And it must have been so bad ...


There was no panic in his mind. His blood didn't pound with worry, his thoughts didn't scramble over one another, his throat didn't seize up in terror. He knew what had happened, he knew what he had to do, he knew what he had to give up – and he did it.

No panic. No regret. No worry.

No hurt. Not really.

Smattering of blood across the front of his trenchcoat, beautifully straight line, and he found himself staring. Circle of blood on the floor, staining the patterned carpet. He stared at Morrison's head, at all the secrets he needed to know, leaking out onto the floor with his life's blood. Four years. Four years he'd been after this man, after what he'd known. After his network.

The General.

But his name was just Morrison and he was just a spy like Aoshi himself and he had to die.

Because.

No hurt. Not really.

The steps creaked under his weight, but it didn't matter because there was no one in the house to hear the noise. No one alive. Many doors on the first landing, and he tried them all. Slid back each bolt, sprung each lock.

No one alive.

Second-last floor then, two doors on the landing. One swung open to reveal a bare room with the remainder of a meal littered across its floor, and the other wouldn't open at all. Even after he picked the lock, the knob simply wouldn't turn.

So he smashed it in.

She was there.

Propped up against the wall, arms curled around her legs, head nestled between her knees. Black hair, grey dress, unmistakably her.

He waited for the rush of relief to overtake him, waited for the roaring in his head that was sure to come. Waited for himself to step forward and gather her into his arms and tell her that he was sorry, that he would never let anything touch her again.

But nothing happened.

He stood there, in the doorway, the broken lock hanging disconcertingly from the door. She sat there, and she didn't even raise her head.

A dark feeling of unreality stole over him, as if the past two days had never happened, as if she had never disappeared from the safety of his room, as if any minute now the past year would simply vanish from memory, from existence. As if he would find himself sitting behind his desk in his darkened room in the manor and never know of a world outside it.

It had to have been some time before he forced himself to move forward, but he had no idea how long. Some part of his mind registered the cold in the room, the half-open skylight, the remnants of last night's rain on the wooden floor. He bent down, close to her, and the usual smell of her hair was faint. Washed out.

He touched her shoulder, his mind forcibly wrenching back to a morning two days ago, when he'd shaken her awake in his armchair.

No hurt?

God, it hurt like hell.

Her eyes were bleary when they opened, unfocused and empty of recognition. Lack of food, water – too much cold – he'd been in his share of tough spots, seen his share of starvation and horror, he knew the signs. "Misao?" he whispered. He wanted to tell her that it was all right, except there was nothing that needed reassurance in her eyes. Just – blankness. "It's Aoshi."

She blinked a few times, and he waited for her mind to kick in, for memory to return to her. For her to throw her arms about his neck and hug him like he was the only man in the world.

"You have to come with me," he said, when she didn't. "We'll get you home. Food, something to drink. Warm bed." His voice was so normal. He felt like he would choke on it.

He wished she would raise her head.

He checked her for injuries, then. Pulled her arms – limp, unresisting – from around her legs and checked her neck, her shoulders. Pushed up her skirt a little and looked at her legs. Didn't dare to look above her knees, because it wasn't his place and he wasn't sure he wanted to know.

God, she had been with these men for days.

He wasn't going to go down that road.


She talked when they got back to the house. She only said one word, and that was, "No." But he was relieved beyond measure. Her eyes were closed, and he was holding a glass of milk to her lips while Rodney hovered anxiously in one corner.

"You have to drink something," he said, worried and stern and something in his chest hurt, hurt, hurt.

"No," she said, and she sounded firm and stubborn and herself. He wondered, bizarrely, if she knew exactly what was going on and was trying to punish him for getting her into all this, for being the one to bring her here, but her eyes were too blank, and he knew (hoped) that Misao wouldn't blame that on him.

And even if she did, she wouldn't punish him for it.

Even if it was his fault. Even if he deserved it.

