Summary: And so we look at those who've had to stay.
Rating: R (because Kazuhiko says fuck twice? That's really it. Sorry).
Pairing(s): Ran/Gingetsu, [past]Kazuhiko/Oruha, [past/slight present]Kazuhiko/Gingetsu.
Type: One shot.
Disclaimer: You all know the jazz.
Suggested Listening: see playlist.

Notes: As mentioned in Scapula, Skin, Bottom of the Back, this is the not-quite-third installment in the What of the Three-Leaf verse, though I'd like to stress again that this is only one potential follow-up. I don't personally like to think that Ran ultimately dies, but I also can't stand the thought of doing nothing but avoid the (currently) inevitable, and so decided to try facing it head-on. I really think Gingetsu deserves the attention, and to be looked at with some dignity in a very difficult situation.

Important note: In another fic of mine which is still stuck in WIP-stage, I had to come up with full names for A, B, C (Ran), and Gingetsu: these were Zhou Ang, Zhou Bai, Zhou Cho (Ran), and Gingetsu Komaji. I'll be using the name Komaji here for the sake of completeness, though I am fully aware of the fact that it's not canon. Also important: I wrote What of the Three-Leaf in 2005 at the age of fifteen. I spent most of 2008 and the beginning of 2009 (18-19) writing this one. As such, I hope you notice a real discrepancy between the two in terms of writing style? (ie, I has improved, y/y?)

WARNING: Character death. Seriously. I don't want to scare people off, but the whole giant existential point of this fic is to examine what would happen to Gingetsu psychologically if Ran actually died like he's supposed to. So just, y'know. Be prepared, scouts.

-

Pigeons and Crumbs
- tenika

-

Gingetsu had always known that he would die in uniform.

He'd joined the military at eighteen; not out of desperation or an inability to push his life in any other direction, but because it had seemed like the only thing worth doing. He had been tall since childhood, intimidating, and gone prematurely white-haired by the time he was thirteen (sometimes he wondered if the power had just bleached the color out of him, like a waterlogged piece of paper, or an empty, shed scrap of skin). In a way he thought he had been made to fight, marked by these oddities, and he had supposed at the time that if this inevitable violence could be organized in a soldier's life, then it would be worth devoting himself to something as paradoxical as the service to keep it under his control.

He'd been the most involved with the Clover program at that particular age, just beginning to feel as though he fit all the corners of his skin at last, and only just beginning to believe that he really was weak enough to be released--on condition--from the cage they had held him in since his mother first turned him over at fourteen. He remembered for a long time after how the wizards had called him out on his birthday that year, put him in a chair framed by the circular lights of the council room, and said, "What do you want to do with yourself, Komaji-kun?"

It was in many ways hilarious that they had even bothered to ask, when it was so perfectly obvious that he wasn't going to have a choice in the matter. Not as far as they were concerned.

Kou-baasan, true to form, had pressed on into his immediate suspicions by asking, almost conversationally--as though the thoughts were just occurring to her, which might have actually fooled him if he was stupid-- "You might consider teaching. There is a chance you could enjoy that, and we've found openings at several local schools. Of course, you do understand why we'd prefer to have you stay in this city."

Of course.

"And if that doesn't appeal to you, there is always the military. You have the potential to fit well there, and we've been in need of an acceptable Warrant Officer sympathetic to the intricacies of our program."

It almost sounded flattering when she put it that way, though it was really just her luck that he'd already been considering service. Sometimes he thought the government hadn't quite known what it was getting into when it accepted him.

The wizards certainly hadn't. He could remember clearly the looks on their faces when he continued unfailingly to be promoted again and again; first delight and a smug, unpleasant self-satisfaction, then slowly surprise and awe, and finally, inevitably--it was always inevitable where the ends at last met--fear. Not terror, not when they knew they could still control him if they had to, but something more instinctual than that, something basic. He had never allowed himself to get attached to anything while he was directly enrolled in the program, and so had never seemed to have any real motives or purpose; it unnerved them to see him so thoroughly devote his life to something they had never sensed in him before. (Ran had been the only one who hadn't been surprised by his rank-climbing, though he had never stopped calling him Lieutenant. For a while that had been amusing.)

It helped immensely in his advancement that he liked the military. He liked the structure, the segmentation, the seriousness; the way he could see the reactions to his actions ripple out and pass expansively through the world around him if he paid close enough attention. He liked the thought that he might actually be helping his rotting country, liked it because he was at heart an irrevocable optimist, and because he loved his home and his people, even when they were so disfigured by the lingering effects of war and over-industrialization as to be unrecognizable. He liked knowing what he was going to wear every day, and the stiff severity of his uniform.

--he liked the way Ran had learned to pare him out of his jacket, how he had adapted so quickly from frog clasps to buttons, and how he would just sometimes stand at Gingetsu's side and press his face to the green fabric and breathe, liked the noise his skin had made against it--

And he remembered thinking, so many years ago now, how it wouldn't be so bad to die like this.

-

Gingetsu was twenty-eight when Ran died. He had no idea how old Ran really was when it happened because the three-leaf had never told him, but it didn't seem any more important now, after the fact, than it had in the beginning. He'd never wanted to know.

It happened the third day of the third month, the irony of which was far from lost on the two-leaf. At first the wizards had claimed that they would take care of it themselves; after all, Ran had been one of the last clovers still alive (Gingetsu thought now that he might be the final one, but he'd never been allowed to see any of the records, and went out of his way still to avoid even thinking of one-leafs, afraid of encountering another Oruha), which made this understandable, if not acceptable. Gingetsu politely threatened to defect if they so much as spoke of taking matters out of his hands again, which effectively put the last of their objections to bed. Of course it was insubordination, something he'd spend the next few weeks paying for in small ways, but they needed him too badly to turn him out over such a small issue.

