Scent of a Man
Hisoka's dreams had changed since the Kyoto case, and not for the better. The cherry tree was still in them, but now he lay dead beneath it with his eyes frozen glassy open, watching helplessly while Muraki did all the things to Tsuzuki that he'd once done to him.
Then there was the one where he wasn't strong enough. The one where he lost his grip on Tsuzuki and the shadow vacuum tore them apart. The dream always ended with Tsuzuki's pale stricken face screaming pain and betrayal at him as the wall of flames crashed between them.
And then there was the one where all he could think of was finding Muraki in the flames and cutting him to pieces with his own knife. But when he finally succeeded, Muraki gazed up at him with the eyes of Tsubaki Hime and asked, through bloodstained teeth, who was screaming. Then he glanced back and saw Tsuzuki dying behind him in a pillar of flame. And then he knew.
He was the one screaming. And he woke himself up with it every time.
None of which explained why he was still up at 3 AM on that particular night, or why he took a walk to stay awake, or why his steps just happened to lead him in the direction of the infirmary.
Or why he stole that pillow.
He hadn't meant to steal it. Not at first, anyway. Pillow-stealing was certainly the farthest thing from his mind as he peeked through the infirmary window. The curtains were cheap and ancient, and one of them had a rip just large enough to give him a view of the bed nearest the window. The bed where Tsuzuki slept.
It wasn't as if he was worried about his partner, or checking up on him or anything. And when he saw that his bed was empty, it never even occurred to him that something bad might have happened. Like Tsuzuki getting attacked by a centipede girl, or kidnapped by a mad doctor. Or trying to kill himself.
His logical mind kicked in right away, reminding him that Tsuzuki shared his habit of going for late night strolls. Well, his logic told him this after he'd teleported himself to Tsuzuki's bedside, grabbed hold of his sheets and sifted through the lingering threads of emotion for any sign of distress. When all he found was a quiet restlessness to match his own, he relaxed. And settled in to wait. Not because he was concerned, but just... because.
Tsuzuki's sheets were warm and smelled like him. Of sweat and bitter chocolate and man, filling the darkness with a residual sense of his presence. Hisoka sensed boredom, a feeling that was all too familiar from his years spent dying in the hospital. But there was happiness too. The fleeting pleasures of good food, of visitors and conversation. And something else, too.
Aching sweetness. Wonder. Echoes of surprise that bordered on disbelief. And below that a deeper emotion, one that he couldn't identify. It felt like dropping into an ocean of black velvet. It wrapped itself around him, fierce and dark and all-embracing, so intense that he thought he might drown in it. And somehow, that was okay. The darkness was familiar, it welcomed him. It felt like another part of himself, like he belonged there.
He closed his eyes and let himself drift, still listening with half his attention for the sound of footsteps in the hall. He wasn't sure when, exactly, he flopped over on his side, or how his head found its way onto the pillow.
There was nothing particularly special about it. It was a standard-issue infirmary pillow, a bit lumpy but still comfortable. The only feature that distinguished it from any of a thousand other pillows was a large purplish stain on one corner. This was from one of Wakaba's blackberry jam tarts, which had somehow ended up face-down on the plain white pillowcase.
Tsuzuki had claimed the stain was good luck due to its supposed resemblance to a certain cartoon feline. Hisoka wouldn't know since didn't watch that much TV, but he'd decided not to argue the point. They'd survived the fire, they'd come through it together, and that was plenty enough luck for him.
As the pillow warmed to his body temperature, he began to detect hints of cinnamon and piney men's deodorant and 100 yen-store shampoo. Warm Tsuzuki smells that filled him with a sense of safety and peace. Of home. And wasn't that what he'd said to Tsuzuki when they were in the fire together? You are my home. Not exactly in those words, but still.
It was strange to think that, in spite of his dream, he hadn't even considered going after Muraki. And it wasn't that he'd consciously decided against it, it simply hadn't occurred to him. He wondered if he should be angry with himself for passing up a chance like that, but somehow it seemed irrelevant. The doctor had ceased to exist in his world once he saw Tsuzuki in the flames. It was as simple as that.
The silence of the room became the whisper of dry grasses, and the darkness became that of a starless sky. The only light came from the glimmer of fireflies, and the pillow in his arms began to feel heavier, more solid, like a second body cradled next to his. A boy's body, covered in mud and bruises, his dark hair matted with blood.
A ripple of long-remembered hurt ghosted through him. He pressed closer trying to soothe away the ache, to lend heat to the smaller form. "It's okay," he whispered. And then, though the name felt strange on his tongue, he added, "Asato." Because that was what they must have called him then. What his sister must have called him. "You're safe now, no one's going to hurt you."
