Thine Own Palace
Chapter 25

I'm alive! Bwahahahahaha!

I can only apologise again and again for the delay. I changed jobs and getting started at the new place took quite a bit of settling in time. I'm in a bit more of a routine now so hopefully the writing will continue at a steadier pace! Sorry! Sorry!

Angelchoo: Yup. My meanness has really outdone itself this time. Sorry! Sorry! I have no excuse for making you wait this long D: I hope I don't disappoint. I think this fic is a little simpler than you are trying to make it though hahaha. There really aren't so many twists… are there? O.o

Loveless Raine: Your fic is well under way! I got very excited by it and wrote quite a lot but its quite character heavy so will take ages for me to get it right, of course. I'm sure everyone is relieved you picked a senru (not least of all me xD) Sorry for the delay on this one!

Mrsklemzak: Haha I know how much you like Sakuragi (I never really got him, although I was watching Slamdunk episodes recently and I think I have a new-found appreciation for his character. There isn't anyone like Sakuragi in Kuroko no Basket. I miss that comic relief!) I can't bear Sakuragi with Sendoh though. I can handle Ruhana/Hanaru, but Senhana is just…. Gah…. Bleugh… no. It's a bit of a cliché, but I'm a Rukawa-fan through and through :P

Graffitivikat: I'm not sure there's much space for cherries and whipped cream in this story haha. I don't believe in sad endings to long fics, but then again I have been known to have quite a taste for cliffhangers xD

Svaneaalka: Thanks for your review! Ah yes, I'm not sure the fic could fit any more characters – it's already sort of bursting at the seams haha. Liron will have to remain in the shadows a little bit. Yup yup, I think Sendoh is ready to have his moment too!

AddictedtoSD: Ta dah! I'm so sorry for vanishing for so long D: I hope you're still around to read this! Thanks again for your always-so-much support :D

Kenouki: Thanks for your support! Not too much Maki and Fujima in this chapter I'm afraid. Just another long wait til I finish writing the epilogue hahaha. Oh dear.

Anita: Hi there! See – I did promise I was working on it lol. Thanks so much for your "where the hell are you?" email! Sometimes I need a bit of a kick lol. I should be happy nanowrimo really got me back into the writing habit this month :). Ah yes – I do sort of lament the comparative lack of "romance" in this fic (is it even really a senru? Can't work it out lol) but the sugar and flowers and sparkly eyes thing weren't really my focus here. I like that it's a little deeper, and a little more complicated, than that.

Rjuha: Haha Registration is such a weird little pervy fic! I randomly came up with it one day and just bashed it out on the keyboard without much revision. Thanks so much for your hard work translating :D I'm glad your friends were able to experience some of my crazy writing hahaha – and the mixed reactions were very amusing xD

IttyBitty: oh-my-gosh-hi! Long time! That certainly is interesting (and inconvenient for the story lol). I remember watching in a movie how a prisoner was eating with a plastic fork (and still managed to stab his cellmate in the throat with it O.O) I guess that image is sort of stuck in my head whenever I think about prisons and cutlery lol.

Lenguademorada: Hello and welcome back to SD! :D You will certainly get to see the end of this fic, have no fear. It's a personal vendetta of mine not to leave any of my (current) fics unfinished, although as you may have noticed, it sometimes takes a little time haha. My old fics are pretty much abandoned though lol. I guess I don't have the same tastes as my formerly teenaged self alas. Thanks so much for the review!

Thine Own Palace

Chapter 25

Kogure drifted through the ash and the smoke as if carried on the tides. From each of his fingertips the smoke curled and swirled behind him in endless black butterflies. He felt like he was swimming in a strange, blackened world.

Faces passed him like driftwood on the tide, staring out at him from behind steel bars, each one desperate to leave the dance, and yet hopelessly caught up in its spinning, cycling madness.

There must have been noise - shouting and arguing and crying - but Kogure could hear nothing but a strange, ghostly music. The smoke shimmered around him, gathering here and there into great beasts of terror only to dissolve as he passed through their insubstantial forms.

The smoke had him in its deadly embrace. He could feel it clawing its way into his throat, into his eyes, a toxic smother. It made him blind and disorientated. But it did not make him turn back.

It wasn't long before he was on his knees, crawling his way along like a newborn. The concrete beneath his hands was the seabed - the smoke above was the dangerous, churning waves. And still the eyes followed him. The watchful, frightened eyes. Low to the floor, trapped and immobile. Nothing to do but wait.

Wait and survive, or wait and die.

Kogure carried on.

Direction became meaningless. He neither knew where he was, nor where he was going. Even up and down were no longer the eternal certainties he had always known them to be. The smoke carried him onwards in its whirling currents, and Kogure let it take him wherever it would.

No human logic or reason could carry him through these smokey floods. It was fate, and faith, or nothing at all.

He was halfway down another unknown corridor when there was a change. The ash in the air responded like a school of fish veering away from an obstacle, darting downwards in perfect circles. Kogure looked up. Three short blows on the foghorn and all around him, the doors were released.

In the centre of the corridor, Kogure sat up in grateful surprise.

He sighed in heartfelt relief as the cell doors swung open around him and inmates began to pour out.