For all they fought over it, there wasn't much of a ceremony in the end. Mostly this was because Gingetsu felt in good conscience that there couldn't be when Ran had never expressed a preference for any one religion; when, in fact, he could still remember clearly how Ran had once sat in the living room, in the dark, and laughed quietly at broadcasts of Catholic statements from Mexicano and Italia, then done the same thing later with other broadcasts of other faiths from other countries. (It had never failed to amaze Gingetsu how the three-leaf could bring, in his own way, every nation in the world right into their living room with a single thought.)

It seemed silly, then, to have him received in a shrine or church of any kind. He thought briefly of a military funeral, but only briefly, more a gasp of a possibility than something solid. How could he possibly give it any more consideration than that when Ran's life had been so unpleasantly affected by Gingetsu's work? It just wouldn't do.

So Gingetsu did the best he could. He made all the arrangements without help, got in contact with an undertaker, found an acceptable, plain casket and an acceptable, simple headstone (cremation wasn't an option; Ran hadn't left many instructions, but being buried properly had been prominent among the few. Gingetsu tried hard, later, not to remember the words--I will feel the earth on my skin just once, I think--because really, some things were just too much, too horrible, too infuriating), and finally walked out to the small, acceptably minimalist graveyard and watched as a short, silent man interred everything.

It was a long, blurred week in Gingetsu's mind, but he remembered wondering in a brief moment of lucidity whether he ought to slow down, ask for help. But the thought of stopping made him sick to his stomach when he tried to face it head on, until he simply put it out of his mind and focused on other matters. The thing was, he had momentum; enough to carry him through the torpor that threatened to drag at him in the rare hours he managed to sleep, that made him want to lie on his back and close his eyes and never stand, never look at anything again, because nothing was worth seeing. He had to work with what he had, and what he had was that sense of motion, and a purpose that kept him moving forward, long enough to at least see Ran properly honored.

Kazuhiko went with him, just as Gingetsu had gone to Oruha's funeral five years earlier. The differences between the two were startling: where the singer's had been colorful, this one had no decoration at all, save for the lilies Kazuhiko had brought; where hers had been well-attended by groups of fans and small collections of acquaintances, people who had loved her from a distance, Ran's was nearly lifeless. He had never had the opportunity to make friends like the one-leaf.

In hindsight, Gingetsu wondered if he ought to have brought someone home for him, or tried to encourage him to use some other form of communication to find friends, like the four-leaf had done--but how could that have worked? He hardly knew anyone himself, and their life together had been so slow on the outside, so gently silent. What would there have been for a stranger to make friends with?

Besides, he hadn't wanted to share Ran.

He had the headstone carved with the characters for Zi Ran, the Daoist principle. At first he was uncomfortable putting them there, but in the end it was all he could think of, and all that seemed right. Not because of the principle's philosophical implications, really...well, because of them, too, but more because it was the source of Ran's name. The concept was old, something he'd learned years before meeting Ran, but it had been the first thing to occur to him when he had seen the boy beginning to grow, to self-actualize and come into his own nature as he ultimately had.

The characters were quite unlike one another, but seemed overwhelmingly appropriate once he actually saw them carved into the dark stone, one ovular and striated, like a barrel, the other free-flowing and round. It was odd, he thought, how together they looked just a little like the kanji for everything under heaven.

The burial took place during a fortunate break in the weather. The sun, weak and barely yellow in this season, broke through the heavy clouds several times, painting the graveyard in drifting, dark shadows which passed, silent and massive, over the artificial grass. In the distance and to all sides Gingetsu remembered hearing leaves whispering, and being aware of the presence of a great many artificial trees, but all he really saw was the earth, and the sharp flash of the spade moving in and out of it. He couldn't focus his mind on anything else.

He wasn't sad. Not yet. Not in a way that he could really feel. He was more...empty, he supposed, and tired, and aware in a deep sense of something missing, of a fundamental and unforgettable absence. Something that would be inexcusable later, when sensation at last returned to the world, but which was at that moment simply a fact.

All he truly felt, staring motionlessly down at the ground and the grass and the disappearing surface of the polished casket, was exhaustion, and a pressure that he knew would be an ache long before it was a storm.

-

Kazuhiko moved in for two weeks. They both knew that is was temporary, and also completely and utterly appropriate. Necessary, even. Gingetsu hadn't asked him to come. He just showed up with a duffel bag one day after the service and settled himself on the couch.

If Gingetsu had known how, he might have tried to express his gratitude normally. But he didn't know, and so didn't try. He hadn't asked, after all.

And it helped. At first he was so far gone that he didn't even realize it, but it did. Kazuhiko kept him in line, on track. Every time he opened his mouth to call absentmindedly for Ran to come see something, it was Kazuhiko's presence that allowed him to shut it again. His refusal to look as desperate as he was slowly beginning to feel was what allowed him to focus all his attention on facing Kazuhiko normally, collectedly.

--he could remember Ran reading something once, some poetry--'there will be time, there will be time to prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet'--and that was a joke, there had never been time for Ran, not like Gingetsu wanted--

He tried not to think about much these days. Or he tried at first. Eventually he couldn't help but think, and that was when things really got bad.

Some mornings he woke up and didn't know where he was. It would take him whole minutes of lying still on his back for the memories to come to him, along with an overwhelming sense of helplessness and inevitability, as though he had just put down his final hand in a card game without knowing it would be the last, counting on having another chance to make one that was better.

Some mornings he woke up and felt almost normal; almost as though he was still eighteen, and just staying with one faceless roommate or another for some long-forgotten mission, the kind of thing that had once seemed so relevant and meaningful.

Then there were other morning, worse ones. He'd wake up drenched in the weak light of these dawns feeling completely empty, as though he'd had holes punched in him, and all the substance, the essence of him, had leaked out during the night into that grave. Like the only thing that had made him any good had been Ran.

And then, eventually, he just got used to it. Or at least to telling himself that he was used to it, and believing it by force and repetition.

