “In Brother’s old tree fort. We were building it at the time Mom died.” He looks wistful for a moment, as though yearning for the years that have passed since then. “We were going to finish it when we got her back.”

There is nothing Rose can say to that. She watches him try to feed the kitten, and sees a parody of herself with her son, when she was first brought to this tiny village, to live with these people. Alphonse is not more successful than she was, the first time she tried to breast-feed her son; the kitten is sluggish, and does not respond well.

“Should I go fetch Auntie?” she asks, softly. Alphonse looks up, startled, then wry.

“Yeah,” he says. “She’ll probably know how to do this better. Den was a stray, you know.”

“I thought he was a present.”

“He was that, too.” Alphonse gives up on trying to feed the kitten, and leans back in the chair, chafing at it gently, trying to keep it warm. “We found him and brought him home, and it was Winry’s birthday, so her parents said she could keep him.”

She says nothing. After a moment, she turns and walks for the door, and out into the rain. It’s cold against her skin, which shocks her for a moment, and she pulls her shawl tighter around her shoulders as she walks.

Winry will be angry, she thinks. Winry is often angry at them in small ways, like a proper mother would be.

Without knocking, she opens the door to the Rockbell Automail Garage, and stands there for a moment, not speaking. Winry is working on a custom-order — an arm for a child, lost in a car accident, with delicate tiny fingers and fragile mechanisms. And though Winry’s eyesight is perfect, she still has to use a magnifying glass for this, hunched over the table. She looks up at the cold burst of air, and almost drops her screwdriver. “Rose! What are you doing — god, do you want to freeze to death? Come on!”

Rose lets herself be drawn into the workshop proper, only half-listening as Winry closes the door behind her, fussing. “You need to take better care of yourself; you’ve got to stay strong so that your son won’t worry, and Al’s too young, we can’t ask him to look after you while we’re working –”

“Alphonse found a kitten,” she says softly. “It’s very young, so –”

“He what?” Winry is brought up short for a moment, then grumbles, raking fingers through her hair; it pulls the bandanna free. “Oh, damnit … give me a moment to finish up here; I’ll go back with you.”

She hesitates, shivering a little in the cold now, watching as Winry starts putting tools away, and then the little arm, laying it carefully in its small box. In six months, she has learned a little about how these limbs work, how they attach to the docks and how someone must remain conscious as the surgery is performed; she knows that water will not slow automail down as long as it is properly maintained — and she knows Ed was always careless with his.

It is strange, she thinks, as she accepts the coat Winry gives her, watching as the other girl ties up her long blonde hair. It is strange, how she is learning pieces of this boy who has destroyed and rebuilt her life into something entirely new.

They walk together in the rain, huddled together against the wind. Winry bangs the door open, and also neglects to take her shoes off as she stalks over to the table. Alphonse looks sheepish, shrinking back a little in his chair.

“Al,” Winry says, in a tone of long-suffering patience, “you can’t just bring home every stray you find! We don’t have the room for all of them –”

He looks sad and small, very young. She looks at him and wonders what it would have been like, if he’d been restored to his true age, with the memories of the years he’s spent traveling and bodiless. Most of the time, she believes it’s the greater kindness that he does not remember; the rest of the time, she wants to see him understand, truly, what his brother has sacrificed.

“He’s so little,” Al protests to Winry, when the scolding ends. “Look at him, Winry, he shouldn’t even be away from his mom, but he was all alone –”

For a moment, she continues to frown sternly, then softens, and hitches one up onto the table, reaching out to ruffle his still-damp hair. “Let me see him,” she says. “You go get dried and change.”

“Yess’m,” he says, then ducks when she swats at him. Winry takes the kitten from him and sets it in the crook of her arm, against her breast, then uses the tip of her finger to stroke the top of its tiny head. After a moment, it stirs and whines at her, its tiny head nodding in the air.

“Look at you,” she says quietly, then looks up. “It really is too young to be alone. Rose, can you warm the milk for me?”

Rose startles, then nods. Winry watches her, and sighs, still stroking the kitten’s head. “His heart’s in the right place,” she says, watching the kitten move. “But he … he’s still a kid, now. Sometimes, I think that the memories are there, he’s just … he doesn’t want to remember, and so he doesn’t.”

She stares down at her hands, and sees they’re shaking. “I wouldn’t want to remember, either,” she says quietly. “I don’t want to remember what I do.” The mad dance, Ed’s blood, his farewells, and coming back to find a frightened little boy, five years too young and unable to remember anything beyond his failed experiment with his brother.

