Angelchoo: Ack – please don't flame me D: I said once before (ages ago) that I didn't like sad endings for long fics due to the reader investment. I'd be monumentally peeved off to read so many thousands of words only to be disappointed in the end! Well. I have been known to change my mind...? (Guess you'll have to read it and see!)
Loveless Raine: Fanart would be awesome! Do send me a link if you get on to it :D Thanks for your review! This fic was my attempt at making Sendoh more awesome than Kaede, but I guess sometimes I just can't help myself D: (← Rukawa girl!) I've been enjoying Kuroko no Basket too, though some scenes are loads of fun (Aomine!) I still spend almost every episode either cringing or laughing at the ridiculousness of the continual "power ups" xD "OMG HE'S IN THE ZONE! HE'S NOW 20% BETTER THAN BEFORE!" orly?
Addicted to SD: Hi hi, thanks for sticking around despite my super-slow update speed! You're such a reliable reviewer hahah xD Thanks so much! I hope there's a somewhat-happy ending too~!
Anita: I'm glad I didn't drive you to concerned emails this time, although I did take forever to get this done (again!) I'm trying really hard to make Sendoh awesome D: I'm afraid I may have brushed over his awesomeness a little too much I really must do a better job for you D:
mrsklemzak: Oooh thanks for the tumblr promotion! I don't use many social media sites so it's nice someone else has got my back hahaha. Yup, I can totally see the SendohxSakuragi andRukawaxSakuragi setups. I might try my hand at it sometime :P Uh huh, Sakuragi sort of vanished in the last chapter. Hopefully the epilogue will reveal more? Maybe? Shifty look.
Hitomi65: uhm - thanks!
Svaneaalka: I'm sorry the the last chapter was such a cliff-hanger! Wonder no more! :D Thanks for your review~!
Thine Own Palace
The doors slammed shut behind Hikoichi Aida, echoing loudly down the corridor. He shifted his feet a little, and looked around blankly. The prison officer had barrelled him so rapidly down the corridor that he was feeling rather dazed.
Lifting his eyes, he took in his first sight of a prison cell.
It was a four-man room, mostly filled by the two beds standing one on each side of the cell, each with an upper and a lower bunk. The walls were marred by scuffs and marks, and posters of undressed women were tacked haphazardly about. The single high window was barred, letting in only a minimal stream of sun. Overall it felt cramped and untidy.
Aida turned his gaze upwards.
The top two bunks were occupied by two men. They sat with their feet dangling over the edge, staring down at him. There was really nothing friendly about them.
"Look at this, Skint," the man on the right sneered. "Look."
The second man, the one called Skint, was a thin man with narrow eyes and a calculating stare. "Looks like a little runt to me," he said gravely. "A little girl come to join us."
Aida squinted up at them. They seemed very high above him, sitting on the top of the bunks. He tried to swallow his nerves.
"Er- hello." He began awkwardly, his voice thin and unsteady. "I'm Aida Hiko..."
"Where you from, bitch?" Skint interrupted him, slipping down from the bunk and stepping straight into Aida's personal space.
Aida's eyes widened and he took an impulsive step back from Skint's radiating animosity.
"Ry-Ry-onan," he stammered in reply.
"Ry-Ry-onan?" the other man repeated mockingly from the top of his bunk. "Never heard of that place. Ry-Ry-onan." He laughed.
Aida's eyes moved between the two of them nervously. Their unfriendly scrutiny did not relent. He began to feel as if something cold was hurting his stomach. Skint reached out a hand and with a casual knock shoved him towards one of the lower bunks. "That's your space," he asserted impatiently. "Put down your shit."
Aida hesitated just a moment, before moving where he was directed, clutching his bag in both hands. He had to squeeze past Skint in the narrow space, and when he approached the lower bunk, the other inmate took the opportunity to prod at him with the toe of his boot.
"Think he's turned already?" he asked, leering down at Aida.
"Of course not, Webb," Skint gave a long, stretching smile. "It's his first time in."
Webb returned Skint's grin inanely. "I never got to turn no one before. Can I do it?"
"Not yet. We'd better show him to Michimori and the rest."
Webb looked disappointed and silence fell.
Aida took as long as he possibly could, pulling things out of his bag, setting them down, rearranging them. The two men did nothing but watch him, two pairs of eyes boring into his back. In the small space the silence was so heavy his ears turned hot and he could feel a trickle of sweat moving down the back of his neck.
He didn't know what they wanted, what would happen, who Michimori was, what Webb had meant by turned, or how on earth they knew it was his first time in prison.
He didn't have time to ponder these mysteries either. He was just spreading out his blanket when a hand finally clapped on his shoulder and spun him around. He gasped in surprise, and found himself nose to nose with Skint.
"Taking your sweet time," Skint observed coldly. He reached with his free hand to fiddle with his clothes. Aida dropped his eyes, only to see that the man was undoing the front of his pants.
Everything he had thought he knew turned impossibly distant in that moment. He was struck with a profound confusion. A sort of slow-moving stupidity that left him completely stumped as to why Skint was undressing.
"We can't turn you yet," Skint explained through gritted teeth as he freed himself from the confines of his clothes, gripping his own dick tightly in his fist, "but a little bitch like you should be good for some head."
Aida could only stare as revulsion crept slowly up on him. He had never been this close to another man's erection in his life. A little realisation gleaned, and he tried to squirm away but he was far too late. Skint's hand leapt from his shoulder to his hair, clutching at the strains in a painful vice.
"Get on your knees," he hissed.
Behind and above him, Aida could sense the excited glee practically rolling from Webb.