But whether it was a lie or not, it wasn't easy. More, it was natural, and painful in the way of nature. And he did get used to it, slowly and angrily. He got used to avoiding the areas of the house Ran had liked, and leaving the cabinets of teapots and cups and tins alone, pristine, the last things Ran had touched. He got used to clenching his teeth in the night and waking up with headaches.

The feeling was still there, but a part of him now. Permanent, but bearable, as most regrets were.

-

Kazuhiko moved back out eventually. He was getting more private work now, steady stuff, mostly dissociated from the military, and eventually landed in a new apartment a bare ten minutes away from Gingetsu's house. The two-leaf pretended not to notice how convenient the placement was, just as Kazuhiko pretended he really was coming over once a week just to borrow a never-ending cup of sugar. He never ended up leaving with the damn thing, and somehow Gingetsu always forget to collect it in the first place.

Once it might have made him angry to think that he was being checked up on, like a teenager who had only just moved out on his own. In a way he supposed he was angry. But a larger part of him was grateful for the attention, and it was this larger part that kept him from shutting the door on the younger man more than once.

Not that they always got along.

-

"Are you sleeping enough?"

Kazuhiko was helping him wash dishes, long fingers invisible beneath a screen of thick white bubbles, his sleeves rolled sloppily above his elbows. Gingetsu had removed his glasses--it was a bad night, he couldn't concentrate, the energy needed to maintain the neural and optical links was more than he could afford, and more than anything they just hurt--and he was busy trying to look like he wasn't as uncomfortable as he truly was. His own hands were occupied with a damp terry cloth towel, and with the rinsed dishes Kazuhiko was handing him.

"Yes," he lied calmly, and immediately wished he'd worn the glasses anyway when he caught the way Kazuhiko's expression narrowed in his peripheral vision. It was hard enough to fool Kazuhiko while he was wearing them; it was downright impossible when he wasn't.

"Really," Kazuhiko said flatly. The radio was playing in the background, soft and indistinct, a subtle hiss and scratch. An old recording; probably Frankish. Gingetsu had no idea which of them had turned it on.

Keeping his face as blank as possible, the Colonel steadily wiped down another plate and did not answer, keeping his eyes away from his friend's. They gave him away, had for as long as he could remember. They were a liability, the second worst of his existence. The first was busy rotting beneath bright green artificial grass in a wet suburban graveyard, five miles distant and six feet under a headstone that didn't even carry his name, and a world away from anyplace where Gingetsu could reach him.

Of course he wasn't sleeping enough.

Kazuhiko sighed, handing him another dish without looking. Oddly enough, this reaction was somehow much more irritating than anything else he could have said, and Gingetsu, caught up in an irrational flush of emotion, almost dropped it. Fortunately he didn't, but his motions were stiff as he wiped it down, the latent heat from the water coming through the dishtowel to nudge at his hands. Doggedly he ignored the sensation, keeping his eyes fixed on his task.

Several quiet minutes dragged by, the radio shifting from one song to another to another. Gingetsu thought he recognized the most recent track, but couldn't be sure. He was beginning to find that he was sure of less and less these days, like everything that had defined him had been subtly shifted around and rearranged one night in his sleep; all the lines and edges felt different, were different, but in such minute ways that he could only notice the changes from the corners of his eyes.

"Gingetsu," Kazuhiko started to say, but then didn't seem to know quite where he wanted to go with the statement. A moment later he let out a short puff of air through his nose, discontented, and reached a hand beneath the suds to pull the plug out of the sink's bottom. It began to drain with a quiet rushing sound, the foam spinning steadily closer to the center, nearer and nearer to the tiny whirlpool forming in the lowering water.

Gingetsu knew what he wanted to say. He wanted to tell him to sleep and eat and take care of himself, that dying along with Ran wasn't an option, not when all the science and technological wonder of their time had yet to explain what exactly came after, whether the neurons just shut off and all those memories, those scraps of accumulated data, were snuffed out along with them, or whether it really was like the faithful said; an endless cycle of reincarnation before a greater spiritual sublimation, or bliss after death, or eternal damnation. He wanted to tell Gingetsu that he knew exactly how he felt; that he had lived, so why couldn't the example be followed?

He wanted to say, you knew. You've always known. There are no happy endings in life, Komaji; just a lot of restless spirits, and one fixed inevitability.

But all he said in the end was, "I'll put away the mugs, then."

Gingetsu couldn't respond. He nodded his acknowledgement instead and opened the door of the appropriate cupboard for him, though Kazuhiko had known where to put them for years.

-

Gingetsu kissed the inside of Ran's thigh softly, open-mouthed, and wondered what he'd been doing with his life before this point.

Above him Ran laughed, quiet and somnolent. He was spread--as much as his thin body could spread--across the sheets with his arms over his stomach, looking down. Gingetsu wrapped a hand around one white leg and closed his eyes.

"Gingetsu. You should sleep."

Gingetsu was quite aware of this. That awareness had yet to really move him, but he was always open to the possibility.

"Gingetsu."

"I don't want to sleep," he murmured, resting his cheek against the softness of that thigh and breathing in the smell of him. Sharp, like ozone. It wasn't at all unpleasant.

"Why?"

Because...

"Because then I'll have to wake up."

Gingetsu woke when he rolled out of bed, falling to the floor with a muffled thud. One of his blankets had come with him.

He spent a long, long moment simply lying there, staring at the darkness between his bed frame and the floor and trying to remember whether that had been a dream or a memory. Trying to decide if it was even important to know.

-

"You know, some of this lies with them too."

Kazuhiko was standing at the kitchen counter, a carafe in one hand. His other was reaching to silence a busily whistling kettle.