A loud clatter jolted him back to reality. For a moment he had no idea where he was. Then he realized with horror that he could feel Tsuzuki just outside the door. And here he was on the man's bed, hugging his pillow like it was some kind of life preserver.
Blind panic took over. He rolled from the bed and scrambled for the nearest hiding spot, which happened to be the curtain. He ducked behind it, flattened himself against the wall, and tried not to breathe.
Tsuzuki ambled into the room humming something tuneless. There was a rustle of heavy fabric which Hisoka guessed was the sound of Tsuzuki's trench coat landing on the back of the visitor's chair. Then a squeak of bed springs, followed by the soft thud of a sandal hitting the floor. Then silence. Hisoka had only a moment to appreciate the irony that he was literally waiting for the other shoe to drop before his senses registered a ripple of surprise from Tsuzuki. There was a repeat of the bedspring noise, followed by footsteps.
He's looking for something, Hisoka thought. Then, with a gut-dropping sense of realization, he noticed that Tsuzuki's pillow was still clutched in his arms. Any moment now, Tsuzuki would look behind the curtain. Or bump against it. And then what? How in Enma's name would he ever explain this?
What happened next was a miracle. At least that's how it felt to Hisoka. There was a wave of drowsiness from Tsuzuki, accompanied by a general lack of interest in solving the mystery. The emotional equivalent of a shrug. Then the bed groaned again and, with a gentle sigh, the other shoe hit the floor.
Hisoka could have cried with relief, but he managed not to. He waited, listening until Tsuzuki's breaths lengthened into the restful cadence of sleep. Only then did he dare to emerge from his hiding place.
Tsuzuki was curled on his side, his lanky frame only half covered by the sheets. His head was pillowed awkwardly on one arm while the other, the one that was still covered in bandages even now that the last of his burns had healed, lay outstretched on the mattress. Like he's reaching for something, Hisoka thought. And then, with a guilty pang, he realized what. His pillow.
It occurred to him that there was nothing to stop him from giving it back. If it was there in the morning, Tsuzuki would probably forget that it had ever been missing. Or he'd think it was a dream. He really should give it back. And yet some secret, irrational part of himself rebelled at the thought. His arms tightened around the pillow reflexively, the reaction of a child unwilling to part with a beloved toy.
He crossed the room like a sleepwalker and got the pillow from the other bed. It was the pillow he'd used during his stay in the infirmary, and it was identical to Tsuzuki's in every way. Except for the jam stain, but surely that could be seen as a plus. He put it on Tsuzuki's bed next to his outstretched hand.
There, he told his conscience. He's got a pillow, I've got a pillow. Everyone's happy, so shut the hell up.
Tsuzuki shifted, murmuring something soft and unintelligible. His long fingers brushed the fabric of the pillowcase. Then he shifted closer, draped an arm over the pillow and tucked his face against it. And smiled. A new emotion rippled outward from him, one that Hisoka recognized. The black velvet ocean feeling.
Hisoka bit his lip, marveling at the paradox that was Tsuzuki. How could the man who'd recently tried to kill himself draw such comfort from something so inconsequential? It was a mystery. He tucked the sheets around Tsuzuki, feeling greatly daring in doing so. And then he was gone, melting into the shadows like the spirit he was.
The black velvet ocean feeling followed him home. It was there waiting for him in the shadows of his bedroom, beckoning him towards a sleep that promised to be dreamless. He clicked on the light and stared at the pillow, trying to absorb the reality of what he'd just done.
He'd never stolen anything in his life. Or his afterlife either, for that matter. It wasn't that he was opposed to stealing, at least not in any absolute moral sense. For some people stealing was a matter of survival, he knew that. He might have done it himself if the things he'd lacked in life were things you could get by stealing.
Here in Meifu, he had everything he needed. A place to live, decent food, hot showers, a regular paycheck. He even had a family of sorts, in the form of his fellow Shinigami. He could afford to buy a pillow if he needed one. Which he didn't, since there were two perfectly serviceable pillows on his bed already.
He would have to take it back. But not tonight, he amended with a glance at his radio alarm. It was almost four-thirty and Watari would be up soon, if he wasn't already. Actually, Hisoka wasn't sure if Watari ever slept. No, he'd have to wait until the following night. Wake himself up at 3 AM, head to the infirmary and put the pillow somewhere unobtrusive. With luck, no one would even know it had been missing.
Satisfied with his decision, he flicked the light off and lay down. It was probably an accident that his cheek landed on Tsuzuki's pillow and not his own, but within moments the familiar scent and sense of his partner engulfed him. A black velvet wave swept over him and pulled him into fathomless sleep.