Even if –

"Dehydration can be fatal," he said. Stern, again. Scolding. Why couldn't he be kind? "Drink this, and then we'll get you something to eat." He motioned to Rodney, who scampered into the kitchen.

"No."

Sallow skin, empty eyes – he held her jaw with his hand, tried to make his fingers as gentle as he could without losing his grip, and tipped the glass against her mouth. The milk dribbled down her chin, for the most part, half over his hand, but she swallowed a good deal, if only out of reflex.

She coughed then, tore herself away from his hand with a gasp and a shove. He let her go. She curled into the arm of the sofa, half-coughing, half-retching, and when she straightened there was a spark of something in her eyes. Recognition? He didn't know. "Don't do that," she said.

Annoyance, then. He could settle for that.

"You have to drink this," he said.

"I heard you the first time!"

"Then do it."

"No!"

If she recognized him, she would trust him. If she trusted him, she would recognize him. If she trusted him, she would drink something, eat something. He knew she would come back to herself after some food and a good long sleep – this wasn't anything fatal, even if it was eating him up inside. He said, "Do you even know who I am, Misao?"

Her whisper was disturbing. "You know me."

There was something there – he didn't understand it. "I do know you," he said.

There was silence.

She said, voice raspy, "Hand me the glass."


Afterwards, she fell asleep. She tucked her hands under her chin, like a little girl, and rested her head on the wooden arm of the sofa, and she went to sleep. He picked up the empty glass of milk, and the plate of sandwiches – she'd had two, and he didn't want to force her into having too much, because she'd probably bring it up later anyway – and carried them to the dining room. Rodney had disappeared a while back, but he assumed the crockery would be taken care of.

It was odd, being worried about the dishes at a time like this.

He sat down beside her, watching the wood cutting a straight wedge in the soft skin of her cheek. If things were different, she would have curled up into him, head on his shoulder, trusting without words that it was safe to touch him. Not now.

Because she didn't know who he was, he told himself sharply. Not because she didn't trust him anymore.

But it was true, he thought. She might still trust him, after she woke up – trust him with her head, but not her self. Her body didn't trust him now, he could see it in the way she had turned herself away, as far as possible on the small sofa.

There was a band across his chest, squeezing it tight. This is where caring got you. This is why you stepped back and refused to give a damn.

He wasn't allowed this, he knew, as he reached out for her in the fading afternoon light of the sitting room. If she had wanted to touch him, to let him touch her, she would have done it herself. But she wasn't herself just now – just yet – and he needed this.

He remembered the odd calm he'd felt, when Dunham had come in to tell him that the General had contacted him. With news that would interest Aoshi. He remembered his feeling of resignation, his feeling of – nothingness. He felt it now; numb, cold, empty. He needed to touch her, to assure himself that she was real.

His hands were gentle on her shoulders, and she didn't protest, even sleepily, when he pulled her up, changed her position. He meant to prop her against his side, but he decided it would be more comfortable for her to be horizontal, so he laid her down in his lap. Her head faced outwards, her legs were curled in beneath her awkwardly. He reached over and straightened them, letting them hang off the side of the sofa.

He wished the bouncy fragrance would return to her hair.

He sat there, her head resting on his legs, the bloodstain on his trenchcoat just beneath her shoulder – but he didn't know that – and his mind was blank again. There was relief, somewhere, and pain, somewhere else, but mostly, he found he wasn't thinking anything.

But she was real and solid against him, and her breath came evenly, and he … he was grateful.


"It wasn't so bad," she told him. She was sitting in his bed, wrapped in a white nightgown that covered her up to the neck, hollow circles under her eyes. "I mean, I just had to kind of wait, you know? I think they forgot about me."

He didn't say anything. He sat in the armchair she had slept in three nights ago, pulled close to the bed.

"They certainly forgot that I needed to eat," she said, and she tried to laugh. It came out choked. There was a constriction in his throat, in his heart. "I figured you would come," she said, and she didn't meet his eyes. "And you did."

