Secondary Intent


"When the Japanese mend broken objects they aggrandize the damage by filling the cracks with gold, because they believe that when something's suffered damage and has a history it becomes more beautiful."
–Barbara Bloom


"Chidori. You did not check to see who was at the door."

It's the first thing he says, standing just behind your doorway; it doesn't surprise you, not terribly—not the words, not the thick disapproval behind the deep voice. He never got very good at all the little niceties. He's stupefyingly correct, if not necessarily polite… but there's something brisk and jagged about it, without the rhythm of hello, good morning, how are you, I'm fine. You spent awhile wondering if he ever even tried to understand—before you realised: you couldn't teach a man without rhythm how to dance a social tango.

But then, it's been close to four years since you last saw him, after all, and you've no doubt he's managed to lose any and all social graces he might have acquired in the year he walked at your side.

You're sure he doesn't know that you open the door without care and without thinking out of defiance. It wouldn't matter to him even if he did know, though. You doubt Sagara Sousuke differentiates between carelessness from cluelessness, or carelessness for the simple sake of being careless. Because you can afford to be careless, these days. "Nice to see you, too, Sousuke," you mutter, dryly.

Much to your surprise, you mean the pleasantry. There's something oddly familiar about seeing him standing in front of your door, wearing his military fatigues with such stiffness that he makes them look uncomfortable, wearing his skin with such unconscious grace. He's not seventeen anymore, but you wonder when that will begin to show—he wasn't really seventeen back then, either.

He's no taller than he was the last time he walked out your door, but maybe he's a bit broader around the shoulders, or a bit older around the eyes. His hair is longer, or at least long enough to tie back, a few shorter, drifting strands curving diffidently against his chin in the thick summer humidity—but if you know him, you're pretty sure that style had nothing to do with it. It suits him—it looks a bit more mature, actually—but he was probably just too busy to cut it. Or, rather, hack away at it with a sharp knife until it no longer fell around his face.

The time since you've seen him, and the silence, stretch like toffee, clinging; he never called, or wrote, after he said his goodbyes to you. With anyone else, their eyes on yours and yours on theirs, there would have been fidgeting, or apologies, or quips of "Aren't you going to invite me in?" or "Like what you see?"

You have to admit—you kind of like the hair.

Though—and you have a hard time squashing down the unexpected smile, at the thought—you really will kill him if you find out that he came to you for another haircut.

With Sousuke, it's not patience, or even his famous discipline; he will let you stand and stare at him for as long as you like, and not even consider it the least bit odd. In all truth, there's no need for such games—you can examine your fill of him from the inside of your apartment as much as from the outside. Unless, of course, you want to tell him to go away. The bastard didn't call, didn't write—he simply shows up at your door one day, for no reason whatsoever.

But then, he never said that he would call, and in all truth, once your tears were dry on your pillow, you realised that you probably would never see Sagara Sousuke again.

After all, you were the one who asked him to leave.

I've got to be normal, Sousuke.

"You might as well come in," you tell him, finally—a concession to your stubbornness, and his own. "It's hot outside, and you're wasting the air-conditioning. Electricity's expensive, you know."

It's instinctual, these days, but you always open the door with your right hand, walking with it as it swings, rather than simply standing vulnerable in the doorway. He notes it—you watch his eyes trailing you—but the tiniest hint of approval curves his lips. Oh, he would approve, wouldn't he—after what happened, you picked up this particular little quirk from him. Defiance doesn't mean stupidity in your book. "I will not bother you for long," he promises, stepping in, the briefest bob of his head the tiniest concession to Japanese courtesies. You feel the briefest snag of your own disappointment before you slap down on the sensation.

But there's something oddly refreshing about scolding him into taking off his steel-toed boots, and finding out that Sousuke's black socks are printed with small grey cats. You rather like sitting him down cross-legged at your coffee table, and bullying him into accepting something to drink.

Then there's the silence again, him gulping down half his glass of iced tea—so he was thirsty, after all—as you toy with the condensation on yours, and study him. His hair's not actually as long as you originally thought—just barely long enough that it can be held back by an incongruous, bright pink elastic—but the pattern of growth confirms your suspicions. Despite the way it looks so sleek, pulled back around his face, from the back it's longer at the centre, tapering and shallow at the sides of the small, undignified bob. The idiot probably hasn't had a haircut in at least a year, and it's a good thing that he barely needs to shave. Finally, he looks up at you. "The Captain sends her regards. And the crew of the Danaan… they say congratulations on your graduation."