"Get- get off me!" Aida tried to shove Skint away, but the man was stronger than he looked. The next thing he felt was Webb's feet on each of his shoulders, adding his considerable weight in the effort to force Aida to the floor. The sound of his dimwitted sniggering rang in Aida's ears.
Aida screwed his eyes closed tight in disbelief. It didn't seem real. Was this really happening to him?
It was at that moment that the intercom speaker in the corner of their cell buzzed into life.
"Cellblock 308 section C lunch service is now available." A pleasant female voice informed them. "All inmates in section C must proceed to the cafeteria. Be reminded that any absence for assigned lunch service will be treated as a breech of protocol. You should now leave your cell."
As if in response to the message, the mechanical locks on the cell door released with a clang, and the door swung open. Out in the corridor, the message could be heard repeating in the same bright tone.
"Fucking hell," Skint swore, releasing his grip on Aida's hair and moving to close his fly. "Motherfuckers."
"What do you want to do?" Webb queried, slipping down from his bunk to join them on the floor.
Skint sighed in irritation. "Doesn't matter," he replied. "It can wait. Anyway, I'm fucking starving." He turned his eyes to Aida, "Come on then, move!"
Skint kept his hand knotted in the back of Aida's shirt for the entire time it took them to walk to the cafeteria. Aida, for his part, didn't have enough wits about him to try to get away. He was still shaken to his core, thoughts utterly scattered. Besides, where could he possibly go?
The cafeteria was already getting busy by the time they arrived. A queue was forming against one wall, occasional isolated scuffles breaking out. The communal tables were filling up, and everywhere Aida looked he saw men just like the ones he was with. Sour, hard-faced criminals. A world he didn't belong in.
He was propelled over to a table already occupied by a few others, and was made to sit with Skint and Webb on either side of him.
Aida's eyes moved left and right, but he couldn't see salvation anywhere. There wasn't a friendly face in the room. Even the guards patrolling the walls seemed unpleasant and cruel. What was he meant to do?
Gradually the table filled as the rest of the inmates filed into the cafeteria. They greeted Skint and Webb whilst ignoring Aida as if he wasn't there at all. All the while, Skint kept a firm grip on his arm, and would not let him go.
It wasn't until the table was nearly full that someone spoke up.
"Who's the bitch?"
Aida looked over at the man who sat at the centre of the table. He was huge, with arms that bulged from his sleeves, and a neck as thick around as his head. From the sudden, quiet attention of the others, Aida guessed this was Michimori.
"New cellmate," Skint explained, dropping his voice a little bit, leaning forward. "And I mean new."
"First timer?" Michimori asked, and grinned in the most unpleasant way. Aida shifted in his seat. "Name?"
Realising that the question was directed to him, Aida licked his dry lips and answered in a wavering voice. "Aida. Aida Hikoichi."
"Hikoichi-chan," the man sent mockingly back. "Well, Hikoichi-chan, you will call me oniisan."
Aida looked at him blankly.
"Say it now," Michimori told him. "Say 'yes, oniisan.'"
Spurred out of his terror by the indignity, Aida gave him a look of disgust, but Michimori met his look with serious eyes. He wasn't joking.
"I... I won't," Aida's voice quavered.
The man's expression turned to amusement. "Are you saying no to me, Hikoichi-chan?"
Aida scrunched his lips together in a defiant expression. All of the men around him were watching the exchange silently. Their attention fuelled his pride. He couldn't be humiliated like this. He wouldn't.
"Skint," Michimori said with a flick of his eyes.
The next moment, Skint had moved. Aida was knocked backwards from his chair, falling to the ground with a cry. Immediately a heavy foot put pressure on his throat. He winced and tried to push away Skint's ankle, but he couldn't shift it. Instead, the foot only pushed down more firmly.
"Say it," Michimori's voice snarled from somewhere above him.
Aida writhed, trying to kick out with his feet, but they tangled in the legs of chairs. His eyes began to feel as if they were too big for their sockets as the pressure on his throat continued to increase. He gasped like a grounded fish.
"Say 'please let me suck your dick oniisan'," the voice above him demanded, and the vague sound of chuckling amusement came from the others.
His eyes watering, Aida managed to gasp, "oniisan". The pressure did not decrease.
"What was that?"
"Oniisan," he wheezed again.
"I can't hear you."
"Please let me...?"
Aida squirmed, and could not help the tears that spilt down his cheeks full of fear and humiliation. "Please... let me suck your dick... oniisan."
The foot was removed, and Aida rolled onto his side coughing and clutching his bruised neck. Laughter came up from the gang. A glass of water was upended over Aida's head, to more amused approval. Aida curled himself into a ball and tried to hide his face, laughter ringing in his ears.
They were still laughing when Skint's familiar voice sounded close to his ear, telling him to get up.
Aida didn't move from where he lay. A rough hand shook him by the shoulder. "You'll do what I say if you don't things to get ugly, do you understand me?"
Aida whimpered slightly and began to climb back to his feet. Every face at the table was looking at him in cruel mockery.
Aida was forced back into his seat between Skint and Webb, his eyes on his hands, and drips of water still falling from the strands of his hair. He felt sick.
"So – we're gonna keep him?" someone asked.
Michimori gave a nod.
"Is that – is that going to be okay?"
Michimori scoffed and leaned back in his chair, folding his arms. "I'm not afraid of Sendoh fucking Akira," he announced loudly. "If that bastard's got a fucking problem, he knows where to fucking find me."
There was an uncomfortable hush following this declaration. Not just from their table, but from those on either side as well. Aida noticed the way a few heads turned to glance in Michimori's direction.
Someone cleared their throat.