"I'm sorry it took me so long." It was unexpectedly hard to get the words out, even though he meant them completely.

She seemed surprised – her head shot up, her eyes locking with his. "Hey," she said, slowly, "it's not like I think you delayed on purpose."

He realized, with a sickening jolt, that he loved her.

She looked out the window, then, and to him she seemed older than her seventeen years, with her pinched face and her hair coming out of her braid. There was something thoughtful and faraway in her eyes, and he felt he was encroaching upon something private, just by looking at her.

"Look, I – " she began, but her voice broke off. She didn't say anything.

He wondered …

The silence was heavy; there was justthe faint sound of a carriage rolling past in the street behind the house, the light whisper of wind through the trees. She snapped her eyes away from the window and looked at the glass resting on the bedside table, saying with forced lightheartedness, "Can't believe I have to drink that shit."

"Language," he admonished, feeling like he had just slipped back into a role he knew very well.

"You think the word was piss?"

"I think the words are: Soap. Mouth."

"Ooh, snarky," she said, and he thought maybe her grin was real.

After a while he said, "It's just salt, in the water. It helps with the rehydration."

"It helps with shriveling up the inside of my mouth," she said.

He tried to smile for her, because he knew she would like that, but he couldn't.

He had taken her upstairs to her room, when she'd woken up on the sofa – lucid, herself, smiling and hugging him, slightly dazed, and he had felt so unreal – and told her to get some more rest, and that he was right in his room if she needed anything. He hadn't wanted to be apart from her, but he thought this was the best he could do.

Five minutes later the door to his room had been swinging open, and she had stepped in with a tentative look on her face and something haunted in her eyes. And he had helped her to his bed – light touches, across her shoulders, her hands – and then he'd stepped away and sat down. And that had been hours ago.

She had talked. He didn't want to hear it. He desperately wanted to know.

He didn't want to ask.

She said, suddenly, "I mean – they didn't hurt me. They could have, but they didn't. They just didn't seem – bothered, you know? I don't understand."

He did. They didn't give a damn about a half-grown Japanese girl who couldn't even produce a convincing swoon. He was grateful, unbelievably grateful. Something swelled in him, something painful, something giddy.

"They didn't hurt you?" he asked, just to be sure.

"No." She shook her head. "They didn't. Did you …" She looked at the bedspread, picking at it with pale fingers. "Did you hurt them?"

There was barely a pause before he said, "Yes."

"The General?"

The name sounded ominous on her lips. "You don't need to worry about him," he said, quietly.

"Is he – dead?"

Her words hung in the air, suspended in alum. But she deserved the truth. "Yes."

He waited for her to recoil, for the accusation – Murderer – but she only looked down again. It's my job, he tried to tell her, silently. I did it for you. I probably would have done it anyway. It is who I am.

"Okay," she said, and he realized it hadn't been as long a pause as he had been thinking it to be.

He nodded, needlessly.

The lantern he'd placed on the coffee table in the corner of his room flickered. He watched it, once again aware of the heavy silence. She said, slowly, "I'm kind of tired."

He sat straighter in the chair. "You should sleep," he said. I can go, he meant.

She scooted back until her back touched the headboard, and she tucked her feet under the coverlet. "Yeah, I will," she said, but she kept sitting like that.

He remembered that feeling of impending doom he'd felt at the dinner, all those weeks ago. He'd thought, after she'd been kidnapped, that that was the doom he had anticipated, and now – with her rescue – it had come and gone. But the feeling was back again, full force, the walls of this unfamiliar room laughing down at him, pressing down on him.

Waiting, with bated breath, for him to seal his fate.

It was an odd sensation, this inanimate expectancy that radiated off the walls, off the floor. He shifted uncomfortably in his chair, wanting to be rid of it.

"Aoshi-sama," she said, her voice low.