It took Gingetsu a few full seconds to piece together the meaning of this statement, and then another three to think reasonably of that meaning, to not simply erupt in disbelieving anger at the thought--the thought that--

"You're saying we should blame them?" He said it very quietly, very carefully, and knew Kazuhiko would read through to his exact tone. To his surprise, he found that his hands were trembling on the table before him.

Kazuhiko turned to frown over his shoulder at the Colonel for this. The carafe clattered when he set it down, softly. "No," the younger man replied, a bit shortly. "All I'm saying is they had a part. They all chose to get involved with us when they all knew they wouldn't be alive very long. They had to have known we'd have a hard time. It wouldn't be fair to blame them for making us miserable, but we can't idealize them either."

Unbidden, several conversations Gingetsu would rather have forgotten sprung to mind, moments in his life when Ran had all but overtly encouraged him to be prepared to move on. Conversations that were still much too painful to contemplate.

There were other things to contemplate here, fortunately. None of them were good, but anything was better than that.

Gingetsu swallowed his angry reaction carefully, picking at the handle of his empty mug to distract himself. He wasn't wearing his glasses again, and the world seemed suddenly much too bright, all the colors and bars of light that were usually reduced to meaningful, relevant code burning in his vision. It was one of his rare days off, and so he was sitting at coffee with Kazuhiko, still wearing his pager on layman slacks. One never did know.

It took him a long moment to formulate a calm response, and by the time he had the room was already full of the bitter, warm smell of coffee, and Kazuhiko was standing on his toes to grab a mug from one of the higher cabinets, casually avoiding all the other cabinets Gingetsu still refused to open, that Gingetsu took so much care to make certain he avoided. A cloud passing over the sun bit into the brightness of the room, but almost immediately passed, so that once again everything began to shine palely in that strange, early-morning thinness.

"I suppose so," Gingetsu allowed, watching the flex of muscles beneath Kazuhiko's own civilian clothing as he stretched. "But would you rather they'd carried on the way they were? That they'd never let themselves get involved in anyone's life?"

Gingetsu was actually surprised by the degree of irritation in Kazuhiko's gaze when the other man turn to look at him again; it was the kind of look that asked whether he was just being slow, or purposefully obtuse, or both. The kind that told him without syllables to stop working at missing the point. It had always been a very humbling look. And infuriating.

"No," Kazuhiko snapped, and filled his mug without looking, then stepped over to fill Gingetsu's. "But you know what I mean. They didn't have to get so involved. I'm not saying they were cruel, Gingetsu. Just a bit selfish."

Am I selfish, then?

Kazuhiko still didn't know about him, about the real reason it had been so important for Ran to stay inside with him. At times Gingetsu couldn't quite believe he'd forgotten about the tattoo he must have seen--more than once--on his wrist all those years ago, when it had been their relationship Gingetsu had been content to lose sleep over, but...well, that was Kazuhiko. Clever, but at times thick as the sky above the city. At times selectively so.

And it was at moments like this that Gingetsu questioned whether he even wanted to tell Kazuhiko, because for all the man had always been there, there were just some things he didn't understand. Some thing he didn't want to understand, and some things he couldn't. At this point it barely even mattered. It was one of the last secrets between them; the oldest, and the most comfortable, so long as he ignored moments like this.

-

It started to get hard to leave the house.

Gingetsu didn't really notice at first. His work had confined him to the indoors for nearly a week this time--a long, thoughtless job that really hadn't required his attention--and in the process he just got used to wandering the empty planes of this place that was his. It was easier to think of as his now. Easier since Ran, in fact, and now that Ran was no longer wandering those planes himself, the bricks and glass had once more reverted back to him. Not entirely--the house would always be a bit Ran's now, Gingetsu had no doubt about that--but enough to feel safe. Not quite comforting, but unthreatening. Most appealing was the fact that he didn't have to worry about his expression when he was alone, didn't have to constantly wonder if this day would be day he made a mistake, embarrassed himself.

After that he called in for another house job, because he had begun to rearrange his office near the end of the last one and didn't want to stop halfway through, and because there was just so little work to be done out at the base that couldn't be done at home, and because he didn't have the energy to control his face.

Two weeks later he went out at last, and upon reaching the base experienced the worst panic attack he'd had since he was six. He froze up for nearly forty minutes, only able to move stiffly from place to place, answering questions in monosyllables and sweating around the edges of his glasses. It was one of the worst events of his life.

It took him another few weeks to truly notice anything wrong, however. He had gone in to work a few times since that week, but had been overwhelmed each time by a suffocating anxiety that, while certainly not new to him, had never been this frequent before in his life. Though he hated to admit it, it frightened him. He couldn't stand the idea that his body could not only panic without reason, but that it only ever chose to do this when he was away from the safety of his home--a home that he found the more he stayed and acquainted himself with, the more peaceful he felt. Until being there actually was a comfort, and being outside the real challenge.

Gingetsu took himself to a psychotherapist the day he woke up and thought casually of never going outside again, and wasn't overly surprised when the man looked at him near the end of the appointment and gave a dry diagnosis of agoraphobia.

"Do you have a history of this in your family?"

They were sitting in the man's office, placidly decorated and stuffed with small oddities. Outside the rain was fogging the window, making it difficult to see much beyond this one strange and surreal moment. Agoraphobia, of all damn things. He had always thought he was just antisocial.

"No," he said, because he had no idea, and crossed his legs. "It hasn't been a problem until these last two weeks. Ah...three, perhaps." It had actually been six, but Gingetsu didn't think that was important to mention at this point. Three was bad enough.

"Hm," the therapist replied, lips pressed together, and for a moment said no more, intent on a piece of paper--no, several sheets of paper in his hands.

"It's unusual," he offered at last. "Typically this doesn't become a problem for someone of your age. But of course, you do have a history of anxiety. Has your diet changed drastically in the past few weeks?"

"No." It hadn't.

"Ah," the therapist said, and turned another page, squinting past his glasses. He was a very plain man, Gingetsu thought unkindly, and didn't bother after to check himself. "Or perhaps a relative has died?"