"Well somebody needs to teach that punk a lesson," Skint finally spoke up in agreement, though he sounded less assured than before. "Always acting like he owns the place."
A few heads nodded in agreement. When nothing bad seemed to happen, more gang mates began to speak, spurred on by each other.
"Yeah. Acting like he's so big," someone put in. "You could take him, Michimori. Easy."
"Next time I see him I'm gonna pay him back for Kinimoto's eye."
"I bet it's not even true. All that stuff people say about him. It's all bullshit."
"Yeah. All that shit about T-Block too. Bullshit."
Aida risked a a glance from beneath his sopping fringe. The faces around him were animated and eager, revisiting tired scraps of prison gossip. Aida could only be grateful that, for a short moment at least, their attention was directed away from him.
"What about that bitch? You know – the one he choked with his dick?"
"I remember that. The kid died in hospital."
"Don't be fucking stupid. You can't choke someone with a fucking dick."
"You wanna fucking bet?"
"Hey you remember when Sendoh Akira killed his cellmate back in T-block?"
"Yeah. And when they came to recover the body – he'd eaten it."
"Someone's gotta teach that bastard a lesson," someone repeated adamantly. "Michimori, let's do something about that fucking dick."
"Talking about Sendoh Akira?" a new voice asked.
Aida saw their expressions freeze.
All eyes turned upon the newcomer who cracked a slow smile and slid himself casually into the empty seat opposite Aida. A golden tooth glittered under his lip. An old scar across his eyebrow wrinkled with his grin. But most striking of all was his hair – a furious shade of red. He met Aida's eyes.
"You know, some nights you can hear him howling to the moon," the man continued cheerfully, leaning forward as if telling a secret. "AowwoooooooooOOooooo~" he mimicked softly, and then smirked.
The silence was deafening.
"Sa-Sakuragi-" Skint spluttered in astonishment. "Wh-what are you doing here?"
Sakuragi leaned back again and spread his hands with a relaxed shrug and a knowing smile.
"Aren't- aren't you in section F?" Skint continued, babbling a little nervously. "This lunch session is for section C."
"Don't be stupid," Sakuragi replied in amusement. "You don't think those rules apply to me, do you?"
Michimori, apparently stunned into silence, said nothing. Sakuragi ignored him and kept his eyes fixed on Aida, who couldn't help but lean nervously back, away from his stare. There was definitely something frightening about Sakuragi. Something unsettling. Perhaps it was the way his smiling lips did not seem to match his snarling eyes.
"And you are?" Sakuragi prompted.
Aida hesitated. The men around him exchanged furtive glances, but no one spoke.
"I'm- I'm Aida Hikoichi," he said finally, his voice weaker than ever.
Sakuragi's eyes moved over Aida appraisingly. "First time in?"
Aida nodded dumbly, vaguely wondering how everyone seemed to know this.
"What are you in for then?"
For a moment, Aida could not find his voice. He was acutely aware of those around him. The expressions they bore. The men who just moments ago had seemed so terrifying and aggressive had been reduced to silence.
He couldn't afford any delusions. What sort of monster must this Sakuragi person be?
Aida forced himself to swallow, and then speak.
"Just... uh... some computer stuff."
"Computerstuff," Sakuragi echoed, still staring at him. "Like did you steal some? Break some? Hack some?"
"Uh – yeah, I, erm, hacking. Mainly."
Sakuragi's stare was unrelenting. Aida realised his hands were quivering. He dropped his eyes to the table top.
After what seemed an age, he heard Sakuragi get up from his chair, and nervously risked a glance. The man was stretching and yawning widely, his arms nearly reaching the ceiling.
Then he cracked open an eye and with a somewhat mischievous grin said, "come with me."
Aida caught his breath. Skint's hand, still gripping his arm, grew tighter. The others all glanced uncertainly towards Michimori. As little as he understood about the situation, even Aida could tell that this was a clear challenge.
Michimori was forced to speak, spurned into action.
"Now wait a moment," he protested from his seat. "We're looking after him. He wants to join our gang"
"Is that right?" Sakuragi's voice dropped a couple of tones. His jovial manner instantly evaporated, and the look in his eyes turned Aida's stomach weak.
Michimori tried to rally himself. "Listen Sakuragi, it's none of your business. You don't need him."
"It isn't a case of need. I want him. I take him. That's all there is to it."
Michimori finally rose from his seat. He was truly a monster of a man, probably close to seven foot and broad to match. Aida could not help notice the way his biceps twitched in his huge arms. Sakuragi was a big guy, but Michimori was a different league entirely. It didn't seem like much of a fair fight. But Sakuragi didn't flinch.
"Is he worth it?" Sakuragi asked, raising one brow. "I know you've been talking to Kogure. I would hate for there to be any problems. A little gift like this could really speed things up for you."
"Besides," Sakuragi continued, waving a hand. "You wouldn't want Sendoh to hear how you've been talking about him. You know what he's like when he's mad. That – what did you call him – fucking dick?"
Michimori's expression changed. Slowly he sat down.
"I don't want to delay things," he asserted finally. "You'll tell Kogure, won't you? That he's a- a gift. From us."
"I'll let him know," Sakuragi replied shortly, although he didn't relax his stance. His eyes moved back to Aida and he tossed his head towards the exit. "Come on."
"Who is Sendoh Akira?"
They were strolling down a corridor. Sakuragi was walking casually with his hands in his pockets, but Aida was still forced to hurry to keep up with his long strides.
"Who is Sendoh Akira?" Sakuragi echoed thoughtfully. "Now that's a question."
Aida waited, but Sakuragi didn't say anything more. They rounded a corner and continued on.
"He's... in your gang?" Aida prompted carefully.