Somehow they'd done it. Maki and Fujima had opened the doors.

The inmates hurried about him, sending the smoke into froathy turmoil. The whole corridor quickly became a place of chaos as ash and smoke was thrown in all directions, its gentle tides vanishing into white noise.

People were running this way and that, confused and afraid and desperately looking for a way out.

I'll drown, Kogure realised, crawling his way between legs and feet to the side where he anchored himself to the wall as the rapids churned all around him.

Small and alone, he closed his eyes and summoned Mitsui's face.

Keeping one hand on the wall he began to press on ahead, swimming through the smoke with great sweeps of his arm.

I must have some purpose here, he told himself firmly. I left Mitsui behind for this. I must make it count.

Sendoh did not think he'd ever seen anything more terrifying in his life. Stanley was swinging his bat to and fro, dripping blood and gore across the floor, a maniacal look in his eyes, and the shattered remains of Tsuki just beyond his shoulder.

He's got nothing to lose, Sendoh kept thinking to himself.

Stanley's eyes shifted between the two of them as if working out which present to open first.

Not Kaede, Sendoh realised desperately. I have to keep his attention away from Kaede.

Sendoh somehow managed to fix his face into a scowl.

"You've got what you wanted," he said, hoping his words didn't sound like a last desperate plea. "Tsuki fucked with you - he's got what he deserved. So go. Get out of this shit hole. What's the point of fucking around with me? You don't even know me."

Focusing on the sound of his voice, Stanley moved in his direction, taking slow, deliberate steps. His eyes were unblinking.

Sendoh swallowed. At least he'd caught Stanley's attention, but if he didn't think of something, it was going to turn out very badly for him.

Stopping directly in front of him, Stanley crouched and took hold of his chin in a vice-like grip. He forced Sendoh's face upwards so they were eye to eye. At least, Sendoh realised, meeting those cold and furious eyes, Stanley appearing to be thinking. He wasn't completely mad.

Sendoh's open handcuffs clinked quietly behind him, but he didn't try to make a move. Not yet. Not until the very last second.

"You're a strong kid," Stanley snarled finally, his face so close Sendoh could smell his breath. "Confident. A bit of attitude. Born leader. I could have done a lot with you." He licked his lips slowly, so that his meaning couldn't be clearer. "Too bad."

Sendoh didn't blink. "Fuck you," he replied, and spat straight into Stanley's eye.

Stanley didn't react. He smiled very slowly, and with his free hand, lifted up the bat, preparing to swing.

Sendoh tensed his arms, ready to defend himself.

Then the fire alarm rang.

All three of them jumped at the ear-splitting sound which suddenly blared from the bell in corner of Norio's office. Surprised, Stanley released his hold on Sendoh's jaw and turned to look at the small red fixture that was creating such an unearthly racket, while Sendoh clasped his hands together tightly behind his back, his heart jumping. He thanked all the gods he hadn't moved too soon.

The sound seemed to bring the world back to Stanley as if he was being shaken out of his enraged stupour. As if the prison suddenly returned to existence for him.

That's right, Sendoh realised. You do have something to lose. Your freedom. The police and prison authorities are all itching to get their hands on you again. You took a big risk coming here.

"What the hell?" Stanley snarled, heading to the office door and swinging it open. He looked out into the administration corridor, left and right. The noise from the alarms outside increased the volume of the ringing even further, but there were no obvious signs of disturbance.

Sendoh, too, looked at the ringing bell.

The fire's lit, he realised. Is everything going to plan? Did Mitsui and Kogure manage to break through the fence? Did Fujima and Maki open the cell doors? Where's Norio now? Has he found them?

"What the fuck have you done?" Stanley demanded from the doorway. But there was something more than fury in his eyes now. A small dose of nervousness. The bell would attract attention, from other blocks, from security. Stanley had managed to slip into T-block quietly, it didn't look as if his escape would go so smoothly now. And he knew it too. Sendoh felt a thrill. He could do this. He could pull it off.

"Where the fuck is Norio?" Stanley hissed under his breath, turning to step outside the door to see what was going on.

As soon as Stanley was out of sight, Sendoh set to work. He pulled the one remained pin out of his waist band and dug it into the small gap in Kaede's handcuffs, twisting it to find a grip as quickly as possible. He didn't know what good it would do, but if Kaede was to have any chance to get away, this was for the best.

As he worked, Kaede leaned a little closer into him, lifting his lips to Sendoh's ear and muttered, "Norio keeps a gun in his desk."

Sendoh swallowed slightly and nodded, still intent on opening the handcuffs. He didn't mention that he had never held a gun in his life, and wasn't even sure how to fire one. There wasn't any room for screw ups right now. He'd just have to learn fast.

"He's a twenty-three," Kaede added even as Sendoh pulled away, one of the cuffs open around Kaede's right wrist, hanging from the closed one on his left.

Sendoh met his eyes. He was about to ask what Kaede meant by that, but the sound of Stanley moving just outside the door sent him quickly back into his previous position. Kaede, he noticed, was mirroring him by clasping his hands together behind his back to give the appearance that they were still restrained. It occurred to Sendoh that he could have spent the time he had used releasing Kaede to go and take the gun from the desk, or at the very least perhaps position himself behind the door so he could strike at Stanley more successfully. Whatever the options, there was no chance for that now, because Stanley had re-entered the room, clearly unhappy.