“It’s not your fault,” Winry says, and she startles again, looking up. Winry is watching her with sad dark eyes, even as she continues to stroke the kitten’s head. “There’s no one on earth who could change Ed’s mind, when he was determined. Al could, but only sometimes.”

Rose presses her lips together, looking down at the stove. She has forgotten the saucer at the table. “I don’t blame myself,” she says. “I just wish things were different.”

Winry is quiet, but she hands the saucer to Rose when she comes back to the table. “I used to, too,” she says, and Rose pauses, and tries not to let her hands shake. “I used to say, ‘I wish they’d never left, I wish things would have stayed like they were,’ but …” She touches a finger to the tip of the kitten’s nose and it mewls. The sound is very loud.

She puts the milk into a pan, turns it on. When Winry remains silent, she licks her lips and says, “But?”

“… But, I think that if they’d stayed, things might have been worse.” Winry looks up as footsteps clunked from upstairs. “If Mrs. Elric hadn’t died, or Ed and Al hadn’t left, and nothing changed. I’m glad things happened for a reason beyond Ed getting bored of being here and going. I’m happier this way.”

For a moment, she wants to say she isn’t, but then Alphonse comes back, with dry clothes and his hair toweled into spikes, almost running as he skids in. “Is the kitten okay?” he blurts, and nearly trips over himself as he stops beside Winry; his body is still too young to have grown into its grace. “I mean, it’s still alive, right? Why aren’t you feeding it?”

“We’re warming up the milk, Al.” Winry rubs the kitten again. “Do me a favor and run to the study and grab me one of the smaller syringes, all right? We don’t have a bottle, so we’ll just have to make do with what we have.”

Alphonse nods, and bends quickly enough to examine the kitten, to ascertain for himself that it will be all right, and dashes off again. Winry looks like she might scold after him for a moment, then sighs and leans back in her chair.

“Besides,” she says, “Ed is gone, but he’s not … gone. I don’t think he could do what he did and then just … be gone, like that.” She waves vaguely in the direction Alphonse went, and rubs the kitten again. “I don’t think he’d go away without at least seeing Al was fine.”

Rose says nothing as she turns off the stove, and transfers the milk back to the saucer. She balances the dish carefully between her fingers because the ceramic is hot now, and walks slowly, setting it down by Winry’s elbow. Alphonse comes back in, breathless, and gives Winry what she asked for, hovering over her shoulder and watching with anxious, keen eyes as she fills the small stopper and very carefully teases it into the kitten’s mouth.

“You know that if we’re going to keep this, you’re the one who’s going to have to take care of it, Al,” she says. “Granny and I are busy when we’re working, and a kitten this young needs lots of time and attention –”

“I’ll do it,” he says quickly, with the enthusiasm of the young. “I want to help. I can’t just put it back where I found it, Winry, it’ll die.” His eyes are not the same bright gold as his brother’s, but they hold a similar intense conviction. “I’ll take care of it, I promise!”

Rose watches him, solemn and determined, and wonders at the sort of man he will grow up to become. His brother was a man of dedication — is a man, she corrects herself fiercely, is, because he can’t be dead, not now — but Alphonse is gentler, with his hands so careful as Winry gives him the kitten, so very careful as he takes the small tubing from her, and lets her direct him on feeding the kitten on his own.

When the kitten takes its makeshift nipple, he positively beams. Rose wonders if Ed ever looked like this as a child, if he ever smiled so, as though the most precious thing in the world rested in his hands.

Winry glances up and sees her face, and smiles quietly. There is old exhaustion in her eyes, from long ago — from the days when Rose first came here to Rizenbul, and Alphonse was terrified and lonely and woke screaming for his brother every night. There is hope in her still, Rose thinks; she does not merely think that Ed is still alive somewhere, that he is finding his way home even as they stay here and wait — she knows, in the heart that has known both Elrics since childhood.

Rose wishes she could know, too. She wishes that she could open her eyes and turn the morning, and know, someday, she will see Edward Elric walking down that road — perhaps older, perhaps wiser, but still himself, and he will open his arms for Alphonse, and for Winry, and if he sees Rose there … well, maybe he will even have a smile for her.

“I’m going to name him Edward,” Alphonse announces.

Winry looks startled, turning to him. “–what?”

“Look at him,” Alphonse says, and shifts the kitten a little. It is dryer now, and its coat is a soft, fuzzy peach-gold. “It’s the same color as Brother’s hair. “Don’t you think?”

For a moment, Rose and Winry look at each other, and then at Alphonse, who is earnest and waiting for their approval.