"Did he really eat his cellmate?"
Sakuragi let out a laugh. It was round and clear and echoed loudly down the corridor. But he didn't answer the question.
Aida frowned and fidgeted. "Is he stronger than you?"
"Sendoh's stronger than everybody," Sakuragi replied dismissively, although Aida couldn't help but think he didn't quite mean it. There was that same hint of amusement in his voice.
"Will I... meet him?"
Sakuragi stopped short so that Aida nearly bumped into his back.
"Listen," Sakuragi said without turning round. "I'm only going to tell you this once, so pay attention. This is prison, not fucking Disneyland. Stop acting like a frightened little rabbit and get your fucking shit together."
Aida blinked at him blankly. Sakuragi sighed in irritation and ran a hand through his hair.
"Look. Our gang, we need people with... certain skills. But not even Kogure is going to take on a suck-face little bitch like you if you go in there looking like you're going to shit yourself any moment. Have some guts. Or at least fucking pretend to."
Aida hesitated. Then he asked, "Who's Kogure?"
Sakuragi turned and frowned at him for a moment, wondering if anything he'd just said had sunk in at all. Then he shrugged, and continued walking. Aida hurried to keep up.
"Kogure's the boss," he explained.
Aida looked sideways at him. "But I thought Sendoh was the boss?"
Sakuragi rolled his eyes slightly. "Kogure's the boss. Do you always question everything you hear?"
Aida bowed his head a little. "Mum says it's a bad habit of mine."
"Fucking hell," Sakuragi muttered under his breath.
They took a final turn to the right, and came face to face with a closed wooden door. A sign on it read 'SECTION F REC ROOM'. Sakuragi rapped smartly on the wood.
Almost immediately the door swung open and an irritated-looking inmate appeared in the door frame, glaring at the two of them.
"That was quick," he observed suspiciously. "What did you fuck up this time?"
"Watch your fucking mouth Koshino," Sakuragi retorted and pushed past him into the room, Aida trailing behind.
The rec room was a large and comfortable space. A TV set on one wall was surrounded by three shabby-looking sofas. A well-worn ping-pong table took up half of the floor. An odd assortment of chairs and stools were scattered untidily about. There was even a small kitchen complete with sink, microwave, kettle and fridge. The furthest wall had a couple of barred windows under which a long communal table with wooden chairs was situated.
The room was populated by about eight inmates who were mostly hanging around idly, conversing or picking their teeth. They briefly glanced up as Sakuragi and Aida entered, but quickly returned to their own conversations. The whole scene was surprisingly normal, worlds away from the hostility and tension in the dining hall.
Aida looked at each inmate in turn. Somewhere in this room was the infamous Sendoh Akira. He noticed a few distinct possibilities – that handsome, dark-haired man lounging on one of the sofas – or that thick-set man who was apparently engrossed in carving his name into the wall with what looked like a hunting knife – but he couldn't be sure. Despite the situation, he felt a little safer with Sakuragi beside him. When it came down to it, Aida's insatiable curiosity would always override his fear. And to him, at the moment, the dangerous and violent figure of Sendoh Akira seemed the most curious thing of all.
Unfortunately Sakuragi didn't introduce anyone, steering him straight across the room towards the long table. On the opposite side a single, tired-looking man poured over papers spread across the table surface.
"Yo, Kogure," Sakuragi greeted him, "Someone interesting for you."
Kogure held up one finger as if asking Sakuragi to wait as he finished reading the paper in his other hand. Aida heard Sakuragi huff impatiently beside him, but he did nothing more. Then, Kogure set the paper down, and looked up at the two of them expectantly.
Aida stared at him in surprise.
"You're... Kogure?" he blurted.
He took in the sight of the man before him. Glasses, a slender build, and no taller than Aida himself. There was the impatience of a busy man in his face, but other than that, he didn't seem intimidating in the least.
Kogure tilted his head. "That's right. Is there a problem?"
Aida blinked rapidly. "No! Not at all." He shook his head emphatically. "I'm just surprised – you know - because you're... well... just kinda short, I guess."
Kogure's face turned stony and he glared at Aida over the top of his glasses. He did not look amused.
Someone behind them began to snigger and Sakuragi let out a soft groan of disbelief. Aida felt his ears turn pink.
"Where do you find these people, Hanamichi?" someone asked in an amused voice. Aida turned to see the man who had been sitting on the sofa wind his way over to join them. He came close to Kogure and rested a hand on the back of his chair. His right forearm, Aida now saw, was black with tattoos from wrist to elbow. He had a rugged, handsome face, a thin scar on his chin, and a relaxed, confident air. When he looked at Aida, however, his gaze held a certain coldness, as if there was something dark, just below his surface.
"You walk up to the leader of this prison's most notorious gang and tell him that he's too short? I can't tell if you're badass, or just fucking dumb."
"I- I didn't-" Aida began to stammer, flushing a furious red, "I didn't mean-"
Kogure held up one hand, and Aida plunged into silence.
"What's your name?" Kogure asked coolly.
"What do you do?"
Aida looked at him blankly. 'What do you mean?"
It was Sakuragi who jumped in. "He's a hacker."
The air changed a little. Kogure leaned forwards in his seat and gave Aida a second look. "Really?"
Sakuragi nodded enthusiastically. "Right?"
Kogure pursed his lips in thought. "We haven't seen a twenty-four in a long time," he mused. "Well, I suppose I could tell you a little bit about our gang, Aida Hikoichi. If you're interested." He lifted one eyebrow expectantly.
Sakuragi elbowed Aida sharply in the ribs and Aida nodded mutely.