You smile, ruefully, at that—they're thoughtful in odd ways, for all that they spend so much of their time puttering around underneath the ocean's surface. And of course they would send him; the last time you were on the ship, there was more than one dreamy little comment and little nudge—more than one that almost knocked you off-balance; most of them have no idea how strong they actually are—about just how cute you and he were together. The fact that he wouldn't come of his own volition… that doesn't have the power to hurt you anymore. Does it? "Thank you," you nod, gravely. "Are you staying in Tokyo long?" What are you doing in my apartment? And am I asking you, or myself?

It's a small question, but it's reaching out, long after you swore you couldn't do that anymore. Not with him.

After what happened… you just had to believe that you could be normal again. It was a decision that you made in the hospital, all the harder for the fact that Melissa had just told you that it had been two days since Sousuke had slept. You don't remember any of it, of course—Melissa informed you afterwards, when you were confused about how many days had passed, that you had some kind of freak adverse reaction to the general anaesthetic. You lost two days to sleep and dream and drugs. In the meantime, Sousuke, it seems, pulled a gun on the nurse who tried to get him to leave your bedside. And then managed to subdue the security forces that said nurse called on his idiot head when she thought he'd fallen asleep.

You told yourself—and you told Sousuke—that the biggest barrier to returning to an ordinary life was just… everything that came with his presence. The explosions, the hypervigilance, the hair-trigger reflexes, always having to cover up for his mess… the fact that he followed you everywhere and his attempts at being discreet were almost more distracting than when he was just being himself. Hurtful, perhaps… but it was mostly true. You assured him that you didn't blame him for the events that had befallen you, but… you simply couldn't have him around you any longer. You simply couldn't be around him any longer.

You still don't think that he believed you—no little because he blamed himself.

Sousuke refused, or tried. He promised to try harder to work within the boundaries of ordinary society. He would protect you with nothing but a knife, if need be. He swore that it would be easier, not more difficult, to guard you in the more diffuse world of university. Even thinking about it, remembering him pacing in your foyer and raking a hand through his hair, finally looking up at you to ask, too quietly, "What can I do, then, Chidori?" still squeezes like guilt. It wasn't his fault you were kidnapped. And at the end of the day, it wasn't his fault that you sent him away.

Watching him finally walk out of your apartment, that very last time, his shoulders very straight, you could admit your own reasons to yourself: you couldn't, just couldn't, have the biggest crush ever on a seventeen-year-old soldier-boy bodyguard… and still be normal.

Asking him why he's in Tokyo is a small question—and you swore to yourself four years ago that you'd never reach a hand out to him again… but you were friends, first. Before everything—despite everything—you were friends first, and what you did to him…

Sousuke hesitates, before looking down at the glass between his hands. "No. I fly out tonight. Arbalest sustained extensive damage in the last mission, and until it is fixed, Mithril is assigning me to the new base." When you stare at him, at his cool, totally professional tone of voice, disappointment is too thick in your throat for you to reply. Maybe you thought, perhaps…

And then he blinks, too slowly. "Tokyo was on the way," he adds, in that random way he has, and the knot in your throat eases. "It is just… coincidence."

Oh. Well. Maybe the crew didn't send him, after all.

How he manages to stay in his profession when he's one of the most unconvincing liars you've ever met… but then again, Arm Slaves don't show their pilots' facial expressions.

"Coincidence." He doesn't so much as blush, but his eyes flicker; someone needs to teach him a few more believable excuses. "Of course. Well, if the base is as nice as Melida, that'll be good. At least you'll get to stay in one place for awhile," you concede, smoothing a hand over your lips to hide your startled, pleased little smile.

You know very well that you're over him, and in truth, he'd fit in so badly in the life you've built for yourself. But you're old enough now to understand that it probably wasn't just a crush. You've never forgotten what his rare smiles look like, or the way the grey of his eyes shifts with his mood, even when his face often doesn't. Maybe some of that is the adrenaline that was so much a part of that single year—the psychotherapist you went to, afterwards, told you that adrenaline heightens the formation of associated memories—but you remember, too, the way cherry petals looked so silly caught on his unruly mop of hair, and how the strands felt under your hands when you brushed the silky white teardrops away.

And how his fingers felt in your hair when he reached over to reciprocate.

Your mouth curves again with amusement, and you sip your tea to wash down the feeling of just how young you were—you spent quite awhile being quite an idiot about him, didn't you. Just about as long as he spent being an idiot over you.

When next you look up, you find him watching you, his eyes slightly narrowed, too intent. He's emptied his glass, you notice.

"Sousuke? Do you want another drink?" you offer, smiling.

"No." You roll your eyes, and sigh. Apparently, he's forgotten about 'no, thank you,' too. "You are favouring your left arm," he notes, quietly. "Is something wrong?"

Your smile fades.