“Edward’s a good name for a cat,” Winry says slowly, and something wry is in her eyes and the twist of her mouth, like she’s found a peculiar kind of humor in it. Rose thinks, that despite his role as a dog of the military, Edward was always suited more to a feline nature, coming and going as he pleased, loyal to only a paltry handful. “When your brother comes home, we’ll have to give him a different nickname, so we can tell them apart.”

Alphonse beams at that, at the implied idea of keeping the cat, and, Rose is sure, the idea of his brother coming home. He’s already imagining it in his head, of introducing Edward to Edward, bright-eyed with possibility. Rose wonders if her son is in his daydreams — perhaps walking by then, with a better vocabulary than several dozen garbled word-sounds. She wonders if she has any hope of being there herself.

–She’s sure she does. This is Alphonse, and his kindness is instinctual as breathing.

He’s a sweet boy, she thinks, watching him. He holds the kitten so carefully — he held her son so carefully — and it’s like his tiny body still has the memory of his larger, clumsy one, which could easily crush glasses with little effort.

Sometimes, Rose looks at him and thinks she knows why his brother loved him so.

And other times, she knows she hates him for it.

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The First Date

“I prefer people like my older brother … I’m sorry, Lieutenant, you’re not my type, so–“

There were precisely three small cracks in the plaster of the wall opposite to his desk; Havoc had counted them multiple times over the past three weeks. He had the distinct impression that he was letting things slide by that he really shouldn’t, and couldn’t much make himself care.

“You’re not my type, so–“

“Second Lieutenant Havoc,” Lt. Hawkeye said. Very slowly, he turned to look at her. Ignoring the Colonel he could usually get away with–but even in his stupor, he knew better than to ignore Hawkeye.

She looked down at him thoughtfully, lips pursed. “It’s come to my attention that, ah … well, to be blunt, that you’ve been entirely unsuccessful in finding yourself a girlfriend.”

He twitched and made a pathetic noise. There was no need to rub it in, he thought mournfully. Catherine had been so cute, too, and Grace before her, and Allison before her–ah, he was so unlucky; women never seemed to notice him–

“Very well,” Lt. Hawkeye said, her tone brisk. “I will expect you to pick me up at seven o’clock sharp tonight.”

Havoc stared blankly at her. Then, as though the light suddenly flipped on again, he yelped and backpedaled, staring at her in something akin to horror. “What?!”

“You’ve been unresponsive and unproductive for nearly two weeks, Lieutenant,” she said crisply, as she began to gather her things. “That sort of professional attitude is unacceptable.”

“But–whossa–whaa–”

“Unless you have objections, I’m willing to give this a shot,” she said, and smiled. He’d seen her do that before many times–but now it was at him, and that somehow made all the difference.

And she was awfully pretty.

He coughed, tugging at the collar of his uniform. “Then, uh,” he said, slightly red-faced, “I’ll see you tonight, First Lieutenant.”

“We’re off-duty right now,” she said. “It’s all right to call me ‘Riza.'”

“… Riza.” The name felt strange to him, like it represented mysteries untold. First Lieutenant Hawkeye he understood, after so many years–Riza was something entirely different.

“Seven o’clock, then?” She picked up her bag, then clicked her tongue sharply. From under her desk, Black Hayate trotted out, ears up and tail high. He followed at her heels as she turned and walked out.

“Seven, sure,” he said, and watched her leave. A huge, stupid grin spread across his face as he turned back to his own desk, then blinked at the mess piled there.

“Hey, congratulations, Lt. Havoc,” Breda said, popping up behind him. He looked at Havoc’s desk, and whistled low between his teeth. “If she’s willing to go out with you, even when you keep your stuff like this–”

“She’s a very nice lady,” Fury added, appearing on Havoc’s left. “It’ll be good for you to get out.”

“Flowers are good,” Farman added, to his right. “Something tasteful and understated, like the First Lieutenant herself–”

Someone coughed. As one, the four of them turned and looked at Roy Mustang’s deadpan expression.

“So,” he said, looking at Havoc, “you’ve managed to get a date out of Lt. Hawkeye.”

Havoc blinked a few times. The distant part of his mind that had noted how pretty Riza was wondered, idly, if it was possible to outrun alchemical flame. “Yessir?”

“Congratulations,” the Colonel said, still deadpan. “And good luck.”

He walked to the door, pausing to shrug into his coat, then glanced back. “Don’t bring her roses until the third date,” he advised. “She won’t take you seriously otherwise.”