Kogure gestured to the rest of the room with an easy sweep of his hand. "We've been together for a long time. Since T-Block days. You've heard of T-Block, I expect?"
Aida shook his head uncertainly. Kogure shrugged, a little regretfully. "Oh well, it was a long time ago I guess."
"Nine years," the man beside him supplied quietly. "Ten since we met Sendoh. Nine since the... you know."
Aida looked up hopefully at the sound of Sendoh's name.
"Well, we specialise in contraband now," Kogure continued on with a wave of his hand. "And sell it to other gangs. They all need stuff – cigarettes, whiskey, porn. Some are pretty desperate. No one else in this prison can do what we do. It gives us a significant amount of... ah... influence."
Aida looked at him enquiringly. He wanted to ask about Sendoh Akira, but instead he said, "Isn't that... against the rules?"
Kogure smiled indulgently. "True. But we have certain ways to grease the wheels. I've arranged it so that the wardens look the other way for us."
Aida gaped at him. "But how did you manage that?"
Kogure leaned forward in his seat. "The answer to that question, Aida Hikoichi, is the reason why a short guy like me is the leader of this gang."
Aida flushed red again. Kogure gave him a unreadable smile.
"I give everyone two chances," he continued. "You've already wasted one, so you don't have any more room to fuck up before you're out. Ikegami!" he said the last word loudly, and an inmate with immaculately tidy hair came hurrying across the room to join them. "Ikegami, I'm putting you in charge of this little dipshit. We don't have any twenty-fours, so you just do what you can to get him wherever he needs to go."
Ikegami looked momentarily astonished, but he quickly recovered, straightening his back. "Er – er – yes. Yes, thank you. But – er -" he peered at Kogure curiously. "What about Kyota?"
Kogure waved his hand dismissively. "You already know everything you need to know. I've spoken to Kyota already and he's agreed."
Ikegami's face broke out into a smile. "That's great – I mean –" he beamed and looked towards Aida. "I'll do my best."
Kogure nodded and turned his attention back to Aida. "Ikegami is your teacher, and he'll tell you what you need to know. But understand this: you are dependant on him, like a wiggly little newborn. He can either help you, or get you into deep shit. Ikegami might be a good guy, but I suggest you don't go making an enemy of him, or your life might turn very shitty very quickly." He gave Aida an intense stare before continuing. "In this gang we follow Sendoh's rules, and the rules say that no one – not even your teacher - can force you to have sex or suck cock, but be sensible about it." His eyes narrowed. "Sex is currency here. Some things are worth the price, and some things are not. Remember that."
Aida turned first pale, then bright red.
Kogure kept his eyes on him. "And if I hear you call me short ever again, I'll get Mitsui here to cut off your fucking ears. Any questions?"
Aida stared at him dumbly. Kogure nodded once, and looked back down at his papers in dismissal.
Ikegami reached for Aida's shoulder. "Let's go," he muttered quietly. "I'll introduce everyone to you."
Aida blinked. "No, wait," he blurted. "Wait, I've got a question."
Kogure visibly bristled and looked up again, obviously at the end of his patience.
Aida ploughed on before he could lose his nerve. "Who is Sendoh Akira?"
It might have been his imagination, but Kogure looked a little unsettled. Just a little bit smaller. Then he leaned carefully back in his chair, pressing his fingertips together in thought, and the impression vanished.
After a moment, he sighed.
"Listen, kid. How long have you been in this prison?"
Aida thought for a moment. "About three hours?"
"And what do you know about Sendoh Akira?"
"At bit. He's got something to do with this gang. I thought he was the leader, but Sakuragi said you were. Uhm, I heard that he killed his cell mate with his bare hands and – er – ate him. He did something to Kinimoto's eye..." he hesitated, "...and apparently he choked someone to death with his – you know-" he gestured vaguely. "Plus he howls like a wolf at night time... but I think Sakuragi was joking about that..." he looked a little nervous. "He was joking, right?"
Kogure frowned. "Sendoh Akira was a genius," he said finally. "He started this gang during a really shitty time. We all waded through more than our fair share of mud, but he's the one who got us to the top of this shit hole. Half our reputation is built out of his infamy. The truth is that he wasn't particularly violent, or particularly cruel, but there was something about him... he was the sort of person who, when it mattered, could make anything happen. Sometimes you began to wonder if it was magic."
Aida stared at him sceptically. "You talk about him in the past tense," he noted.
"Yes, he's gone now."
"Keep it to yourself though," Kogure added. "His reputation is still pretty useful to us."
"But what do you mean gone?"
"Twelve years," Sakuragi said quietly beside him. Aida glanced over to see him looking at the ceiling, his arms folded. "Twelve years are up."
"His sentence was twelve years," Kogure clarified, frowning vaguely. "They released him this morning."
Aida's mouth dropped open.
An odd silence fell as the men around him seemed to be remembering former times. It was Mitsui who finally said, "Do you think he'll really find Rukawa Kaede?"
Aida was on the verge of asking Who is Rukawa Kaede when he was interrupted by a loud scoff somewhere behind him.
Aida turned to see a strong, dark-skinned man smirking in the most unpleasant way. The skin on his neck looked like it had been burned, and a long scar crossed over one eye. There was a particular wildness about him, as if he wasn't quite in control of himself. "Rukawa Kaede is dead." The man said with a sneer. "The only reason I didn't fucking kill Sendoh nine years ago was because he was even more of a wreck than I was."
Aida felt Sakuragi bristle slightly beside him. "Fuck you Maki," he snarled. "You couldn't so much as touch him."
"Enough," Kogure snapped tiredly, as if it was an argument he'd heard many times before. They looked towards him, and he frowned. "As for Rukawa Kaede" he added, "I wouldn't be so sure."