When Hisoka arrived at the office on his first day back at work, everything was just as he'd left it. There were the same files sitting in his "in" box, the same pencils stuck in the ceiling, the same candy wrappers scattered on the institutional gray carpet. The only slight change was that one of his plants had died, evidently from lack of water. And the empty ramen containers piled atop Tsuzuki's desk had acquired an extra layer of dust.
Hisoka cleared them away, trying not to think about what it would be like to do this knowing that Tsuzuki would never be coming back. Or what it would be like to come to work and find Tsuzuki's desk occupied by someone else. Someone who'd make sympathetic noises about his late partner's "accident" and ask if they were close. And then change the subject.
Accident. Incident. That's what everyone in the office called it, though mostly they avoided the topic altogether. Preparations were underway for the annual staff Christmas party, and Yuma and Saya were in charge. They'd persuaded Chief Konoe to play the role of Santa Claus, and seemed determined to get Hisoka into a matching elf costume, complete with tights.
Watari was up to his usual antics too. On Tuesday he spiked the water cooler with something that turned everyone's hair purple. Tatsumi predictably threw a fit at him for wasting the departmental budget on frivolities, and Watari blew up his lab to get back at him. The Count was experimenting with the weather, and when everyone arrived at work on Wednesday they found the cherry trees covered in pink snowflakes that, on close inspection, turned out to be shaped like hundreds of tiny naked men.
By Thursday, when Tsuzuki sailed through the doorway of their shared office carrying a box of donuts, the illusion was complete. Kyoto had officially never happened. Or if it had, Hisoka was the only one who remembered it.
"Good morning!" Tsuzuki crossed the room in a little pirouette that ended in front of Hisoka's desk.
Hisoka glanced up from his paperwork. "What's good about it?"
"So many things, Hisoka! For instance," Tsuzuki popped open the donut box, "Strawberry sprinkles, dark chocolate, or bear-claw?"
"Um, none of the above?"
Tsuzuki looked genuinely surprised by this response. "I had more flavors, but Watari and the Chief nabbed a bunch, and then I ran into Yuma and Saya and... well. I have an apple fritter left too. If you want."
"Ah." Tsuzuki's relief was tangible. "Guess I'll have to eat it myself then!" He pulled the pastry from behind his back and started munching. "So, um... whatcha doin'?"
Hisoka set his pen down. "I could ask you the same thing. Aren't you supposed to be in the infirmary?"
"Nope! Watari says I'm well enough to be up and about, so I thought I'd celebrate."
"By getting high on sugar?"
"Well, not just that." Tsuzuki went over to his own desk and flopped down in his chair. He swung his feet onto the blotter, overturning the neat stack of paperwork Hisoka had piled there for him, and smiled up at the pencils as if he were greeting some old friends.
He did look better, Hisoka thought. More rested. The dark circles were gone from under his eyes, and his skin had regained its usual caramel shade. Even the bandage was gone from his right wrist. In its place was a cheap vinyl watch strap that was, as far as Hisoka could tell, identical to the one he'd worn before Kyoto.
"So you thought you'd drop in and harass me too?"
"Well..." Tsuzuki's mood changed abruptly. He shifted in his chair and took another mouthful of fritter. "I wanted to, ah... ask you something." He stared past Hisoka's shoulder, chewing mechanically.
Tension fluttered alive in Hisoka's belly. "What?" His voice cracked infuriatingly. He scowled at the carpet, suddenly wishing he was somewhere else.
Maybe his question had sounded angry, because Tsuzuki swallowed his food with an audible gulp. "Um, maybe this is a bad time," he said, coloring slightly. Then his smile was back in place. The leaden sense of fear lifted, and Hisoka realized it had been coming from both of them. "So hey, ah, what are you working on?"
Hisoka rolled his eyes. "Paperwork." As if it wasn't perfectly obvious.
"Really?" Tsuzuki bounced from his chair. "Need help?"
"No, I... hey! Get away, you're dripping crumbs on my desk!"
"Sorry," Tsuzuki said, sounding anything but. He'd crossed the room in two strides and was leaning over Hisoka's shoulder, his breath warm against the side of his neck. "Ah, the Toshiaki case! I thought we filed that. Did Tatsumi send it back?"
"Um..." Hisoka glanced down at the papers on his desk. He'd instinctively stuffed the report he was working on under an older case file. Great. Now even he was doing it, trying to pretend that Kyoto had never happened. He could feel the beginnings of a headache starting behind his temples. Tsuzuki was still bristling with pent-up nervous energy and it made him queasy. And as if that wasn't bad enough, the man smelled wrong.
Smelled wrong? Where the heck had that come from? But... he did. Not in a bad way. It wasn't an unpleasant smell. It was clean and sandalwood-y, with hints of some exotic spice that Hisoka couldn't identify. But it wasn't a Tsuzuki smell.