Stanley took a short look at the blaring alarm, and crossed the room in three frustrated strides. Gripping the bat in two hands he swung it angrily at the noisy bell and smashed it into silence.

He's nervous, Sendoh realised. And he's alone. No matter what he may have become, he was once an inmate in this place. This room must be full of bad memories. Does that help me? Or does it just make him more dangerous?

It didn't matter. Because there was one chance. And Sendoh had decided that this was it.

He took a breath. "Welcome home, Stanley," he announced loudly. The man turned to look at him, and Sendoh was quite sure now he wasn't imagining the slightly panicked look in his eyes. "Looks like you're stuck here."

"What do you mean?" Stanley hissed suspiciously, moving around Norio's desk towards him. "What's going on?"

"Well," Sendoh began with deliberate slowness, enjoying the increasing frustration in Stanley's face. "I expect your men are dead by now. We've put your chopper out of use too. You made a big mistake, Stanley, thinking we would let you just walk out of here."

Stanley's voice remained low and furious and sure, but his eyes gave him away. They reminded Sendoh of a cornered rat. "Who do you think you are?" he demanded, gripping his bat tightly in two hands. "Don't try and play fucking games with me, you little bitch. I was king of this place before you were even born."

"You're just an old man," Sendoh retorted confidently. "You think you can do whatever you like? We aren't scared of you. You walk into T-block like you own it, but let me tell you something. This isn't your prison. This isn't Liron's prison, either. This is MY fucking prison. You wanna cause trouble here, you need my fucking permission, understand?"

Stanley's face turned bloodless with fury. Sendoh was reminded of his first day - his checking in the dining hall. It was all an act. It was always, always an act. You were defeated as soon as you showed fear. You had lost only if you let them think you had lost. He had known those rules from the beginning. He had learnt how to play this game.

"You arrogant little bitch," Stanley spluttered, trying to recover his composure. His eyes snapped to Kaede who glared up at him challengingly. Sendoh clenched his fists, anticipating what Stanley would do next. "You think you're fucking clever, do you? Think you're better than the numbers? Well let me make things a whole lot simpler for you."

Stanley hefted the bat and planted his feet firmly apart. In one fluid motion he swung the bat round in a huge, heavy arc, sending flecks of Tsuki's blood flying as it rushed through the air, straight at Kaede.

But Kaede didn't blink as it plummeted towards his skull like a hammer. Didn't give in to natural reflexes, to move away, or lift his hands protectively. In that second, he simply waited, with a strange, unshakable faith. Stanley saw it, and in the split-second of his swing, felt puzzled by it. The next moment, the bat hit a dead stop, inches from Kaede's face, with a thud that jarred Stanley's arm and forced him to take a step back, unbalanced.

Sendoh's eyes were cold and furious. The end of the bat was caught in the firm grip of his hands. "Did you really think," he snarled, "I'd let you do that?"

Stanley stared at him, wide-eyed.

"When did you…" he began, trailing off, realising that Sendoh was long free of the handcuffs. The was a second of stillness. And then Sendoh threw a heavy punch right into his face.

Stanley staggered backwards with the blow and Sendoh followed as he went, clinging to the bat, trying to wrench it out of Stanley's grasp. Stanley did not relinquish his hold, and was ready the next time Sendoh swung his fist.

Knocking the punch aside with a well-timed parry, Stanley took the opportunity to grab the other end of the bat with his free hand and hauled it round, catapulting Sendoh into the edge of Norio's desk with a crash. Sendoh grunted painfully as the sharp edge of the desk hurt his thigh, and Stanley immediately pushed forward, effectively trapping Sendoh against the desk. Stanley grinned through gritted teeth as he used the bat like a shield, forcing Sendoh down until the bat was pressing against his throat.

"You're ten years too early to be fighting me," Stanley grunted triumphantly. Sendoh didn't reply but pushed with all his might simply to avoid being choked. Stanley was unfairly strong.

The gun, Sendoh remembered. He summoned all his strength to twist sideways and somehow wiggle downwards, away from Stanley's trap. Unfortunately he was forced to let go of his hold on the bat to do so. Before he'd even managed to straighten himself again, Stanley was coming at him, swinging the thing left and right like a pendulum. Sendoh dived for the relative safety of the further side of the desk, putting the furniture temporarily between them. He dragged open the expensive, mahongony drawers in a rush and pulled out Norio's handgun. Stanley stopped short when he saw it, and Sendoh wasted no time bringing it upwards and pulling the trigger in Stanley's direction. It clicked ineffectually in his hand.


Desperately, Sendoh reached for the drawer a second time, but Stanley was already moving again as if suddenly reanimated, leaning across the desk to deliver a blow with the bat. Sendoh fumbled the small box of bullets as he tried to dodge Stanley's attack, and it hit the ground sending bullets rolling in all directions.

With the gun useless in his hand, Sendoh took an apprehensive step back, trying to give himself space to think.