Especially considering your job, you can get away with long-sleeved shirts in autumn and winter and spring, but long sleeves in a Tokyo summer is asking for heatstroke; what's more, it wasn't as if you were expecting any visitors. It's not as if Sousuke doesn't know about it—but, well, you're used to keeping it hidden.

When you were both in high school, you'd probably have snapped, "No! Why would you think anything was wrong, stupid?" and pinned your arm to your side. It would have just convinced him all the more than something was wrong, come to think.

Instead, silently, you stretch it out towards him, resting your elbow on the table.

You always think you'll get used to the sight of it, and to some degree, you have. You no longer linger over it in the shower, wondering if you'll ever feel soapsuds on that skin again. But it doesn't change just how ugly it looks, with its rippled edges and the thick mass of strange ruddy flesh at its centre.

He reaches out and his fingertips graze your forearm, lightly—like you've seen him test an electric fence even when he knows the power is off. You shiver, a little, and he yanks his hand back. You can't help it—the contact doesn't hurt, but it's not often that you let anyone touch the bare skin of your left arm. It's even less often that anyone reaches out to touch it, after having seen it. "It should not still pain you after the surgery." He frowns. "You should have contacted us. Mithril has several medical specialists on retainer—"

"It's a scar, Sousuke," you end up snapping at him anyway, and yanking your arm back down to your side after all. "It's a freaking big scar. God! How blind are you, anyway?"

Besides, it wasn't as if he left you a way to contact him.

But you feel a little guilty for yelling, after he cared enough to notice. The truth is, your arm does ache a little, and it still gets tired more quickly than your right—but that's just because you were playing tennis the day before with some of the other interns. And finally, one of them summoned up the courage to ask what happened to you. It's not his fault you're feeling a little sharp-edged about it today.

Both his eyebrows arch, slightly, and his chin tilts upwards. "I am aware that it is a scar. Regardless, it should not hurt." His eyes narrow with thought; you almost forgot how that looks like, how his gaze is gunmetal when it's this engaged. "I was told that you would have the best follow-up care at Tokyo Central, but…"

But you can see that he still doesn't understand just how it hurts sometimes, and why. Of course he wouldn't—you've seen his own panoply of scars, scattered over his body like grass blades: small pale streaks, thick ropy cords, the clean lines on his face. You've never asked for the stories behind them, because that would be rude, and invasive, and despite all you went through together, he was always so private.

Besides, you know some of the stories already. A little white slit just under his ribs was a piece of AS shrapnel from the cockpit of the Savage he was piloting, the very first time he rescued you. A puckered circle on his shoulder was a bullet that missed his lung but got caught on his scapula, when he shoved you out of the way of its path. A fingerlength line, buried now underneath the sleek, long line of his hair, streamed blood down the side of his face in a thick sheet and soaked his collar into a thick, sagging mass of rusty brown, but he insisted that the medic see to you, first.

You're not sure you want to hear the rest. Other boys have bike accidents. Sousuke gets hit by friendly fire.

And, being Sousuke, you doubt he even remembers the first scar he got—much less the ones that came after it.

The thought of that, though, is a little humbling.

You sigh, deeply, and swallow—you don't deserve the rush of anger and guilt, the strange fear and stranger shame, any more than he deserves it from you. "No, Sousuke. It healed just fine. I just… I just don't like having any scars, that's all." Much less one that literally stretches your handspan, almost from your elbow to your wrist. It's worse on the inside of your forearm than the outside, ragged-edged and purplish, thicker than a finger; the mark on the outside of your arm is just a dimpled white line, and even most of that is from the surgery that they had to do to give you back full use of your hand.

"Everyone has scars, Chidori," he replies, sounding serious, maybe even a little puzzled. "They are simply a part of life."

It would have been profound from any other person—but not from someone who means it very literally. "That's what I'm trying to say, Sousuke. Not everyone has scars. Maybe in your… in your line of work, they do." Hence the reason why he's so utterly clueless. "Of course you have scars. You've almost been killed more times than I can count."

"I doubt that. I'm certain you can count fairly high." He says it kindly, and you squeeze your eyes shut—but to tell the truth, you're not sure if it's with exasperation or silent amusement. There's always been something a bit jarring about the way he holds a conversation, even when he manages to filter away the random bits of military jargon, and you've talked to him more than most.

"That's what I mean." You shake your head in almost violent negation—he always could make you lose your temper. You're… you fight. You bleed. It's what you do. "I didn't… I didn't ask for… for all this. Not the way you do. You know?"

It's true enough, but you realise that with the words hanging in the air like that, it sounds silly and childish. The life, the profession he's in, chose him, in a way. You know very well that the world isn't fair. You know all-too-well just how much he's bled for you.