"Not a blood relation," Gingetsu said, thinking of his sister and mother, the family he'd once had in another life. It wasn't until the therapist glanced up at him in surprise that he realized what he had admitted by omission.

"Colonel?" the man inquired tentatively, visibly taken aback. "I'm sorry, that should have been one of my first questions, but I just thought...have you lost a friend, sir?"

For a moment Gingetsu couldn't think of what to say. Yes, of course he'd lost a friend, but Ran had never been just that. He just couldn't think of what to say to properly describe what he had been.

"My partner," he said at last, after a long and difficult struggle for words. "Six months ago."

Perhaps the look on the man's face was funny, but Gingetsu had never been a good judge of expression. Absently he wondered if he should be offended by this reaction, which clearly said he wasn't supposed to be the kind of person who could even have close friends, let alone partners, but couldn't quite find the energy. Besides, when he thought about, he really wasn't the kind of person who did. Kazuhiko was of course an exception, and Ran had been...

Well, Ran had been everything, but reducing him to that kind of phrase wasn't really fair. Ran had simply been.

"Did you have a funeral for this person?"

Gingetsu nodded in response, finding abruptly that he didn't want to talk about this.

The therapist, however, did, and began ruffling the pages in his hands as he pursued the topic, a quiet sound in the equally quiet room. A clock tower bell rang somewhere in the distance, marking the hour. "And this person's things? Have you gone through them? Perhaps to redistribute to family?"

"No," Gingetsu said shortly. It was none of the man's business why.

Pursing his lips, the plain man looked at him for so long, so quietly, that Gingetsu, nettled, at last added, "As you can imagine, my work is demanding. I haven't had much time."

"Ah," the therapist said again, and was silent another minute. Then abruptly he leaned over and began to scribble on the bottommost sheet of paper in his stack.

"I'm going to prescribe you two weeks off duty," he said, and continued quite placidly when Gingetsu tried to interrupt him: "As well as some homeopathic tea for nerves--no need to overdo things at this point. Chamomile will be fine, and perhaps some melatonin if you find you can't sleep. Beyond that, you really just need some time to get used to being out of your house. I suggest you have a friend or acquaintance take you places at first, until you feel like you can be alone without fear of anxiety. And I suggest you get your friend's things organized. Agoraphobia tends to develop in individuals who feel they have a lack of control, either over themselves or their situation in life; I won't pry for details, but I will assume that your symptoms are stemming from something similar, making the ordering of his or her leftover possessions the easiest first step."

The man ripped the bottom off the sheet of paper and handed it to him, smiling faintly. "Sometimes a little spring cleaning is just what we need."

"Not this year," Gingetsu answered stiffly, and stood up without taking the paper.

"All the same, it will be mandatory once I speak to General Kou-san. Your mental health is a continuing priority of this program."

Furious, Gingetsu could only stare at him coldly and demand, "Is it?" in his quietest, most venomous tone. He should have known better than to visit one of the program's doctor's, no matter the cost of going to someone outside of his benefits.

"Without a doubt," the therapist replied sharply, setting his papers in a neat pile on his desk, prescription still extended in his other hand. "The most powerful clover now living? Of course the council cares. There's no way they--"

"What about A?"

"A?" the therapist repeated, eyes flying wide open behind his glasses. "E--Excuse me, but how do you know about A?"

Obviously Gingetsu had given the man more credit for intelligence than he deserved--though if he allowed himself to think about it, he really hadn't been meant to know. The kill device still lodged in his brain was proof enough of that. Narrowing his eyes, he let his face go completely impassive, too startled to think of an appropriate excuse. "Never mind how I know. Has A died?"

For a moment the man stared at him uncertainly, one hand on the desk, the other still suspended midair. Then at last, quietly: "Five and a half months ago. It was quite sudden. But Sir, how do you--?"

Two weeks after Ran had died. Gingetsu took a deep breath through his nose. "That's unimportant."

He pulled the paper out of the man's hand with a sharp snap, turning on his heel without another word and exiting the office, trailing one hand behind his back to keep the heavy door from slamming after him.

Gingetsu then spent a long moment standing in the hall, breathing. He looked to his left, then his right; in both directions the building was identical, neat brown doors built into blank white walls, every inch of tile spotless underfoot. Each end concluded with a staircase, one half leading up, the other down. For the first time in months Gingetsu let himself think of one-leafs, closed his eyes and allowed his senses to expand, expand, expand.

Five minutes later he opened them again and breathed some more. Down the hall a door opened. A man looking at a clipboard wandered out, and without looking at Gingetsu made his way to one of the staircases, his left shoe squeaking with each step, growing fainter and fainter, until it disappeared.

No more one-leafs. No two-leafs. Suu was dead, and Ran was dead, and now A had followed.

Gingetsu was completely alone.

Ten minutes passed. The man with the squeaking shoe came back, still staring at his clipboard, and reentered the room he had previously exited. Gingetsu spent a moment staring at the door after he had shut it. Then he readjusted his tie, settled his coat firmly around his shoulders, and went home.

-

Kazuhiko turned out to be at once infuriatingly concerned about his health and unbelievably good at getting him to look after it, all without showing any particularly strong emotion one way or the other. It had taken him a moment to adjust to the notion that Gingetsu had actually managed to make himself seriously unwell through anxiety, but once it had settled, it had apparently settled well. Kazuhiko was a daily visitor of the brick house now whenever he was free from work, determined and eternally, brightly sarcastic, making every effort to draw an increasingly more withdrawn two-leaf out into a world he found he could no longer determine any commonalities with.

Gingetsu couldn't really explain why he found himself now staring so often into space, or thinking of absolutely nothing, or pausing in his tracks and forgetting what it was he'd been moving to do. He hadn't meant to get any more reserved than he'd been to begin with, but this was apparently the way things were evolving. Even when the worst of the agoraphobia had been pushed to the back of his mind, when he no longer needed Kazuhiko's presence to stave off the panic, he still couldn't shake that lingering sensation of detachment.

