No Perfect Ending

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For Nezuko, who asked.

Like (almost) everything else I write, this is based on my own personal canon…in this case it's about a year or so in the future of Moonlight on Masks, sometime after my story "Sanctuary."

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And if it's over,
Just remember what I told you,
It was bound to happen so just...
Keep moving on,
There are no perfect endings,
No perfect endings.

- Straylight Run, "The Perfect Ending"

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It was never supposed to end like this.

When it did end, as Yuugao had always known it would, it should have been in a sweep of fire and steel, with the last of her lightning jutsu shattering the sky and Ryouma's vicious ninjutsu turning earth to blood. It should have ended with Hayate standing, last of all of them—because he was the best of all of them, and because they never would have let him fall while they were still breathing to prevent it. She knew Shou and Ryouma had their own reasons, and maybe they were as simple as the single word taichou, but hers were far more complex. There was love, and pride, and the unbearable prospect of loneliness, and the certain knowledge that in many ways Hayate was stronger than she. That he was a real person, whole and complete, and that without him, Yuugao…wasn't.

She knew she wasn't, because if she had been the kind of women all the others were, the kind of woman her mother had been and had wanted her to be, she would have flung her sword away and fallen sobbing to his side as soon as she'd seen him writhing on his stomach, retching up blood while Shou tried desperately to hold him still. She wouldn't have flung him one horrified glance and then leapt to join Ryouma in murdering the renegade Iwa medic-nin who'd cast that jutsu.

And when the last of their enemies lay disintegrating into the leaf-mould, and the pain of her broken arm thrust itself forcibly into her attention again, she shouldn't have lagged behind Ryouma as he dashed back to the clearing where Hayate might be lying dead. She should at least have followed Ryouma's example, when he caught sight of Shou elbow-deep in blood and worse things, and turned aside to tip his mask back and empty his stomach at the base of a nearby tree. She should have managed tears.

Instead she hesitated a moment, and then knelt in the puddle of blood beside Shou as carefully as if she were kneeling at a formal tea ceremony. She reached out to brush the gloved fingers of her working arm over Hayate's chest, and couldn't manage it. She couldn't breathe either, but that didn't seem nearly as important.

Ryouma came up, wiping his mouth on the back of his hand, dark eyes fixed in horrible fascination on the blazing green chakra that surrounded Shou's hands and pumped into Hayate's chest. "He's—is he—?" he asked, and couldn't finish it.

"Don't know," Shou snarled, in a voice so unlike his usual mild tones that Yuugao almost didn't recognize it. "It's something like that Naizou Youka jutsu you've got—his lungs are dissolving—"

"I used that one just now," Ryouma said, flatly. Then he dropped to his knees and was sick again.

Yuugao found her breath at last. "It didn't hit him full on," she said. Her voice was as empty as her heart seemed to be. "His right shoulder's blistered."

"And that's the only reason he's not dead yet. Dammit!" The green chakra flickered, intensified. Hayate spasmed again, retching, and the dark blood flooded over his chin. Shou cried in despair, "I can't even stop it! Just slow it down—at this rate, his lungs'll be jelly in two hours."

"If he lasts that long," Yuugao said, very quietly. Somehow she'd found her feet without realizing it. She was distantly aware that she should be sobbing, wailing, kissing his bloody lips or pounding at Shou's useless hands, but she knew she'd never been able to do what she should. Only what she could, and now what she could do might be Hayate's only hope…

"Keep him alive," she ordered in a voice like freezing water, and then she was gone.

She had always been fast. But while she had run for pleasure often, and occasionally run for her life or another's, she had never run against anyone's death. She had never run knowing that every step meant one less heartbeat, one less gasping half-breath, one less shred of hope. She had often pushed herself to her limits, but she had never forced her body to forget them.

They had taken six hours, moving at a steady mile-eating pace, to cover the distance from Konoha to the little rebel camp where they'd ambushed and been ambushed in turn. Yuugao saw Konoha's walls rising before her in less than fifty minutes. Her chest burned and her lungs seared and her broken arm stabbed with a pain beyond words, but somehow she managed to report in a clear, cold voice that seemed to bear no relation to the words her tongue shaped. Somehow her legs didn't give out beneath her as the medics snatched up their bags and scrambled through the doors she'd just entered.

She watched them go, and she knew that she should have followed them.

She left the hospital instead. Her legs still trembled, and her sides still ached, and her eyes burned so that it was difficult to see where her feet took her. It was no great problem; she would have known the path blindfolded. She knelt in the short grass before the Heroes' Stone, and even if she'd been able to use her right arm she couldn't have found the energy to clap her hands together in prayer. She leaned her forehead against the cold stone and begged silently, Don't take him yet. I need him. I cannot be whole without him.

When the first tears slid down her cheeks, she let them come.