Then he turns his face away from you, and it almost knocks you down. You're more than just a little shocked, actually: Sousuke has done a lot of things in his twenty-odd years, and it has been four years since you last saw him… but turning away just isn't something that he does. You used to almost think it was creepy, how he stared, how direct his gaze was in a society that doesn't really look.

Except now that he's not looking, it hurts in a way you didn't think anyone could hurt you anymore, after Sousuke left, after you got Yuutarou's voicemail for the hundredth time, after you realised that crying into a pillow with makeup on would leave thick black stains that would probably never wash away.

You were never sure if Sousuke saw you, but at least he never looked away.

But despite the fact that he's facing away from you, his gaze is still as the sky and still linked with yours, rippled only with the thoughts moving behind them. Perhaps that's what stills the tears that try, and fail, to jump into your eyes, because you don't cry in front of other people—not when you can help it. Then he raises a hand, and flicks a thumb over the fine, clean line of his own jaw.

"I was eleven when a man and his brothers held me down and cut me with his belt-knife," he tells you, quietly. You jerk when you realise: perhaps he's turning towards you, not away, despite the sight of his profile, because the scar on his face is pale with time. You thought, once, that it looked like an old cross left by the roadside—bleached and curved, not-quite-straight. "Two cuts, for my two eyes. He thought I was looking at his daughter. People do not ask for scars, Chidori."

You don't ask him if he actually was looking at the man's daughter; in the past, you would have demanded it, revelled in his bewildered look. Somehow, today, it seems so petty. "Knife cuts… they don't scar, though. Not normally. Not if the knife is sharp, and the cuts are shallow…" You rub your arm unconsciously; you spent more time than you should have finding out about knives, and scars, inside and out.

"They do if gravel is rubbed into them, and you do not have clean water, or bandages," he replies, simply, as if the memory doesn't hurt.

You never thought about it Before (your life, you think sometimes, is divided into Befores and Afters) but in the After, you wondered why his scar was so straight, so clean-edged. When you find your voice again, you're surprised to hear it thick with his pain, rather than your own. He might not feel it for himself—but someone has to. "Oh, Sousuke. I'm sorry."

He shrugs. "It was many years ago." He cocks his head, and gives you a curious look. "What is wrong with scars? Kurz says that women find them… attractive."

Kurz, you think sourly, apparently still says a lot of things.

You have to admit, there was a time when you looked at Sousuke's own unique markings, and wondered about them—they're hard to miss, when his cheek is so smooth and hairless and tan. He doesn't wear them like they hurt, though. "Men don't," your voice emerges more bitter than you thought it would; you wish you could choke back those words.

The truth is, it's not that men care—it's that they notice, and they ask. What are you supposed to say—that you were kidnapped by a dangerous terrorist? That the man pinned you to the table like a butterfly, with a knife through your arm? That he avoided cutting anything major, at first, because that would dull some of the sensation, and he wanted the people coming to rescue you to hear you crying and begging? And when the pounded feet neared, and you heard Sousuke screaming your name with his voice smoke-raw, desperate, your torturer started to drag the knife downwards, through flesh and sinew and gunfire and tears—until you found out that it was actually possible to faint from pain?

Civilisation amazes you; the one time you tried to tell a boyfriend even a fraction of the truth—all you had to say was 'terrorist' and 'knife,' and you watched his face close down, shuttering him in the pretty, peaceful world that is everyday Tokyo, and bank workers under lifetime employment contracts, and going out drinking with his boss and never having to worry about getting his pocket picked. You doubt he cared that in doing so, he shuttered you out—that was probably the entire point.

It wasn't the first date; it wasn't the third, or the fourth, or even the tenth. When Yuutarou finally returned your calls, he only had one thing to say, pleadingly: "Kaname, sweet… why couldn't you just have lied to me?"

The truth is, you're tired of making up stories about tragic accidents while skiing or freak fragments of glass in car crashes. One incident shouldn't change you—in truth, it didn't change you, not the way so many seem to think. You tiptoed around danger for so long, unscathed. When the inevitable finally came, it was a shock… but it was, oddly, almost a relief. You've always been a practical sort—your luck could not have lasted forever, and if it hadn't been for Sousuke and his friends, you would have been dead or worse many times over before that. You understand that. You understand that you are fortunate to be alive, that your life was not traded for any of your friends, and that your arm is still just an arm.

There are worse things in the world, and you walked away from one.

But people, you've found, make assumptions about things that are damaged.

"I do not see why women would find them attractive, either," Sousuke agrees, jarring you out of your anger and your memories, much to your surprise. "Kurz says many things about women that I do not understand."