A month into his rehabilitation, Kazuhiko abruptly stopped in the middle of a game of gin, hand raised to call the match, and frowned at Gingetsu. "Have you thought about traveling at all? On your own, I mean?"

Gingetsu frowned back, perplexed by the suggestion, cards cradled in his hands like ten flat eggs. He'd never quite gotten the hang of fanning them. His fingers felt too long. "No. Why?"

Kazuhiko shrugged, beginning to lay out his sets for Gingetsu's examination. "I don't know. I suppose I just thought it might help--you know, to see more of the world. Might get your mind off how bad things are here. Gin."

Gingetsu didn't quite know what to make of this advice, and so at first made nothing at all. It wasn't until later that he realized Kazuhiko had merely planted the seed with that question, wagering on the probability that Gingetsu would be recycling their conversations frequently and thoroughly, having no one else around to fill that social gap with fresh material.

As it stood, Gingetsu thought about it for a long time.

On the one hand, it was undeniable that he would never get permission to go anywhere off the continent unless he was in pursuit of a criminal, which essentially made even thinking about it a waste of time. On the other, he couldn't deny that it had the potential--probabilities aside--to be a useful change. A good one. He'd rarely been out of the country before, and never outside of work. More often than not he told himself this was because he was a territorial creature by nature, devoted to his country, his city--and while that was true, he was also able to admit, on very rare occasions, that it wasn't the only truth.

The rain began to soften gradually, and the sunsets, when visible, richened within their blanketing haze of pollution, vivid orange and red and yellow. The end of the second month crept up on him, so carefully that it was an honest surprise when these signs began to register. He didn't like to think that so much time had passed.

Sometimes he wondered what it would be like to chase himself around the world, whether it would feel as though he were freezing time itself if he could move with the seasons. Sometimes he got distracted by the mechanical birds when they passed overhead. He wondered if they were still built to migrate, or if this had been deemed inefficient now, like so many other instincts.

Gingetsu started to watch the docks in his spare time.

-

He was sleeping, but aware of it; he thought, I'm having a dream, and hoped it would be better than the most recent dreams he'd been having, and nearly stopped breathing when the smell and gentle presence of one infinitely familiar settled against his senses. He was lying in his own bed in this dream, with the edges of the world blurring around him, with a burning in his throat, and a circular frustration chasing thoughts around and around in his head, and Ran's thin, warm frame pressed to his back.

"Gingetsu," his voice said, soothing. "I liked my headstone."

The burning got worse. Ran continued just as softly: "But you're being selfish."

"Selfish?" Gingetsu whispered, like this was a foreign word--and it was, strangely, a sort of scientific concept in this setting, an unknown quantity. He was certain, unlike his other dreams, his memories, his nightmares, that this had never happened before. He couldn't think straight.

"You knew how it would happen," Ran reminded him gently. "We talked about it, and still you're acting like this. You keep the house so cold. And you won't let Kazuhiko help you."

Gingetsu couldn't think of a way to respond to this. There was only one thought spinning in his mind, over and over, until abruptly it spilled out. "I miss you."

His voice broke on the words, shaking. "I can make it as logical as gravity, but I still--every time I go to bed I wish you were there. I wish our mothers had never sold us, no matter how well they justified it--that we could have met like other people meet. I wish Clover had never existed."

Silence spread between them for a moment, thick and cool.

"Well, heart," Ran murmured at last, pressing his chest gently into Gingetsu's back, thin fingers wrapping around his tattooed wrist, "if wishes were horses, beggars would ride."

Then he woke up and found, to an overall feeling of complete ambiguity, that he had not been crying in his sleep as he had expected. His face was cold simply from the temperature of the house, his arms extended to one side, as he had once been in the habit of doing when there had been something there for them to wrap around. He closed his eyes, ignored all of these things, and at last fell back into unconsciousness. He didn't dream a second time.

-

When he woke again he felt curiously empty. The dream remained in him with shocking clarity, stuck inside his mind as he showered, as he ate, as he screwed on his glasses and reviewed his orders for the day.

He couldn't quite dredge up the naïve hope necessary to make himself believe that it had been a sort of visitation rather than a dream, that Ran could still come back to see him in some form; but he couldn't entirely make himself believe that he could spin that conversation out of nothing, either. He accepted it in the end simply as a thing that was, that would inevitably pass away, and prepared to move on with his morning.

Then, leaving his house for the base, he found the orchids.

They were real, which was perhaps the second most shocking thing. The first was that they were growing right next to his doorstep, in the little patch of dirt under his front windows where nothing had ever, ever grown for as long as he could remember except weeds, which was what he had assumed they were before they had come into flower like this.

"Damn," said Kazuhiko when he saw them, precise and matter-of-fact, and then repeated it a few seconds later, a bit more emphatically. "I've never seen anything like it. You're sure they're real?"

"Positive. I took clippings."

They spent another moment looking at the pale blossoms in silence. Gingetsu had no idea what sort they were, and felt no inclination at all to find out. Not yet, at least.

"It's like magic," Kazuhiko muttered at last, only his tone was neither awed nor admiring. Instead he sounded vaguely irritated and perplexed, almost affronted.

"There's no such thing," Gingetsu snapped back, strangely irritated by that conclusion--though even as he said it, he knew he was being hypocritical. So much of what Ran and Suu and Oruha had done, after all, had seemed like magic, even to him.

That same evening, after Kazuhiko had gone to sleep on the living room couch and the dinner dishes had been washed and Gingetsu had begun to feel somewhat more stable, he returned quietly to the flowers and stood for some time staring at them, memorizing their shape. He knew they would probably be gone the next day, once passersby realized what they were seeing and began to steal them. It made his stomach roll to think of them being sold to some ignorant rich man to decorate a vase or lapel, but he couldn't bring himself to pick them, either.