"What do you mean?" Sakuragi demanded.
Kogure glanced at each of them of them in turn and Aida saw the hint of a slow smile tickling his lips. "Maybe I know something you don't know," he said teasingly.
They all looked keen to ask more, but Kogure only shook his head and put a knowing finger to his lips. Then he looked back down at his papers, and the conversation was over.
Sendoh stepped out of the main gates and immediately shivered, pulling his coat tighter against the cold. An unkind wind whistled across a grey landscape. The giant steel doors rumbled closed behind him and a single security camera turned to watch him where he stood.
Sendoh was reminded that Fukushima prison was set decidedly in the middle of nowhere.
Fishing in his pocket he checked the contents of his wallet. A few hundred yen coins. It hadn't been much twelve years ago – it was bound to be worth even less now.
On either side of the road, and currently pretending he wasn't there, two guards were on duty. One was sitting on a wooden stool, reading a folded newspaper. The other was staring blankly out into the bleak countryside. There was nothing else.
The road stretched away from Sendoh's feet, along the cusp of a hill, dipping down into a valley where, he had been assured, there was a bus stop. Sendoh hesitated. He turned back to look up at the buildings behind him one last time.
It was certainly colder out here than it had been inside, that was for sure. He thought of the rec room, where Mitsui, Kogure, Maki, and the others were probably scheming together. Now it seemed that the bars that once kept him in were suddenly keeping him out. He hunched his shoulders unhappily. He wasn't sure he really belonged out here.
Turning aside, he approached the guard who was standing and staring blankly.
"Where's..." he began.
"Bus stop's down the hill," came the abrupt rely. "Fifteen minutes walk. Ten, if you hurry."
Sendoh blinked, and tried again.
"No, actually. Can you tell me where the prison cemetery is?"
This time the guard looked at him. His eyes moved up and down, assessing Sendoh closely. Sendoh stared back, conscious of how his shirt and jeans hung loosely from him. He hadn't even realised just how much weight he'd lost.
Finally the guard jerked his head away over to the right.
"Round the side of the building," he said. "You'll see it as soon as you turn the corner."
Sendoh gave a short nod and headed the way the man had pointed.
The road around the building was little better than a track. Not many cars made a trip round here after all. Sendoh kicked the gravel as he walked, hands deep in his pockets. A little sleet began to fall.
As promised, the cemetery, with its rows of identical headstones, quickly came into view. It was bordered by a low, rusting iron fence and must have contained, at a guess, three or four hundred graves.
The sound of the gardener's clippers slicing through pine and wood was the only sound to be heard. Not a single bird was singing on a damp, bleak day like this. Sendoh pushed open the wet rusted gate, causing the iron to creak and screech painfully. The gardener glanced up briefly, but quickly returned to his work as Sendoh shuffled inside and closed the gate behind him.
As his feet dragged through the damp grass he felt the sadness tangible in the air. The particular sense of slowness that lingers around cemeteries everywhere. Soothing to old wounds and peaceful to memories, as if time were somehow softened here. Sendoh drifted through it, breathing the stillness.
The newest graves were closest. Most names that he didn't recognise, but he stopped for a while in front of a stone that read Jin Soichiro and stared at it, rocking slightly on his heels. The date of decease was only some two years previous. Executed, of course.
Sendoh must have stood there for five minutes before he reached out a hand and patted the stone a little awkwardly. "Thanks Jin," he muttered under his breath, and tucked his hand back inside his pocket. "I really owe you."
A heavy moment, then he picked up his feet, and moved on.
He wandered along the rows a little further back, but couldn't find any trace of Fujima Kenji. Nine years ago Maki had somehow dragged him out of the fire, all the way to the dining hall, but Fujima had never woken up. Doubtless he was one of the few who still had family who cared about him. Perhaps his parents had picked up his body to bury in his home town. Sendoh hoped so.
He thought briefly of Maki. He hadn't been quite the same since. Losing Fujima had been a blow, but with Jin gone too it was no wonder he was a little cracked. Still, he recalled, Kogure was always better at handling Maki than I was. I'm sure they'll be fine.
He paused at the end of the row in hesitation, wondering whether he should continue. Did he really want to be here? Would it change anything, or mean anything at all? He had to bite his lip and steel himself before carrying on.
As he moved further back, the silence began to ache. The regular clipping of secateurs and distant noise from the prison blocks did nothing but make the silence more noticeable. More intense.
He wandered aimlessly through the rest of the still and silent stones, half-hoping he wouldn't find it. But there they were. Six in a row. Almost indistinguishable from the rest.
With his hands deep in his pockets he stood and stared at them for long while. The silence seemed to concentrate around him, becoming thick and syrupy until he could hear nothing but his own breath and his heart beating.
His eyes dragged across the shallow inscription repeatedly.
Slowly, he reached out and touched the stone. An old grave. It was cheap cement, like all the rest. The characters of his name were already beginning to wear away. Just another two-bit criminal, mostly forgotten. A thin film of lichen had begun to grow over the corners of the concrete, clinging life on a dead stone.
It seemed solid, almost real. Here, where the line between his life and his death was so perfectly blurred. It was easy to imagine that he was really here, sleeping peacefully under the grass.
Sendoh shook his head regretfully. It was just a mask over an ugly truth. The stone's very existence was merely a symbol of the death so long prolonged, so dark, so lonely, and so painful.
He shuddered and removed his fingers.
I know you're not here, he mouthed to himself, feeling hotness across his cheeks and pain in his chest. But Kaede... you're not anywhere.
He clenched his fists and closed his eyes.