Sousuke doesn't intend to be funny—he doesn't intend to startle you out of your bitterness by being random. He really doesn't get that people often see scars on men as signs of heroism—all the sanitised romance of adventure and thrill, all within the safe confines of a safe society. It's different for you, when your story jars them out of thinking that there's an immeasurable distance between their lives and true horror. You remind yourself of that, but the smile still creeps shyly onto your face, as if unsure of its welcome. "That's 'cause you're fun to tease. How is he? Is he still perverted?"

It's true, Sousuke doesn't understand women—he doesn't really understand people, most of the time. But he was the one holding your good hand when you awoke from your drug-induced coma after two days; he was the one who, all-unexpected, choked off halfway through telling you how brave you are, when you opened your eyes.

"I do not think that Mao would allow it." The tone of his voice, to your shock and delight, sounds decidedly stern. "She once gave him a very, um, explicit description of what she would do to him if she ever found him cheating." He pauses, and cocks his head. "I do not think it was anatomically possible, though."

Your jaw drops, and you squeal with delight—he barks his knee against the table in his haste to whirl towards the window, gun already up and at the ready.

Some things don't change. If someone twisted your arm into a knot, perhaps you'd admit that you've always liked to watch him move: Sousuke in motion is a warrior to the bone. His skills might be misplaced, but they're real, and maybe even kind of sexy—but it's just so rare that you ever got the chance to watch him without something being ridiculously misunderstood, or horribly wrong. There never was a middle ground, was there?

Still, you laugh, a little—his reflexes are so familiar, and you understand them a little better, now. Even though you still think they're unnecessary. And even though you still can't figure out where that pistol's coming from. "Sit down, Sousuke. I was just surprised, that's all. Melissa and Kurz… well!" But when he finally sinks back down, the look on his face, had it been anyone else, would have resembled him sucking on a lemon, puckered and tight. Much to your own surprise, you find yourself grinning. You could have sworn that just a second ago, you were willing to gnaw on the world. "You don't like that they're dating? I think it's great—and kind of sweet." If only because you're sure, if nothing else, that she can keep him in line.

His answer is confident and immediate. "It is none of my business."

You roll your eyes. "I asked you what you thought, doofus."

He eyes you with a hint of suspicion before the corners of his mouth droop, slightly, and his eyebrows tuck together. "She is his commanding officer. It is very unprofessional." Sousuke, it seems, still has all the romance of a ringworm. "In addition, it makes sharing quarters during missions… very difficult."

You've got your head down on your hands and you're laughing before you even realise that you've started. Both Kurz and Melissa always were shameless… and you can only imagine the pleasure they take out of teasing Straight-Edge Sagara.

"Chidori?" his voice is a little hesitant, but… not displeased. Puzzled, maybe. You are, after all, practically having hysterics on your coffee table. He wasn't blessed, or cursed, with an imagination, and he wouldn't understand, of course, but oh! The image of Sousuke completely buried in a bedroll, his fingers stuck in his ears to supplement the industrial-grade earplugs… with Kurz and Melissa making entirely too much—and entirely too fictional—noise outside it… it's precious. It's not as if you think Sousuke would be able to tell the difference… and you figure that Kurz and Melissa could probably fake the proper sounds credibly enough anyway.

On second thoughts, though… they probably wouldn't bother faking.

Ewww. Uck. Actually, now you see his point.

"Keep a spritz bottle of cold water around?" you suggest, mischievously, your chin on your hands as you catch your breath. "That's what folk do when cats get out of hand…"

"Hmmm." He taps a finger on the table, thoughtfully, and nods. "I had considered a stun grenade…" oh, Sousuke "…but it seemed inadvisable against my commanding officer. I will take that under consideration. Thank you, Chidori."

If they're going to tease Sousuke about being so serious, after all, you can certainly take advantage of that seriousness to let him get some of his own back. There's no way you're going to stand for letting his team members pick on him—you're the only one allowed to do that.

Well… you grimace, a little. You were the only one allowed to do that.

"But that is not important. What is wrong with your arm, if it does not hurt?" He never was as easily distracted as you were. But then, a peregrine falcon mid-dive is more easily distracted than Sousuke, sometimes. "Here. Let me see."

The hint of worry in his voice and the softness in his eyes squishes down on the hair-trigger desire to snap at him and demand when, exactly, he became better at treating wounds than getting them.

Sometimes you put your arm on the table in front of you, scar bare, just to prove to yourself that there will be no more knives coming to pierce it through; now is one of those times. If you stare at it for too long, though, the scar fades—instead, you can still see the flash of silver, the scarlet, the wide grinning eyes with pinprick pupils and flickering nystagmic irises. Your hand jerks into a fist, and the tendons lump the very end of the malformed tissue into mounds. "It's just… it's knowing…" even in front of the one person in this world who won't pull away, your voice sounds choked, and it struggles in your throat until you force it out, "…that the bastard who gave this to me could still be alive, and out there…"

This time, you don't move when he raises his hand again and slides it onto the table, gradually, as if to avoid startling you.