Gingetsu spent the better part of an hour there, standing motionless, until at last the spring chill chewed its way beneath the collar of his jacket and began to mouth at the edges of his collarbones. Feeling strangely peaceful, he finally managed to turn around and walk back inside, where he found himself arrested in the living room door for a brief few seconds by the sight of Kazuhiko still sleeping on the couch, the lines of his throat and hands painted with the fading grey light.

He moved across the hall to the kitchen, where he pulled a teacup from the cupboard, glanced at the calendar hanging over the table, and found, with an almost casual sense of wonder, that this was the anniversary of Ran's death.

Distantly he remembered thinking a year ago that the best strategy for dealing with this day when it came would be to treat it like any other. This still seemed like the best solution. Turning away, he glanced instead at the teacup he'd chosen as he reached for the tin of leaves, and thought it looked rather familiar. But it wasn't until he'd spooned the tea into the strainer that he realized this was the first thing he'd ever brought home for Ran.

He didn't realize that he had begun to cry at first, only wondered why the stove was blurring into a flat white object before him, and why his hand was shaking. The next moment he dropped the spoon--and that was an accident, but he couldn't make himself pick it up again, and awkwardly fumbled the glasses from his face instead, alarmed by the thought of getting the internal wiring wet. His mental grip on the screws failed as soon as they came free, and both fell immediately to the floor with a pair of soft, metallic rings to roll away toward the back of the room, and the tears refused to stop dripping down his face, and suddenly everything seemed to be crushing, the air in his lungs and every miserable, pathetic feature of his life. He covered his eyes with one hand, grasped the counter with his other until his fingers went numb, gritted his teeth, but nothing made anything better, and it had been a year now, he was twenty-nine, he was still doing the same things he had always done and would always do, and Ran would always, always be dead.

He had no idea whether he was crying quietly or loudly, but supposed in some distant, detached portion of his mind that this wasn't very important in the long run; Kazuhiko was simply, abruptly there, stepping up beside him and pressing long arms around him, murmuring, "Breathe," quietly, and then adding in a tone of voice that was at once sardonic and infinitely gentle, "Took you long enough."

Gingetsu couldn't answer. Kazuhiko had to pry his hand free of the countertop in the end, and it was--better, Gingetsu realized, to not have to feel this alone, now that it was finally here, as it occurred to him at last that telling himself for months and months that this could ever be bearable, that he was used to it, was maybe the stupidest thing he had ever done in his life.

Kazuhiko kissed the side of his head gently, then his throat, then peeled the glove off the hand that wasn't covering his face and kissed his palm. Grasping that wrist, he used it to turn Gingetsu slowly until the Colonel was facing him instead of standing sideways, then held him fully again, resting his chin on Gingetsu's shoulder. Eventually Gingetsu gathered enough awareness of what was actually going on to let his free arm rise and wrap around his friend's ribcage, feeling the rise and fall of his breathing, the steadiness of it in comparison to his own. Eventually he managed to use that steadiness to time his own breathing, to calm himself; and ten minutes after he had begun he felt his mind starting to collect itself, felt part of the fog lift.

"Come on," Kazuhiko whispered, pressing gently on his back. "You need to sleep."

They ended up heading for the couch, mostly because it was the closest horizontal surface to the kitchen that had a cushion. It took Gingetsu much longer to slip under than Kazuhiko, but in many ways it was nice to relax, listening to his breathing and thinking, examining problems and fears, and making, at last, a series of decisions he had been putting off for the future. Now, he realized, was the only time.

It didn't take him long to work out what he wanted to do. All he was left to wonder in the end was why it had taken him so long to get to it. He fell asleep feeling more peaceful than he had in months, Kazuhiko's arm around his waist, and did not dream.

-

When Gingetsu woke up at last it was two o'clock in the morning, raining gently, and the streetlamps outside his living room window had finally been fixed, after seven months of disrepair. Kazuhiko's face was painted thin yellow and blue by the fresh influx of illumination. The lines of it were peaceful and relaxed--but still, there were lines; faint lines around his mouth and eyes that probably would have been invisible to someone less observant. Gingetsu saw each sign with the sickening accuracy of vision his gifts afforded him, and wished that he hadn't.

Two twenty, and Gingetsu had extricated himself, changed out of his uniform, packed a bag, and gotten his heaviest, best civilian jacket on over a slightly rumpled white shirt by the time Kazuhiko's voice cut through his covert motions.

"Going to be gone long?"

Gingetsu froze for several long seconds. He could see the other man now, his slacks and t-shirt wrinkled from sleep, leaning against the doorframe to the entrance hall where Gingetsu had been slipping into his outerwear.

At last he completed the motion of shrugging his duffel's strap around his shoulders, gathering himself for speech. "A few years, perhaps."

Kazuhiko stared quietly, blandly. He didn't move. "Well. Guess you better buy some post cards."

Gingetsu shot him a sharp look, pressing his bare hands against his thighs in a fashion that he supposed was rather self-conscious, hiding his wrists. "You're not upset?"

Kazuhiko lifted one eyebrow. "What, that you're finally getting out of this sad sack phase? Hell no."

Abruptly he stepped forward, pulling Gingetsu's left hand away and yanking his sleeve up, revealing the tattoo. "Now this? This I'm upset about. At least I am now."

Silence, complete and suffocating. Gingetsu got the impression that Kazuhiko was waiting for him to interject something. He spent a long moment wondering what that could possibly be, only to realize after a while that there really was nothing, despite his friend's expectations. Kazuhiko's face darkened the longer Gingetsu was silent, until he added, very quietly--almost menacingly--"I figured it out years ago, you know. Did you think I wouldn't, after Suu?"