"Yes?"

"I'm going to call you Aoshi from now on."

That was unexpected. "All right," he said, a little bewildered.

"It's just something new I'm trying," she explained, slight smile on her face. He liked it; it made him feel out of his depth, the way he usually felt around her. Floundering … and perfectly, happily lost.

It fell again, that silence. He couldn't stand it, and he was well aware of the irony of that thought. He, who relished silence, relished peace. But this – this was not peace. This was something heavy, oppressive – distracting. She didn't need this discomfort, not right now, when she had just gotten back from an ordeal he didn't want to think about –

He stood up, and he knew her eyes were tracking his movement. "What're you doing?" she asked, curious.

"I'm going to go downstairs for a while," he said.

Something in her face fell. "Oh."

He didn't mean to make her sad. He remembered his father, cold words, cold eyes, remembered the constrained look on his mother's face. He had thought it was regret – for her son, for herself. But he looked at Misao and wondered if it was just sadness.

"I work with a man called Dunham," he said abruptly, and he wasn't sure why he was telling her this. "He told me you had been taken. I didn't know what to do." That was a lie. He'd known exactly what he had to do. Physically. He had no idea what to do inside his head, what to think, what to feel. Just … cold. He hadn't thought anything.

Just two words: Of course.

That was the only thing he had thought, and even that had disappeared in an instant.

She smiled at him. "You figured it out soon enough."

He shook his head. "No, I didn't. I took too long." I killed him. I needed him.

She held out her arms, absurdly puffy sleeves making her look like some kind of ghost. "I'm fine, see? A little starved-looking, but fine!"

"You should never have been taken in the first place." He hadn't meant to say that. He never wanted to admit that out loud – he never aired his failures.

"And my parents should never have died of cholera," she said, and shrugged. "Too bad."

He stared at her. He could never talk about his mother and father so casually; for him, they were a secret part of himself, an influence that had molded him into who he was, and as such something to be guarded with his life. But then perhaps he had cared more, in his way, for his parents than she had … it was an odd concept, because to him she cared for everybody more than he did, but it was the only explanation he could find.

It won't happen again, he wanted to say, but he couldn't.

Don't make promises you can't keep, she would say, and smile, and something inside him would crack.

He knew that.

"I'm sorry," he said, and the words burned his throat. Too honest. He had trouble with words that were too real.

She waved a hand. "Don't be stupid, it wasn't your fault."

It was as simple as that. He knew she meant it, he knew she didn't care, and he couldn't swallow that. He sat down abruptly on the bed, a couple of feet from her, and the mattress sagged under his weight. Was it his fault? Yes. No. Misjudgment. Was he sorry? Yes. Why? Because it shouldn't have happened.

"I mean it," she said, and there was something worried in her voice.

"I know," he said.

It all came together, suddenly. He remembered days in a garden in Misselthwaite Manor, almost ten years ago. He remembered a night of screams. He remembered countless nights of silence. He remembered stories, rumours – the man's a murderer, like father like son, poor woman, stupid woman, defenseless, alone, sick, murderer – remembered hurt, remembered betrayal. How could she die? Remembered numbness. Remembered working (hard). Remembered forgetting.

Remembered not caring.

He wanted to smile, absurdly, almost nostalgically. It had been nice, not caring. Easy. It was so much harder to sit here next to this girl who was so much younger than him and know that he loved her.

He had wondered, not too long ago, how one knew. What was love? What was enough?

Nothing was. But he loved her anyway.

If she had given him another minute, he would have made his decision. If she had given him another minute, he would have realized that none of it mattered, that he really did care for her. If she had given him another minute, he would have leaned forward and touched her cheek, and she would have known. If she had given him another minute, he might have kissed her.

Might.

As it was, she kissed him.