Now what? He'd been kidding himself that he'd be able to handle a gun in the first place. He felt Kaede looking at him from the other side of the room and tried not to consider what would happen if he failed here.

He's a twenty three, Kaede had said. What was that supposed to mean, except that he was violent and dangerous? Stanley had moved around the desk, and Sendoh took another step back so that Norio's bookcase of classics was at his back. He gripped the gun tightly, wondering how effective it would be as a club.

There must be some way to beat him. What are twenty-threes like?

There was a simple answer to that. Killers. Twenty threes are killers.

He shook his head slightly, trying to catch his breath as Stanley approached.

Kaede and Jin aren't big guys. They're not brawlers like Mitsui and Maki. They kill quietly, more directly. But Stanley is muscular - more like a twenty-eight.

His eyes were still fixed on Stanley as he approached. I can't let him near me or I'll be dead. But what can I do? I have no ideas right now except to fight him like this.

Sendoh dove sideways as Stanley suddenly came at him, the bat throwing up books and papers where it hit the bookshelf. Sendoh crashed into the oriental rosewood screen which toppled onto him. He shoved it aside, only to see the bat coming for him once again. He felt the impact on his shoulder even as he tried to throw himself out of the way.

Agony immediately exploded on his left side. His body rolled back upright, but his left arm stubbornly refused to move, hanging useless and rubbery at his side, sending shocks of pain at even the slightest motion.

Sendoh screwed up his watering eyes to see Stanley coming towards him once again.

I can't fight him with strength. It's hopeless. I'm only wearing myself out. But nothing beats them. There's no trump card. What can beat a twenty-three… except… except…

His eyes finally flashed towards Kaede who hadn't moved from his place on the floor, momentarily forgotten by them both. Kaede met his stare, and Sendoh felt his heart hiccup in his throat.

I can feel him, he realised. He doesn't say or do anything, and yet somehow it feels like he's pulling my strings. Very quietly. Like he's been leading me from the very beginning. He picked me out. He chose me. Everything I ever did was because he wanted me to do it.

He looked down at the gun in his hand. I don't know how to use this damn thing anyway. Without warning he let the gun drop through his fingers, and clenched his hands into fists instead. It hit the ground with a sharp, metallic ring.

Sendoh sensed Stanley's confusion at his action, and anticipated the downward motion Stanley made towards the gun. Sendoh blocked him with a swift upper cut to the chin - which nearly blinded him as pain shot through his side - but somehow he managed to get his foot around the gun and kick it as far away as possible. Once again Stanley's instinct made him turn towards the gun's motion as if pulled by puppet strings, but Sendoh seized his hair in his right hand and managed to knee him ferociously in the face.

Wheezing, left hand trying to stem the blood flowing from his nose, Stanley tried to jab at Sendoh with the bat still in his right hand, but Sendoh had a sudden crystal vision of what he needed to do. He grabbed at the bat even as it came for him. A kick to Stanley's knee unbalanced the man for the second Sendoh needed to move in behind him, pulling the bat around so that Stanley was forced back awkwardly against Sendoh, the bat he held now across his body like a bar.

Immediately Stanley tried to kick viciously back at Sendoh's calves and knee caps, but Sendoh was still pulling him, unbalancing him, their feet slipping in Tsuki's blood, until they'd turned a hundred and eighty degrees on the spot. Then Sendoh sucked in his breath, strengthened his body, and prepared to hold him there as tightly as he could.

Lastly, he focused his eyes across the room once again and saw, just as Stanley saw, that they were now staring down the barrel of Norio's now-loaded gun.

"You-!" Stanley spluttered in fury.

Kaede's face remained blank.

"Me," he confirmed.

Got him! Sendoh thought triumphantly, feeling Stanley immediately strain against his hold. Felt him kick, begin to trash. His right arm lifting and swinging back ineffectively at Sendoh's side.

The gun shot sounded like an explosion in that small room, and in a split second Stanley had crumpled lifeless in Sendoh's arms.

Victory and adrenaline flooded Sendoh so euphorically that he didn't even notice that something was wrong. He didn't even feel it until he looked down and saw the blood that was rapidly soaking through his shirt. Curiously he put his hand to his side and was confused when it came away scarlet.

The knife Stanley had somehow pulled out of nowhere was lying on the floor not a foot away, its tip dark with Sendoh's blood.

Confused, Sendoh lifted his eyes to Rukawa as if in question, and then sank to the floor as his knees gave way beneath him.

Blood was pooling in his hands even as Rukawa kicked Stanley's body out of the way and tore strips from the hem of his shirt, pressing them against the wound.

Sendoh sagged woozily against Rukawa's chest.

He stabbed me, he thought to himself vaguely. That bastard Stanley fucking stabbed me.

"What did you plan?" Rukawa demanded urgently as he tied off the strips. "Is there a way out?"

Sendoh nodded. " Dining hall," he mumbled.

Immediately Rukawa looped Sendoh's right arm around his neck and hauled him unsteadily to his feet. They both staggered a little.