Then he was gone, and Breda whirled on Havoc, prodding him hard in the chest. “Not bad, not bad–he stole your girlfriend, so you can take his!” He ended that with a slap to Havoc’s back, doubling him forward. “Congratulations!”

“Ah, no, it’s–”

“Not roses, hm,” Farman said. “Perhaps lilies, then–calias, because you wouldn’t want to send the wrong message–white ones might work, as well–”

“I didn’t think the Colonel was dating the First Lieutenant,” Fury said to Breda. “Their relationship always seemed so professional–”

Breda slapped him on the back, too. “Ah, that’s because you’re young, and still innocent,” he said grandly. “Really, it’s probably just a cover up–”

“–irises might suit her, too, though where you’ll find those at this time of year–”

“–I mean, who knows what goes on when she goes to report to him, and closes the door behind her? Nah, I’ll bet they’ve been carrying on for years, now–”

“Sir, I don’t think that’s very professional to say; she’d kill us if she–”

Under the cover of their chatter, Havoc snuck out.

***

He had a brief moment of panic before he found her house–the Colonel insisted the people of his unit to keep each other’s addresses and numbers in case of opportunity–and thought that, perhaps, he should have waited for the others to offer their “escorting” services again.

Havoc paused and tugged at his tie; he had, perhaps, tightened it too much before leaving. As he went up the stairs, the small doggy-door moved, and Black Hayate poked his head out. Rather than bark, he blinked at Havoc, then disappeared back into the house.

A moment later, the door opened, and Riza emerged, elegantly dressed in black. She’d left her hair down, fastened at the base of her neck with a fancier clip than she used at the office. Havoc gaped for a full half-minute before remembering himself and holding out the flowers–lilies, and white, as Farman had suggested. She smiled and descended the stairs from him, taking the flowers and setting them in the crook of her arm.

“We have reservations at the Blue Moon in half an hour,” she told him. “Shall we, then?”

He babbled something that was probably agreement, and saw Riza smile at him again. He even remembered to open the door for her, even if Black Hayate took that as an invitation and jumped in first. Havoc was leaning forward, ready to shoo the dog out, when something clicked by his temple.

He looked up, and right into the barrel of a gun. Black Hayate whimpered.

“Bad,” Riza said sternly, her tone every echo military command. “Out.” She pointed with her other hand, and Black Hayate obeyed, hopping down and sitting with ears and tail lowered. Riza bent swiftly, tucking away the gun as she went, and took the dog’s muzzle in her hands.

“I’ll be home soon,” she said. “Be good.”

Black Hayate whined, but when she let go and stood up, he merely watched as she got into the car. As Havoc closed the door behind her, he looked down and found the dog staring at him.

Oddly, he heard the Colonel’s words echoing in his head. “Congratulations. And good luck.”

The date itself went relatively smoothly; the prices on the menu didn’t make him wince to see, and Hawkeye had apparently read some of the same books he had, which meant that at least there was something to talk about over the meal.

Afterwards, he drove her back and counted down seconds until disaster. Things were going too well, and he was just waiting for something to happen–a tire exploding, maybe, or he’d say something that would completely repel her once they got to her house, or–

“You’ve passed my house,” Riza said. He couldn’t see her face in the dimness, but it sounded like she was smiling, at least. Embarrassed, he coughed and turned the car around.

Black Hayate didn’t poke his head out when Riza got out of the car, but she didn’t seem particularly worried by this, and Havoc belatedly thought that he probably should have opened that door for her, too. He got out of the car, and they looked at each other across the hood for long seconds.

“Was that, um.” Havoc resisted the urge to pull on his collar yet again; he’d stopped after catching her disapproving look around the third time during dinner. “Did you have fun?”

Riza came around the car to stand before him. She was no more an alchemist than he was, but he felt like some small dissected specimen under a microscope, trapped in place. He stuck his hands in his pockets and looked at her left ear, rather than in her eyes.

She leaned up and kissed his cheek. He blinked at her, then blinked at her, eyes going wide and his jaw dropping to hang slackly.

“I enjoyed myself very much,” she said. “I’ll expect you on Sunday, at seven.”

She’d already disappeared inside before her words registered. Like a man completely of automail, he turned to gape at the door. On his cheek, her kiss seemed to burn.

“Ha,” he said weakly, to himself and the night sky, “ahahaha.” Very gingerly, he touched his cheek, and thought, all over again, about how pretty she’d looked in that dress.

Three dates until he could bring roses. He’d have to ask around, and see where he could find irises at this time of year.

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