It wasn't real, not quite; soft lips at the corner of his mouth, and he was so shocked that he was frozen. She pulled back immediately, and he wondered, for a confused second, if she was just a phantom, a pale ghost-girl in her white nightdress. He groped for words, and couldn't find any. His fingertips burned.

Blush on her cheeks, then, eyes averted. Words came to her easily enough. "I'm sorry – you just looked so sad – and I – I wanted you to – I'm sorry – "

He wanted to kiss her back, because it was what he wanted and suddenly it was what she seemed to want. But she was too far away, back pressed to the headboard of the bed and apologies pouring from her lips and he didn't want her to be sorry.

Impending doom indeed, he had thought more than a month ago. He thought it again.

She stopped mid-sentence, as he leaned forward. His arm felt weighted as he raised a hand – he wanted to touch her first, make sure she was real – and he thought his shoulder creaked. So slow, and her eyes were so wide, staring at his fingers as if he was about to hurt her.

Maybe he was.

Her cheek was soft against his fingertips, and warm to match the warmth in his hands. There was something unreal about the whole situation, he felt; his mind flashed from the dark of the library in the manor to the blood on his trenchcoat, from his first impression of her as a mild-mannered young woman to the girl who'd told him she'd tried to kick Saitou. Twice. To the girl who stared at him with wide eyes, blue and green and darker than both, right here with his hand touching her cheek.

She shifted forward, a little, and his weight made a slight indentation in the mattress that caused her to slip a little closer than she had probably intended. She didn't seem to mind. Neither did he. Something in him was terrified, wanting to run, and he didn't understand because he was the one who had reached out to her after all.

And then he no longer cared.

Warm breath against his lips, real and humid, and then she kissed him or he kissed her, he wasn't sure which – but it really didn't matter. She tasted of milk, of sandwiches, or rain and fruit and sweetness. Something foreign. He'd never kissed a Japanese girl before.

Arms, twining around his neck, fingers caught in his hair. Tingles of sensation in his scalp, along his neck. His hand was still on her cheek, he couldn't move it, couldn't bring his other hand up, and her mouth was sweet. Slight tang of salt. He felt something rising inside him, a smile perhaps. He didn't know. It hurt. He loved it.

Some part of him thought that it should have been frenzied, with her, harder and more assertive – or terribly, terribly uncertain, but this was neither of the two. So slow, hands in his hair, lips open and willing against his, and he felt like someone other than himself, outside of himself. This was not him. This was not his fate.

Inevitable, perhaps, but it didn't feel like the doom he had thought it to be.

When she pulled back, he didn't want her to go. His hand dropped to her shoulder, but he held on, more to reassure himself than to reassure her. She said, "Aoshi-sama?"

He wanted to say something meaningful. Something real. Instead he said, "I thought you weren't going to call me that."

She made a face. Her lips were wet; his eyes were fixed. "Oh, yeah. Forgot."

He waited for her to say 'Aoshi', but she didn't.

They looked at each other, and he felt again that words were needed, that something had to be established, considered. That they should think ahead. But she was smiling at him, ever so slightly, and he felt something flood him, something akin to relief.

Shifted his thumb, back and forth, and the material covering her arm crinkled beneath his hand. Her lips parted, and between them he caught a glimpse of what could be. His.

It was like standing at the brink of a deep well, too close to the edge. It felt like vertigo.

Maybe it was love.

"So, um – " she started, and then she stopped. Looked at him, and there was something dopey and giddy and happy on her face, and he was entranced. She smiled, widely, and she didn't say anything.

He felt like that man again, the man who was not him, the man whose fate was not his, the man who got to touch her and kiss her, the man who wasn't condemned to a lifestyle he actually chose. And whoever that man was, he was happy to share his fate. For a while. For now.

For longer than now.

He wasn't sure, but he might have smiled back.


Author Notes: Another chapter after this, maybe two. Perhaps an interlude-that-isn't. After being so annoyed by this story hanging over my head, I'm finding myself strangely reluctant to finish it up. Huh.