You can barely feel anything on the scar itself, but the skin around it is oddly sensitive, when you avoid contact with it so often. Your sigh comes slowly, fist relaxing when he reaches out and traces a fingertip over the raised tendons of your wrist—when his finger ventures lower, around the puckered edges, the too-smooth centre, the tiny little dots where they put in screws—the odd intimacy of it catches your breath. He's not even bothering to pretend that he's doing any sort of medical examination, when his thumb finally comes to a rest over the crook of your elbow, and you wouldn't have believed it if he had, anyway.

This Sousuke is a stranger, or he should be, after four years—but violence and war and terrorism haven't changed him. He's still thoughtful, in his own strange way. He's still utterly clueless. Just as importantly, though, he doesn't expect it to have changed you.

"No," Sousuke's crisp voice is almost kind, slow and lilting, when he takes his gaze off your arm. "He's not."

Your head snaps upwards in shock, every muscle in your body throbbing once, and you open your mouth, automatically, to ask—to clarify, to believe. Are you sure? How? Who?

Then you close it again.

He wouldn't have said it if he didn't know for sure—one of the things that you grudgingly admired about him is that Sagara Sousuke doesn't give false hope.

And as to the how, and the who… not all that long ago, you realised that virtually no-one who knew exactly what you'd lived through, found out exactly what you were and are, would ever be able to see you as a normal girl ever again. You've since discovered that you know yourself better than that, you know yourself better than them, and damn the eyes of anyone who thinks differently.

You're certainly normal enough to be sure you don't want to hear Sousuke give you those details. He would tell you exactly who dealt the finishing blow to the bastard who stole your Befores from you. He'd describe every single facet of the situation to you—the calibre of the gun's bullet, the make of the knife, the gauge of the garrotte wire, the year the AS came off the production line—and he probably wouldn't think twice about it, at least until you start turning green around the edges. But there's innocence in your old friend, still, that you don't want him to lose. Not after all he's lost, not after all he's never had.

Besides, there's something in his eyes that holds the answer to the question you didn't speak, and you don't dare look away, even when his hand rises from your skin and falls back to his side. It's not shame, you think, but an awful gentleness.

"Oh. Well, then. You could have told me, you know," you grump, and that sounds normal, if a bit shaky—it sounds right. It doesn't sound much like the Kaname who existed before she ever met him, but it sounds distinctly like the girl who is the top intern at one of Tokyo's premier law firms, and is known for being able to react, and find a solution, even under the most stressful circumstances.

They have no idea just what stressful circumstances actually are.

"That is why I am here," he replies, simply.

Is that what the past four years have been about? "You didn't need an excuse to come see me, you know," you retort. Still, it's… sweet, kind of. Scary, but sweet. Well, if you like the thought of boys hunting down criminally insane international terrorists for your sake.

He opens his mouth—then closes it, and frowns. "Chidori, you requested that I leave you be. I did so." Well, it wasn't exactly a request at the time, but let him believe what he will. "I believed it to be against your best interests, but I acceded to it, on the condition that you agreed to a security detail." Only because you found out his greatest weakness, entirely by accident.

It's almost too stereotypical for words, but it just makes total sense, somehow, that Sagara Sousuke, Arbalest pilot, Mithril sergeant and all-around military nut, wobbles like Jell-O in the face of a woman's tears.

You cross your arms and eye him loftily down the bridge of your nose. "And, you notice, no-one's hurt, maimed, kidnapped, or blown me up in the past four years. So either your security detail's done their job…" and you happen to like your new security: they really are all-but-invisible, and sometimes you wonder why Mithril didn't send them to begin with. "…or no-one's out to get me any longer. Besides, that still doesn't explain exactly what you're doing here, Sousuke."

But then you smile—despite it all, despite everything, he can still blush, and duck his head to try to hide his lack of reply.

Instead, he studies your arm with a critical eye and hand cupped just past your elbow—he's probably seen a lot of scarring in his time, you know. Still, it takes effort not to pull your hand off the table, tuck it back against your side like an injured wing. It's not just his gaze. Defiance only lasts so long, even yours, and there are still a few too many memories associated with the position of having that arm stretched out and vulnerable—but having Sousuke around still makes you feel… safe, in a way that the security detail never quite managed. Safe inside your own skin, maybe.