I'm leaning on a man who is even weaker than me, Sendoh realised unhappily. But despite the frailty of Rukawa's thin shoulders, between the pain in his side and his broken collar bone, Sendoh didn't have the ability to argue. Besides, Rukawa's grip on him was like iron as he pulled him swiftly towards the door.

The world was spinning even before Sendoh had taken three steps down the administration corridor. The ringing of the fire alarms was making him feel quite sick. He couldn't help but lean more and more heavily on Rukawa who, despite the burden, neither stopped nor slowed.

It wasn't until they made it out to the central courtyard that they saw the smoke. The alarms in the cell block had faulted into silence, but the fire was clearly still blazing. Smoke billowed up into the sky like a plague, throwing ash and burning remnants into their eyes and faces. They both looked at the block in dismay. They was no way around - the block spanned the entire width of the compound, touching the block walls at either side. The holding doors behind them were far too complex for Sendoh to handle even if he hadn't been minutes away from passing out. The breached dining hall - the only other way out - was on the other side of the burning building.

Staring down the raging fire, even Rukawa hesitated.

They could stay where they were, and wait to be found by whatever authorities arrived first - the fire-crews, the prison staff from surrounding blocks, the police, perhaps even the army. But Sendoh's only thought was what they would do to Rukawa if they found him.

If we stay here, Sendoh realised, we lose.

He turned his face towards Rukawa to tell him as much, but Rukawa began to pull him towards the burning entranceway before he even opened his mouth to speak.

"We have to move," Rukawa told him shortly in the face of his surprise. "Or you'll be implicated in Tsuki's murder."

"Uh…" Sendoh tried to respond, but he felt drained and cold beyond belief. He couldn't even move his fingers. There was nothing he could do but lean against Rukawa and trust him to guide them as they stepped through the doors into the building. Inside, the smoke was thick and black and foul-tasting. Blood had already soaked through Sendoh's makeshift bandage and his consciousness was beginning to fade in and out. It was all he could do to try and keep himself balanced as Rukawa pulled him urgently along.

Sendoh had no awareness of the flames they occasionally passed down smouldering corridors. He didn't feel the heat, nor notice the feeble coughs that hacked reflexively from his own throat. There was only dimness, the jostling of their motion, and Kaede's body warm against his. When his ear pressed to Rukawa's shoulder or neck, he could hear the thud of his heart beating. The prison, the fire and the danger all ceased to be. He was nowhere. Nowhere with Kaede. And in his state of helplessness he felt a strange, blissful feeling of complete trust for the boy who was half carrying, half dragging him home. All he knew in those moments of foggy consciousness was that they'd make it somehow.

They occasionally passed lost, panic-stricken or unconscious inmates, but Rukawa never slowed or hesitated. Even in the dark and the smoke and after years of absence, he knew his way through the prison as surely as if he'd never left it. The cells and endless corridors were his home. The walls were to him like windows. And he didn't falter until they rounded a final corner where they finally stopped dead.

Flame - towering structures and columns, a entire city of fire. All around him Sendoh could see no colour but the muddied reds and smokey browns of this strange world. Wherever his hand touched the wall or floor, it came away black with ash. More of the deadly stuff swirled through the red air on unseen currants, billowing and breathing like a living dragon.

And the noise. It sounded like a true living thing, snorting and roaring and sucking at their air greedily. It seemed as if they were surrounded by a dozen enemies. However, there was only one.

He seemed half man, half demon. The black ash clung to him like a shadow. The red of the blood that dripped down his face was only another flicker of flame.

A terror, dressed in reds and oranges.

Sendoh looked around at the strange city he had found himself in, but there was no salvation. No bridge of flame to warrant an escape. No smoke-made cave they could hide within. The demon had spotted them - would hunt them now. The flaming city was no ally of theirs.

Another prison. Another vision of hell.

Sendoh slipped in Rukawa's grasp, and Rukawa gently lowered him to the ground, propping him up against the corridor wall.

Sendoh felt more awake by the moment, as Rukawa's comforting warmth left him feeling chilled and alone despite the heat of the fire. He clutched the wound in his side and groaned. Tears streamed from his smoke-irritated eyes but he squinted through the black smoke to stare at the demon who had found them.

He was a sight. Beaten was too weak a word for him. His face was barely recognisable with blood and bruises and ash. He clutched at his ribs as if they were shattered. In his right hand was a gun - which he grasped by the barrel and wielded like a hammer.

Sendoh's breath only came in short disbelieving gasps. Why here? Why now?

"Norio," Rukawa's voice was terrifying, but Norio's eyes were only on Sendoh behind him. Venom seemed to roll off him in waves.

"What have you done?" he hissed.

Sendoh tried to move, feeling as if something were expected of him. But each time the pain rose, his head would spin, the chasm motion to him, he would fall and it would all be gone into a well of numbness.

He realised he could do nothing but let Rukawa answer for him.

And all at once, he was afraid of what he might hear.

How much was Kaede's revenge worth? On the man who had paid such pain and such agony. Playing out his most sadistic whims for what? There had been no purpose in Kaede's pain. Those codes Norio had pretended to desire had been known to him all along. There had been nothing to gain but Norio's own twisted pleasure. But now there were no bars, no handcuffs. Just Kaede's eyes reflecting the fire, and four years to compensate for.