He was still turning this fact over in his mind when a wave of fear crashed over him. Several long seconds dragged by as he slowly figured out that it wasn't coming from him. Most of it, anyway. Tsuzuki was staring past his shoulder at something on his desk, his face gray, and Hisoka realized with shock that a corner of his report was still visible.
Shion University. Flames. Casualties...
He hid the corner under his pen jar, even though it was obviously too late. Tsuzuki sucked in a harsh breath and took a step backwards, his left hand straying to his watch strap.
Ah ha, Hisoka thought with sickening satisfaction. So it did happen. It was a cruel, uncharitable thought, and he had just enough time to start feeling guilty about it before a gigantic sneeze rocked through him. And another. And then a third.
"Hisoka? Are you all right?" Tsuzuki grabbed his arm. Another whiff of that strange, not-Tsuzuki smell rolled off him and Hisoka sneezed again, this time so violently that stars exploded behind his eyelids.
"Tsuzuki, get away from me!" he choked. He jumped from his seat and stumbled away from Tsuzuki. "It's you."
"Me?" Tsuzuki sounded hurt.
"Idiot! I don't mean you-you." Hisoka was fumbling with the window latch. It opened with a grudging squeak, and Hisoka gulped sakura-scented air. "I mean... you're wearing something. Aren't you?"
"Wearing something?" Tsuzuki glanced down at himself as if he thought Hisoka might be referring to his outfit. Which was, Hisoka suddenly noticed, new. Well, it looked new. And several notches more expensive than what he normally wore. Not that Hisoka was some kind of fashion expert, but even he could tell that the dark suit was tailored to hug Tsuzuki's frame, and that his shirt, which was a smoky eggplant shade that echoed the color of his eyes, was cut from some kind of fancy material.
"Scent," Hisoka clarified, his eyes streaming. "You're wearing some kind of cologne."
Tsuzuki instantly turned scarlet. "Uhm... sorta yeah." His hands fluttered upwards in a helpless gesture. "You, ah... like it?"
"Like it?" Hisoka grabbed a fistful of tissues from the box on Tsuzuki's desk just in time to stifle another sneeze. He threw the box at his partner as an afterthought. "I'm fucking allergic to it, you--" he was cut short by another violent sneeze. "Moron," he finished, dabbing his eyes.
"I'm sorry, I had no idea," Tsuzuki babbled, trailing after him as he stomped towards the door. "If I'd known I never would've--"
"Don't follow me, you idiot! Just go and wash that crap off!"
"Um... yeah! Good idea." Tsuzuki scurried off in the direction of the men's room while Hisoka headed for Watari's lab. He made it almost halfway before his conscience started in with nagging suggestions that perhaps he'd been unfair. Tsuzuki couldn't have known that he was allergic to that particular cologne, after all. He hadn't even known himself. But really, this had nothing to do with cologne, did it? It was that damned watch.
He knew Tsuzuki was a creature of habit, that he got sentimentally attached to things. That he still owned phonograph records he'd bought in the 1930's. And he knew all about scars and the reasons for keeping them hidden. But why did it have to be the same watch?
Everything that happened in Kyoto was getting glossed over. Covered up like Tsuzuki's suicide scars, his words in the fire along with everything else. They seemed faintly embarrassing in retrospect, an adolescent outburst best filed under the category of things one politely agreed not to talk about.
But it had meant something, dammit, and he refused to believe that it was just because they were both about to die. He remembered how Tsuzuki's arms had gone around him slowly, tentatively, as if he was afraid this was just a dream. Tsuzuki's voice, soft and rough, barely daring to breathe. Not that there was much air left anyway. But still.
"Is it all right for me to be here?"
And then, with Hisoka's reply, something broke. Like a dam, or the walls of a prison cell. Aching joy, a wash of relief so profound it almost hurt. Tsuzuki's arms tightened around him in searing welcome, bringing him close, embracing him body and soul. It was the last thing they would ever do, and it was perfect. They belonged, here and to each other, and everything that had gone before, all the moments that led up to this one suddenly made sense.
Except that they'd survived. And that made everything so much more complicated, didn't it?
He reached the door of Watari's lab and knocked.
The door cracked open and a single brown eye peered owlishly at him from behind a round pair of glasses. A second pair of eyes joined the first one. These belonged to an actual owl, .003, who gazed at Hisoka with solemn intensity from the wild tangles of Watari's of blond hair, which she appeared to be making a nest of.
"Morning, Bon!" Watari said cheerfully, throwing the door wide. His emotions transmitted an indecipherable mix of relief and disappointment that made Hisoka wonder who he'd been expecting. "What can I do ya for?"
"Well, um, I--" Hisoka started, but a violent sneeze cut him off.
"Ah! Gotcha. Well come on in, let's have a look."