You have to be alive. You have to be. I've nothing but a book and my stubbornness to prove it... but I can't give up. I don't dare to. I don't have anything else.
"You know, they say that grave is empty," a sudden voice cut into his thoughts.
Sendoh lifted his head. In his mind strangely dim, the words seemed to be coming from a distance. He half-thought he'd imagined it. But when he opened his eyes he saw that the gardener had wandered over. Rainwater dripped from his plastic hood and trimming shears shone like wet iron in his hand.
Sendoh stared at him dumbly.
"What?" he croaked, bewildered.
The gardener gestured to the stone with one hand. "They say that grave is empty," he repeated.
Sendoh turned back to the grave confusedly. Something massive flicked inside him. Emotion, thick and violent, rose in his gut like flood water. A part of him wanted to cry. A part of him wanted to laugh – laugh and laugh and never stop laughing. It all seemed so fittingly mad. The world – the graveyard, its rusting fence, the old shed, the rows and rows of monuments to the forgotten dead – everything was meaningless. What was true, and what was false, and all the mirages in between, seemed to blur.
He'd come here hoping... for what? Solace? Peace? Answers? Proof that any of it had even been real? But even here, by his grave, there was nothing. Just dead stone and silence.
He shivered. The world seemed endless. He stood at the door of a new life, but he had nothing. Everything he had achieved was on the other side of that wall. Everything he wanted had long been lost. He had nothing but his own fire to sustain him, and a task so wide and so hopeless that he thought he might go mad with it.
A hand gripped the sleeve of his jacket, disturbing his thoughts, and Sendoh turned back in irritation.
Blue eyes met his.
Overhead, the first rumble of thunder galloped over the low clouds, but neither of them moved.
There was a moment. A short heartbeat as he pushed back the hood of his raincoat.
A second rumble bounced off the prison walls and was accompanied by a swift blast of lighting that made the clouds overhead momentarily sparkle with silver linings. Then the heavens opened, and the rain began to fall.
They didn't notice.
"Ka- Kaede-?" he breathed in disbelief, his voice dampened by the raindrops.
Rukawa only stared back, taking in the sight of him.
Rain water was running down the sides of his face, darkening his shirt and soaking his hair. But those things were minor considering that everything about Sendoh Akira seemed changed.
Rukawa found himself looking into eyes that were wild and fierce, stung with tears and tempered with strength. So real and sharp, so different from the fading light Sendoh had once been.
Something stirred and crackled in his lungs. Rukawa had to resist the urge to shrink back from the unfamiliar man before him. He thought he had been prepared for this. He'd had years to prepare for it. But now, here, he felt deeply unsettled.
He felt suddenly uncertain. Ashamed of the tiredness beneath his eyes and the scars that stretched up his neck and over his cheek. The crushing realisation that he now seemed so much weaker in comparison.
Why was he here? Why had he assumed that Sendoh Akira would want to see him? The eight months he'd spent working here at the cemetery, waiting for this day, seemed a strangely far-fetched and ridiculous effort.
So many years, only to have all his failings bought into focus by Sendoh Akira's steady stare. He could feel it like a blast of warm air on his cheeks. And he was brought up short by it.
Who are you? he wanted to ask.
"Kaede..." Sendoh said again in amazement. He reached out a dripping hand to cautiously touch Rukawa's rain-dampened shoulder as if he were an apparition who might simply dissolve.
Rukawa sucked in his breath. What he wished he could say then. How could his limited language ever be tortured into the contortions of his heart? Anything would have done. A word – half a word – to relieve just a sliver of the pressure mounting in his chest. But words had never been his allies. He floundered helplessly for a moment.
Then Sendoh reached out and in one smooth motion pulled him fast against his chest.
The world spun.
Over Sendoh's broad shoulder, Rukawa could see the gravestones dark and shining in the rain. Rows upon rows of them. Lives and memories reduced to strange uniformity. So different from the strong, warm arms that held him now.
Rukawa Kaede had long skated the waters between life and death, flickering over a blurred line carelessly. He knew he was difficult; frequently unreasonable, occasionally violent, careering dangerously through the blinking flashes of his existence. He had no control, no direction at all. Finding the middle line felt like tight-rope walking, and he failed more often than he succeeded.
Yet now his eyelids fluttered slightly in contentment. Surrender suddenly didn't seem so bad.
"Thank you," he heard Sendoh mutter, gripping him tightly, the words causing a pleasant vibration in his chest. Rukawa didn't know if the words were meant for him, for fate, or for god.
He pressed his cheek against Sendoh's ear, wet hair clinging to skin. Yes, he agreed silently. Thank you.
They stood together until the continuing rain brought both of them to the point of shivering. Then, reluctantly, they parted.
Another loud rumble sounded overhead, closer this time and the world was filled with the noise of the raindrops striking the stones, the ground, the leaves. Rukawa lifted his eyes, and motioned that they should go.
They picked their way together across the grass in silence, both sopping wet with rain, clutching hands as if they didn't dare to let go, back towards the iron-wrought gate and the service road. The whole way, Sendoh couldn't bring himself to look away from the man beside him.
Reaching the roadside, Sendoh stepped forward, expecting them to walk back down the hill, but Rukawa stayed him with a hand on his arm. The sound of an approaching car became audible over the rain and Sendoh watched a sleek white Mercedes with blackened windows draw up beside them, windscreen wipers flashing back and forth. The tyres made a satisfying crunch against the wet ground as it came smoothly round to stop.
Sendoh stared at it in surprise.
A man in a casual suit stepped out of the driver's seat and hurried round to them, unfurling an umbrella. His manner and deference suggested that he was some kind of chauffeur, and yet there was something about him that whispered in warning. Sendoh couldn't help but stiffen slightly. He'd been inside long enough to recognise a criminal when he saw one.
