Crossing Paths

"Well, I guess I should just call it a night," I muttered to myself. This was the third bar I'd skulked about in tonight, and it was just like all the others. The booze wasn't strong enough to make me forget why I'd come there. The women were painted up like garage sale dolls, their makeup too thick and their smiles too sad.

As a younger man, neither of these would have bothered me too much. Back then, it was all about the show, the great ironic drama of it all: that any dame would want to be with a taboo punk like me, even for a night. The booze was just for buying the women, and the women were just enough to make me feel human for a little while. And when the hangovers came and the women turned homicidal, I would just crack jokes and head out to do it all over again.

But this time, things were different. I was different. After all, once you've known heaven, it's hard to go back to hell - and harder still to like it there.

I used to say that I didn't want love, but that was a lie. I didn't know what I wanted, and love certainly seemed impossible. But someone had loved me, once. Someone had broken through the cynical, sardonic, shallow shell I hid behind and had forced me out into the world like a newborn bird.

And now that person was gone. Perhaps forever.

"Damn it," I sighed. "This really isn't getting any easier, you know."

I heard a familiar chuckle behind me and turned my head to see something I wasn't expecting.

"Hakkai?"

No. It wasn't him. At least not unless he's taken up wearing a dress. I smiled at this thought.

"What are you smiling at?"

The woman smiled quizzically at me, her emerald green eyes sparkling like flowing water. She twirled a strand of light brown hair between her fingers, as if unsure whether she should be talking with me.

Smart chick, this one.

"Nothing, honey. You just reminded me of someone, that's all."

"Your girlfriend, perhaps?"

I gulped involuntarily. "N-no," I stammered, trying not to choke.

Her laugh was like that of a woodpecker, full of life and pure delight. "I'm sorry. I must have struck a nerve."

"That's ok. Though I do prefer other methods of getting my heart racing."

She blushed. "Oh really?"

"Don't worry about it, beautiful. I don't mean to offend." Damn, I sound like him now.

She stared at me openly. "I wasn't offended. I think you're a pretty nice guy."

And now we're friends. Great. "I actually have a bit of a reputation as a bad boy, I'll have you know."

"Well, of course. What other kind of man hangs out in bars and flirts with married women?"

"You're married? Lucky bastard."

Her eyes grew sad. "Actually, I was married. Once. Then something terrible happened."

"I'm sorry."

She smiled. "It's not your fault. You're not the one who did it. Besides, that's why I'm here."

"To get married? Hang on, sweetheart, I don't think -"

"No, silly," she giggled. "I'm here to find out what happened to my husband, not to get a new one."

I sighed. Awesome. The one pretty girl in this town, and she's in love with some jerk who went missing. "Well, I know pretty much everyone in this town. What's this guy's name?"

"Cho Gonou."

I froze. What?