"Kaede…" Sendoh tried to gasp, but he could barely even breathe any more.

Kaede breathed. In, and out. His eyes fluttered closed momentarily, then opened again.

This place. Silence. Commotion. He couldn't tell any more. He could have been alone, or in a room of a hundred people. He wouldn't have known. Everything he had was focused on only one thing now.

The pain that had been his mournful accompaniment for so many years was strangely distant. Fleeting. And yet it was something in his bones that told him – this is it. There won't be any more after this. This is finished now.

The world clicked around him - the fire - the years - the hurt - everything perfectly contained in its sphere. He saw it all in that moment, and understood it, even in all its strangeness.

It seemed… almost peaceful.

It was the end. His body and his mind could be tested no further. He was tired. So tired of waiting. Of struggling.

He could feel nothing now, but if he concentrated he could remember how it had felt. The agony of Norio's attempts on him. Years of cat and mouse. How he had lain dark and alone in that cell. Discarded. Death creeping like longed-for sleep through his veins.

The cage of his own body - rotten thing weighing him down. Just mangled flesh gathering infection, the stench of the prison rubbed irremoveably into his skin. There would be no going back now.

He looked closely at his one great enemy. Saw the lines around his eyes and the blood matted in his hair. Was it strange that this man should be engraved so deeply onto the steel of his soul? They were linked with chains not even death would break. Even in death, Kaede would hunt him down eternally.

He was aware, most of all, of Sendoh behind him – felt him there, that warmth that had made him so hungry – like the rays of the far-away winter sun on his icicled cheeks. He didn't turn his head to see him, lest his resolve should shatter, but his heart swelled with emotion. Pride. For this one. This one he had found, recognised, put all the final scraps of his faith into. Sendoh Akira would survive. Kaede would make sure of that.

A long life. Perhaps a wife, kids. He'd leave this prison. There would be hundreds of tomorrows there for him. Plenty of years left in which to drink his fill of the sun. Of the horizon. Of possibilities.

Yes, one day, Sendoh Akira would leave this prison and all these rotten things far behind him.

Rukawa had only to cling to that thought and everything seemed so simple. Without regrets. Everything just as he wanted it.

Black ash covered his palm and he pressed it against what remained of the corridor wall and steadied himself on his feet. Overhead the ceiling was cracking, a cloud of dust raining down on them all. Tongues of fire burst through the cracks from the rooms behind, brightening the smoke to reds and oranges, like the flowers of summer.

Numb, suddenly serenely empty, he lifted his hand as if to pluck one. The flames roamed over the flesh of his hand, immediately assaulting and destroying his skin though he had no feeling, no awareness of the pain at all. He felt light. Lighter than he had in years. After a moment, his sleeve caught light too, and the fire began to travel steadily across his body.

Someone was screaming. But this was it. The final ultimatum. He tipped his centre of gravity forward and, as the fire engulfed him, demanded one last toll from his long-ruined body. Run.

A bullet hit his shoulder, but his forward momentum was too great. He slammed into Norio with everything that he had, setting the clothes of his enemy alight, setting him screaming with pain and terror, and clawing at him in a desperate bid to push him away as the flames came up around them and the tangle of their limbs. Still he pushed, forcing Norio back, further away from Sendoh, further away from safety, back into the yawning tomb of a prison. He grit his teeth and pushed, and he did not stop pushing until he was certain they were far enough away that there was no going back. Not for him. Not for Norio.

There was no pain. Only a strange satisfaction. You were right, he thought to himself. This palace is yours. I'll leave it to you. Rule it. And I'll wait for you. Just on the other side… of the wall.

There was beauty in the flames. He might even have smiled.

Sendoh felt heavy and helpless. The heat of the fire caused beads of sweat to stick out from his forehead, smearing his face with ash and soot. Whenever he tried to move, even the slightest motion set him coughing until he was sure he would pass out from the pain of his shoulder and side. Even lifting his arms was becoming a struggle. If he stayed here much longer, the smoke would take him.

But he waited. And waited. Watching the corridor entrance where Kaede had disappeared. Waiting for him to return.

He couldn't see more than three feet around him, the smoke glowed orange and red, blinding and suffocating. His mind swam in and out of coherency. Soon even the walls and floor were slipping out of focus, his body slumping further and further down the wall. He listened for Kaede's voice, for the sound of him returning, but could hear nothing but a disembodied ringing in his ears. Everything seemed to be drifting to him through the fog of another universe.

But Kaede would come back for him. He only had to wait. He didn't doubt it, even for a second.

He didn't know how long he sat there. It might have been five minutes. It might have been a hour.

He'd slipped out of consciousness by the time there was sudden, human warmth by his side. Familiar jostling. Pain that now chimed like a throbbing echo and woke him from whatever brink he had found himself at.

He was moving, and a voice by his ear told him "not much further" and "not far now".

Kaede, Sendoh breathed in relief.

Gingerly, he felt out with his hand, feeling the familiar cotton of a prison shirt under his fingers. His eyelids fluttered as they stumbled finally out into the dining hall, away from the smoke, free of the prison's grasp.