"It was a bad injury, but it seems to have healed well." You almost jump when he threads his fingers through yours—he's held your hand before, mostly in one running-from-doom situation or another, but you forgot about how hard and coarse his calluses are. You've had boyfriends complain that softball has made your hands rough, but you doubt Sousuke would even notice. You forgot about how warm his skin could be, and his palms are moist from the glass of iced tea. "Grip my hand."

You know he doesn't mean anything by it. You had people asking you to do variations on this very thing all throughout your physical therapy, after all. But it's Sousuke, and he's the first boy you ever loved; you asked him to walk out of your life and realised that it was possible to break your own heart, and now your hand is wrapped in his. The thought alternately makes you want to blush like a bride and bite down hard on something, you're so embarrassed by the fact that a standard PT check is making you tingle. He has a gift for that, you think.

You grip down on his hand as hard as you can, and watch with some satisfaction as his grey eyes widen a little. It's almost as satisfying as thumping him with a harisen. You once made a particularly annoying physical therapist choke with this particular test. 'Never going to regain full strength' indeed.

"Well," he admits, grudgingly, "Your grip is… passable."

You humph, and almost challenge him to do better, but manage to clobber down that particular impulse. He'd do it, too. And not for anything… you do work at a law firm, after all, and you know that there are things that you can win, and things you can't win. Unless you're willing to drop your blouse or flash some panty or something—and you have a reputation for being competitive, but no—arm wrestling with a certain paramilitary man is probably not a challenge you want to attempt. You prefer to win, after all.

"It's just so ugly," you murmur, staring down at your arm. Even on its side, rather than lying open and bare, it's impossible to miss the thick, purplish band of tissue, its nubby edges, the patches of white striae surrounding it. Next to it, his own forearm is tanned darker, and his own scars seem white and small and insignificant against the long ripples of muscle whenever he so much as shifts his position.

"Yes," he replies, not unkindly. "But it did not break you. You are normal, Chidori."

Actually… you're not.

Oh, you're definitely well-adjusted, even despite your unconventional upbringing and all that happened in your childhood. You might be a bit quirky, and you've got just a little hint of a temper, but those are things that have always been a part of you. And after he left, you did try for perfectly normal—you really did try—before realising two things.

One is that being perfectly normal is incredibly boring, and you weren't meant for boring.

Two… what you lived through? It would have broken a normal girl.

And as Sousuke says… you're not broken.

But he couldn't possibly know that, what with his tangential relationship with normalcy as a whole. He means well, and he thinks it's what you want to hear—it's what you told him you wanted. More importantly, even from the vantage point of four years down the road, he still remembers what you told him you wanted to hear.

You smile, and don't let go of his hand, or perhaps he doesn't let go of yours.

By the time he has to leave, dusk is starting to fade over your building, and the shadows of your laundry are long across the balcony. Before he stands up from the table, though, he opens his kit and picks out a long, narrow package, wrapped in plain brown paper with painfully neat corners and perfectly straight seams. "This is… a graduation gift, from… from all of us."

The fact that he's mumbling makes you wonder just how much plural there actually is in that statement. But you're feeling good enough about the world in general that you decide—this once—not to call him on it. He's brought you a present, after all, and you hold the heavy package carefully, weighing forgiveness against the years of silence.

Forgiveness wins, but you already knew it would.

Besides, being around him has taught you the value of storing up ammunition, as it were.

You see him to the door, and watch his puzzled blink when you nudge his boot with your bare foot and declare, "Hey. Sousuke. Don't wait four years to come see me again, you hear?"

He cocks his head, birdlike, silent—but you can see thoughts, and maybe something like an old hurt healing, moving behind his eyes. Maybe someone taught him that discretion is the better part of valour, because he replies, stiffly, "If you like, Chidori," rather than reminding you again that you were the one who told him to leave you.

After he's gone, you spend a little time wondering why your apartment feels so empty—after all, it's not as if Sagara Sousuke takes up any room at all. Puttering around doesn't fill up the space, not when your eyes keep wandering to the neatly wrapped little package on your coffee table. It's more likely than not a gun, a taser, or some sort of weird defensive weapon. Perhaps a kitchen knife. You wouldn't mind a new kitchen knife, honestly. Once upon a time, at sixteen or seventeen, you'd have expected something deliciously romantic—but you realise now that everyone really is stupid at sixteen or seventeen.

Still, your graduation is already past, and you never have been good at waiting.

The package is very neatly wrapped. However, after you find yourself having to extract your gift from its wrapping through the judicious use of a pair of pliers and your sharpest kitchen knife, you're more certain than ever that the rest of Mithril probably didn't have much to say about the arrangements.