It was with these words that his face ultimately fell, until he looked far more hurt than he ever had angry, his hand tightening around Gingetsu's wrist. "Goddamnit--why didn't you ever say anything? Were you really going to leave without ever telling me?"

Gingetsu swallowed, staring fixedly at the glass pane which decorated the top of his front door. It was too hard to look him in the face. This was even more difficult than he had first imagined it would be. "Why should I have?"

"Maybe because I'm your only friend?" Kazuhiko suggested, all sharp, bitter sarcasm. "Or maybe not. How should I know? It just seems to me I should have been told, especially since you all just--just--"

"Die so young?" Gingetsu supplied dully.

"Fuck," Kazuhiko hissed, and flung his hand away, grabbing his arm instead to spin him around. Gingetsu almost shoved him out of pure instinct, every nerve alive with tension, but managed to stay limp, blank. Kazuhiko looked furious. "Fuck you, Gingetsu! I've known you for nine years--didn't I deserve to understand?"

"Of course," Gingetsu murmured, swallowing. "You're right. We have known one another a long time. And when all I ever thought I'd get to feel in my life for anyone, even my family, was passing familiarity, to then have everything with you turn out so well for so long--of course it makes perfect sense for me to bring the aspect of my life I'm most ashamed of into it."

The anger came at last with this, filling him, making it infinitely easier to talk, cold and bracing. "You can't even imagine it, Kazuhiko. We were all in cages at first, even the one-leafs, until they realized how little damage they could do alone. They were out within months. We were all so jealous at the time. I'm only a two-leaf, and I still spent four years working to convince them they could trust me, they could let me out, not to mention the twenty I put into figuring out what people meant when they said they were happy. Do you understand? Anything more than a one-leaf and things start to go away, things normal people have--normal responses, normal emotions. How can you expect me to want to discuss any of that?"

Kazuhiko was still for a long time, staring at him. Gingetsu felt in that moment a strange sensation of intersection, as though two things that had been pacing one another in the dark for years had finally collided. He couldn't remember ever saying so much at once outside of a work context, even to his mother.

Then finally Kazuhiko lowered his head with a quiet, frustrated sigh, conceding the point. "No," came the murmur. He sounded drained. "I can't blame you for that. But can't you understand how unfair it feels? I know you lost Ran, but I--I lost Oruha, too. And now you might not--"

"Ryuu," he murmured, and wondered if the way Kazuhiko's head snapped up at being addressed by his first name would have intrigued him in the past. "I could have died at any time in the last few years. I could die right now. It's inevitable. I've always done what I could to minimize that risk, but I can't stay like this anymore."

Kazuhiko apparently couldn't disagree with this, though he had some trouble pulling the unhappiness from his face. "Where do you think you'll go?"

"Europa," Gingetsu said immediately, and almost smiled when Kazuhiko laughed, the sound sharp and unexpected.

"Going to start a café or something? Sounds great. I always figured you had to give up this pearls before swine bullshit at some point, before they sucked you dry."

His face softened then, one of his hands lifting to press against Gingetsu's face; his forehead, his cheekbone, the bag beneath one of his eyes. His fingertips were rough and cold. Gingetsu wondered if he was searching for wrinkles. "Clover never deserved you."

"No," he agreed quietly, closing his eyes, feeling clearly for the first time that this was the absolute truth. "They really didn't"

-

His breath fogged lightly when he stepped out into the rain, pale mist in a dark, strangely lit night. The streetlamps lent an unreal quality to the scene, like the setting of a bad film. After a moment he hitched his bag up his shoulder and began to walk.

Kazuhiko had agreed to put the house in order in his absence, even to box up all his things and store them, despite his misgivings about doing so. It just didn't feel important now to cling to the remnants of a life that was over, but the younger man had been hell-bent on having everything ready to reopen when he returned.

Too bad what he really needed right now was luck.

They could flip the kill switch at any minute. As soon as he moved out of his normal tracking range they'd know, and if all hell didn't break loose within ten minutes of that, he expected he could count on at least a half hour while the wizards argued about what to do with him.

Beyond that, he had absolutely no idea what was going to happen. He didn't know how important they thought he was anymore, or how dangerous. The therapist had been under the impression that he was still extremely valuable, but the wizards hadn't called on him for anything meaningful or challenging in a whole year now. Some small part of him hoped they'd let him go silently, out of respect--if nothing else--for all he'd given, allow him to slip peacefully into obscurity; but a larger part knew just how likely that was.

The docks loomed in the distance ten minutes later, dark steel in the low late-night lighting. Gingetsu would wait here for the first many-sailed property ship headed to Europa he could find, after which he'd have to find his own way. He'd never been there before. It would have been easier, of course, to use a transporter; easier, and utterly cowardly. Gingetsu was tired of wasting time staring over his shoulder.

It was, however, hard, even as he moved toward the tall, brightly canvassed shapes of the foreign and native vessels, to think of anything but the looming possibility of death. Strangely, he found that the thought didn't bother him in the nearly the same way it once had. After all, if he died he might see Ran again; at the very least he'd no longer have to keep thinking about it. And if he didn't die, with this course of action he'd at least have a chance to move on to the new things, put some color back into the world. Either way, he wasn't going home now. It would be the end of any self-respect he had left to do so.

A breeze swept across the water, cold and full of the chilly, misting rain still falling from the sky, laced now with salt. Gingetsu reached up to wipe one wet hand across his face, fingertips lingering on the frigid metal imbedded in his temples, sockets empty now of the screws that had for so many years rarely left them. He wondered if he would ever wear military glasses again.

Light flashed abruptly, bright and instantly gone--lightning from a storm in the far distance, eerily silent as it played across the water. Gingetsu stood watching it, unmoving, and waited for morning.

-

An old woman once told me:
"Because he was burned inside,
His head turned white as snow."
I forget what she was talking about
Or whom--
My life is forty-two years of torn paper.

Yehuda Amichai, "She Knows"

-

End