When he finally came to his senses, Sendoh was lying on his back in the scrubby grass just beyond the dining hall's damaged chain fence. Weak sunlight on his face seemed at such odds with the acrid smell of burning still in his nose. His shoulder felt strangely tight, and when he turned his head he saw that a makeshift splint was holding his broken collarbone steady. All around him were bodies. Smoke-stained and bedragled inmates, some resting on their backs, others coughing up their lungs or clutching burnt limbs and faces. A sorry aftermath. The pile of tables over by the block wall had partially collapsed, indicating that some at least had managed to make it over the wall to relative safety.

Sendoh blinked dazedly around him. His head still felt woozy, but he was better for being out of the smoke.

"You've lost a lot of blood," a voice nearby informed him. "I've patched you up, but don't move too much. Do you remember where you are?"

Sendoh groaned softly. Now that it came to it, his throat struggled to form words. "Fukushima," he managed to rasp. "T-block."

"Right. Do you remember me?"

Sendoh's eyes flickered over towards the sound of the voice and struggled to focus on the nearby face.

"Kogure," he said.

Kogure smiled down at him absently. His young face was dirty with ash and distress. He looked fragile and shocked, as if he hadn't slept in weeks. There was something decidedly wild about his eyes. Sendoh blinked at him.

"Where's Kaede?" he asked.

Kogure frowned. "Kaede?" he echoed blankly. "I don't know."

Suddenly seized with the compulsion to move, Sendoh tried to sit up, only to give up immediately as the world tipped and lurched around him, and the pain made his eyes water. Kogure's steady hand on his arm held him down.

Sendoh let his head fall to the side, looking towards the block. From nearby, somewhere beyond the wall, the sound of sirens was growing steadily closer.

"You must have seen him" Sendoh insisted. "He bought me here. He was helping me…" he trailed off and fixed his stare on Kogure in a sudden uncomfortable realisation.

Kogure swallowed unhappily. "Tell me what happened," he insisted.

"We were running there… there was…" Sendoh frowned, shaking his head as he tried to connect the events that were still strange and dream-like to himself. "…Norio was there and Kaede… he… he…"

Kogure was staring at him, but Sendoh found he couldn't say anything more. Tears seemed to well out of nowhere, and spill silently down his cheeks.

The fire was still raging. There was ash and burning fragments on the wind, dusting over everything like black snowflakes. It seemed a part of the East Wing roof had collapsed, adding crumbled cement to the rising smoke.

Yet Sendoh couldn't see it for the tears.

Kogure, seeing Sendoh quivering, reached out and placed a comforting hand on Sendoh's shoulder.

"It was you, wasn't it?" Sendoh whispered harshly, his voice cracking. "It was you who brought me here."

"Sendoh…" Kogure began, seemingly at a loss. He didn't know what else to say.

Sendoh only stared at him, wide-eyed. "Kaede… he's still inside," he gasped, once again trying and failing to sit up. "He's…"

Kogure held him back, his face serious.

"Rukawa saved your life," he said firmly, his voice heavy, and his meaning clear.

Sendoh frowned at him as if he didn't understand. He wiped with his hand at the tears that just wouldn't stop coming. "But I was meant to…" he stammered, his voice dropping away as the enormity of world seemed to drown him out. He took a breath. "But… I was meant to be the one… who saved him."

Looking into Sendoh's confused, unhappy face, words fell away from Kogure.

"I'm sorry," was all he could say. "I'm so, so sorry."

A gust of wind brought a wave of drifting debris in their direction, ash settling on every surface, coating Sendoh's hair and sticking to his tears. A thousand fragments of burning paper were tossed around in the wind like confetti.

Time passed strangely after that. A white, hospital room. There was light, and whiteness, and the chill. Steel and plastic. Surgical. Cold.

Occasionally his hands would flex, clutch tightly at the blanket as if somewhere, deep within his mind, he were facing a final mighty terror.

Sometimes his eyelids would flutter, as if wanted to return to this world. The next moment, however, they would fall still, as if he didn't after all.

The people who drifted in and out of the room made no impression on him. He was trapped in dreams. And though, over several weeks, they nursed his body until it was well, there was nothing they could do to fix black and boundless grief.

Even when his eyes were open and he looked straight at them, it was as if he wasn't there. He responded to their questions sometimes. Rarely he might even crack a smile. And yet there was something. It was hard to put a finger on it. But he was not there. There was no Sendoh Akira in the body that had once held him.

He was automated. Breathing, existing, responding, doing. But not alive. Not, in all the ways that mattered, alive.

His existence was reduced to forms, to careful visits to the bathroom, to the uncomfortable robes he wore, and the creases of linen in his bed. The steady sound of hospital machinery, the small cup of water and collection of pills. A plastic tie around his wrist that revealed his name. A lock on the door. A prison officer who stood outside it.

And the monotony of endless days. Laying in a hospital, waiting to be better, so that once he was better, he could wait in a prison to be free, and then perhaps once he was free, wait in a cold and lonely world to die.

Sendoh Akira had seen the darkness before, but never so absolute as in the days and months following the fire. The borders between sleep and wakefulness seemed to vanish. Between night and day. Life and death. He didn't know where he was.