It contains a narrow black lacquered box with an upper latch and a lower—or at least, it was smooth, shining lacquer once upon a time. Perhaps it cracked, or perhaps someone cracked the enamel on purpose—if they did, they were remarkably effective at it. Its glittering surface is a demented confusion of fractures and lines and splinters; when you turn it over in your hands, even the bottom has a single, jagged longitudinal split running from corner to corner.

But every fracture and line and splinter has been filled with streams of gold and mother-of-pearl, indelible against the black, until the damage itself is more stunning than the gleaming remnants of smooth lacquer. And when you cautiously flip open a latch and peek into the top compartment, you blink in surprise… and gently extract a single black bangle, as thick as your thumb, crazed with the same patchwork pattern of dazzling beauty.

Looking down at it, you wonder if perhaps Sousuke doesn't understand better than you thought he did. Or perhaps better than he could express.

Maybe the four years did change him, a little, after all.

You don't open the box's bottom compartment, though. From its weight and its heft, you have a horrible, horrible suspicion about what's inside… and while you appreciate the gesture, you're not actually bloodthirsty enough to want to see the knife that gave you your scar. Sousuke… you are still a very dumb bunny.

At least it's a very nice box.

The last thing inside the top compartment is a slip of paper and a phone number—or at least, the first thing you think is that it's a phone number, though it seems to have far too many digits. After all, if you contact him, then he's still acceding to your wishes rather than defying them, right?

It seems a little too devious for Sousuke, of all people, to offer you a loophole out of your own stubborn pride, though. The Sousuke you remember is a walking Arm Slave in a department store; what passes for delicacy, for him, is still pretty disastrous. A search of the Internet is uninformative and uninspiring: it informs you that there is no such phone system, no such area code, and no such string of numbers could possibly be a contact number.

But it rings all the same when you plug the numbers carefully into your cellphone and bring it back up to your ear.

That crisp, familiar voice demands, "Sagara here. Chidori, what is wrong?"

You're perfectly aware that your voice is dangerous when you demand, "Did you leave me this number just for emergencies, Sousuke?"

He pauses for long enough that you don't bother to stifle your satisfied smile. He can't see you, after all—you made darned sure that he was never alone in your living room for long enough to install any little cameras or any such junk like that. He might have forgotten his social graces in the four years, but he hasn't forgotten what you sound like when you're tapping your foot and dreaming of his demise. "Um." He thinks a little more. "No?"

That, you decide, is the correct answer, and just as good as a carte blanche to call him again. "Then I just called to thank you for coming. And to say good night," you reply, pleasantly. "Good night, Sousuke!"

It'll take him awhile, you think—just as long as it doesn't take him too long.

After all, you're old enough now to understand that it probably wasn't just a crush.

"…oh." There's a long, puzzled silence, and his sweetly hesitant "Good night, Chidori," makes you grin before you hang up.

I wonder if he'd sleep under the bed, if I'd invited him to stay the night. The thought makes you giggle wildly, with no-one to hear you and no-one to care, hands over your mouth in embarrassment and delight. You find yourself picking up the landline to call Kyouko, for the first time in some time: it's going to be a long call, you suspect, and you've only got so many minutes left on your cellphone plan for the month. You can't tell her most of the details, of course, but her "Kana-chan, Sagara-san was THERE, and you didn't CALL me?!" leaves you pacifying her the rest of the night.

But with the phone cord tangled around your fingers and the light catching in wild cascades on the bangle bracelet on your scarred arm, you don't really mind.

Start: April 25, 2007
End: April 27, 2007

A/N: Darker story, longer author's notes… sorry! -sheepish-

Second person? Yes, second person. Where did it come from? Not a clue.

My auntie has a scar like Chidori's—hers, however, actually did come from a ski going through her arm (yes, through ) rather than from terrorists. Ironically, while I have few scars myself, this is the second story I've written that seems to involve them. Though the other was TeniPuri, and involved Shishido, so I guess it makes sense. -laugh- I got the idea when I was cruising through FicOnDemand, and saw a certain request. I then saw the Barbara Bloom quote, felt the breath catch in my throat, completely ignored the neuroanatomy slides I'm supposed to be studying, and sat down to write.

However, I am a silly duck, and didn't realise that the list of total requests and the list of open requests was not the same thing. Oops.

For anyone who cares--secondary intent refers to a method of healing. Healing by primary intent is when the edges of a clean wound are held together (for example, with stitches) and it is most likely to heal cleanly, and retain the most function. Healing by secondary intent is when the margins of a wound are too far apart, or the wound is too large, to hold the edges all the way together—scar tissue tends to fill the hole. It tends to be weaker than the original tissue (which is interesting in itself; we tend to think of flesh as being weak, but cells are pretty neat things) but it still serves the purpose of maintaining the necessary integrity. /randomness