He really didn't care.

He existed, and that was all. He found, frequently, that he could not recall what had passed in the days before, nor care what was to come in those that followed. If there were others around him during those eight months, he didn't know them, their faces, nor their names.

Block 308 had been still under construction at the time the fire had occurred. Initially ear-marked to replace the greatly dilapidated Block A, it was, out of necessity, reassigned to the now-dispersed members of T-Block.

By the time Sendoh was released from the hospital, the other inmates had been in situ in the new block for two months. It was, as far as prisons went, exemplary. The design was such that dark corners and secret places were almost impossible to come by. There were recreational rooms, with televisions, pool tables and study areas. The paint was fresh, the air still optimistic. The dining area had a clean cafeteria feel. But when Sendoh stepped inside, it felt exactly the same. The eyes that followed him. A few inmates muttered darkly together when they saw him and slipped quietly out of the room. No doubt they recognised him. Sendoh didn't care enough to react.

He sat himself at an empty table, and stared at the white plastic surface blankly.

There was movement around him. Inmates drifting back and forth, carrying trays of food or heading back to their cells. Occasionally someone would wander towards his table to sit down, but hesitate when they saw the look in his eyes. In the fifteen minutes he waited, no one sat in any of the nine other places around his table.

In the sixteenth minute, however, someone sat directly opposite him.

"Sendoh Akira?"

He didn't move. Didn't even lift his head. If it hadn't been for his height and unusual blue eyes, Kogure might not have recognised him at all.

"Hey," he repeated, "Sendoh?"

When there was still no response, Kogure pursed his lips.

"Here," he said. "I've got something for you."

He pulled a small book out from the waistband of his trousers and put it on the table beside Sendoh's folded arms. Sendoh didn't look at it.

"It came inside a parcel," Kogure explained. "Some contacts I've made on the outside sent it through. There was no note or anything, but I guess it was meant for you."

There was no indication that Sendoh had even heard. Kogure sighed heavily.

"If you want," he said, "there's a rec room we use up on the third floor. Nice spot. It's got a TV and everything. Come by when you're ready."

He got to his feet, waited hopefully for a moment longer, but finally turned away when Sendoh still did not lift his eyes.

It wasn't until the end of the lunch service that the book finally caught his eye, and even then it was only by accident. A large, unfriendly-looking inmate passing by saw it, and picked it up.

"What's this?" the man guffawed loudly. "Poems? Like reading poems, do you?"

Sendoh didn't move.

The man scowled. "Hey! Listen to me when I'm talking to you!" He grabbed Sendoh's arm and tried to force him to move.

Sendoh was upon him in an instant. All teeth and ferocity. Like a wild animal he flung himself upon the man, toppling him backwards with a crash and clawing furiously at his throat. There was a diabolical glint in his eye. He smelt of despair, madness and absolutely nothing to lose.

Astonished at the sudden, vicious attack, the man only just managed to throw Sendoh off and retreated hastily out of reach.

"Fucking crazy bastard," he scowled, rubbing at the marks around his throat. A few people had gathered around, and the perpetrator swiftly slipped away between them. Sendoh was left on his knees, the book laying a few feet away where it had been knocked in the sudden scrimmage.

Absent-mindedly, he reached for it.

The collected poems of John Donne.

He turned it over and over in his hands. Where had this come from? Why did he have it?

It fell open in his hands. A long line had been drawn in pencil, highlighting one of the lines.

Be thine own palace

Or all the world's thy jail.

He stared at it for a long time.

Very slowly, something huge and terrifying seemed to uncurl and rise up in his chest.

"Kaede…?" he asked the book, as if it would answer him. It lay quietly in his hands, just repeating the same words over and over in his mind as his eyes flashed forward and back across the page.

How can it be? Is it possible?

Suddenly animated, he climbed to his feet and looked around as if the answers would be there. All that stared back at him were the foolish, moronic faces of the rest of the cattle.

He clutched the book to his chest. It was as if all the fog were lifted at once. Something in his dulled eyes cleared.

"Kogure…" he recalled, turning left and right, trying to work out which way that boy had gone. "Rec room. Third floor."

He turned to run. He felt his heart begin to beat in one final burning flash of hope.

Saw, in that moment, the roads that would lead him home.

The past wiped away. Old chains broken. My prison. My palace. My turn.

To decide, to rule, to create the ending.

And if you're out there…

He gripped the cover tightly. Just paper and pages in between his hands, but words written onto his soul.

If you're out there, Kaede…

...I'll find you.

ANs: In a cruel world, I'd end it here.


IOU one epilogue! Sincerely, Muses.

I've actually been doing a lot of writing in the last few months (just totally failing to actually finish any of it...) Epilogue is mostly written already :) Hopefully it won't take me too long to get it to you.

For your information, I actually wrote Kaede's final scene about eighteen months ago while listening to Britney Spears' Everytime, so you can blame her for it hahaha. Goddamnit that song is sad. (I'll post the full song list next time, or you can listen through it all on youtube, just search for Thine Own Palace Playlist)

I guess I should go and take shelter from the barrage of furious and angry reviews now... so... bye! *runs*