Yakuza? he guessed. He remembered that Rukawa had had some yakuza connections.
The man held the umbrella over the two of them and looked towards Rukawa with a brief bow. "Liron-sama?"
Sendoh felt an unpleasant little twist in his gut. The name sounded ugly to his ears, but he was wise enough to give nothing away except for the smallest flicker of his eyes.
"We're done here," Rukawa informed the chauffeur. "Take us back to the condo. And get some towels."
The chauffeur nodded his understanding.
Towels were quickly procured from the car boot and used to cover the back seats where they were to sit.
Sendoh moved a little foggily, fascinated by Rukawa's smallest movements, even as reluctant comprehension dawned on him. He sat distractedly on his towel and subconsciously ran his fingers over the trim. The interior of the car was all black leather and luxury. He'd stolen some beautiful cars in his time, but he'd never been chauffeured in the back of one before.
Rukawa climbed in beside him.
They think he's Liron Kai. Which means they're not yakuza... this is the fucking Tokyo Sect.
But how- why-?
He met Rukawa's eye and, conscious of the chauffeur sitting in the driver's seat, bit back his questions.
The car pulled smoothly away and Sendoh's eyes slid to the small heads of stone behind the cemetery gates.
He was stuck by how, from this distance, they all looked the same.
The journey felt strangely surreal.
They drove first through empty countryside and farmland which soon gave way to towns and suburbs until eventually they were surrounded by the office towers and huge department complexes of Tokyo itself. Sendoh gazed out of the window blankly. He was increasingly immersed in the powerful feeling of his displacement. The car, the city, the whole world was too big. Even his reunion with Kaede didn't suppress the strangeness of sitting here, being driven by a man he didn't know, to a location he couldn't imagine. All the things that had defined him – his gang, his achievements, his experience – were far away and utterly valueless now. He felt oddly wrong-footed, a stranger to himself. Every mile they drove caused the feeling to rise higher in his chest.
I left a part of myself back there with them. What if it was the biggest part? What if I can never regain it? What if I... disappoint Kaede somehow?
A sudden brush of skin and he looked down in surprise to see Rukawa's hand over his own. Though he looked up in question, Rukawa had his face turned away, gazing out through the window as if he hadn't even noticed the contact.
Sendoh slowly let out his breath.
They drove on in silence.
Half an hour later, the chauffeur dropped them off in front of a tall apartment building and drove away. It wasn't raining in the city, but they were both of them still damp and uncomfortable in their clothes.
Sendoh looked up at the building blankly. He had a dozen questions, none of which seemed capable of working their way past his lips. He wanted to ask. His curiosity was fierce in his chest. But he forced himself to wait as they approached the entrance, swallowing his impatience and simply breathing freedom.
It had been twelve years since he'd seen a world without walls, after all.
The building was new and stylish. Nothing overly fancy, but hardly the domain of the downtrodden. There was a doorman who opened the glass doors as they approached, and bowed to them both as they entered.
A lift whisked them up to the fortieth floor, piping orchestra music to fill the silence. Then when Rukawa pushed open the apartment door, Sendoh's jaw finally dropped.
The room itself was not particularly noteworthy but it was the French windows that stretched wall to wall which caught Sendoh's attention. On the balcony beyond, a single chair faced outwards over a view of the city so beautiful it took Sendoh's breath away. Almost in a trace, he stepped across the room towards it, forgetting even to remove his shoes in his astonishment. He pressed his fingers and his forehead against the window, his breath fogging up the glass.
The sun picked out the roofs of smaller buildings, cars and buses far below. The buildings seemed to go on forever, there was no end to them, stretching to the horizon and beyond. Tokyo. Perhaps the greatest city in the world.
For twelve years Sendoh had lived in a minute world, carefully controlled. It had been vicious at times, dangerous constantly, but he had been forced only to see what was immediately before him. A rough desperation. The task of simple survival had eaten up his time and existence. There hadn't been opportunities to see the vastness of everything around him. Out here... there were larger things of which to be afraid.
The height, and the view, were at once terrifying and beautiful beyond belief.
"Damn, Kaede," Sendoh breathed, struggling to think of anything to say at all. "Damn."
Rukawa came quietly alongside him. "Take a shower," he advised practically. "And change out of your clothes. You'll get a chill."
Sendoh dragged his eyes away from the scenery to focus on the no less astonishing face so close by. His heart hiccuped in his chest.
"Okay," he agreed.
Soon he was sitting warm and refreshed in Rukawa's clothes which had proved to be a surprisingly good fit. Rukawa was opposite him at the low table, arranging two cups and a steaming pot of tea.
Looking about the room, Sendoh appreciated its simplicity. A three-seat sofa faced a TV mounted on the wall. A tidy bookshelf filled the other wall. There were no pictures or mementoes. No ornaments or stray scraps of paper could been seen anywhere. And absolutely nothing had been placed near the window. Not a single object to block even the smallest portion of the view.
But despite the bareness it felt... comfortable. Sendoh took a moment to breathe deeply. The room was full of calm and quietness. The prison could not have seemed further away. Doubtless, that had been Rukawa's aim.
Sendoh watched Rukawa's delicate hands pour tea into his cup. Every finger, Sendoh realised, was bent. Broken and healed. The back of his right hand was badly scarred. So long ago, he was reminded. And still, somehow, so close.
Rukawa didn't notice his stare, moving carefully so as not to spill a single drop of the honey brown liquid.
Feeling filled with a comfortable peace, Sendoh blew steam from the surface of his cup and touched the hot tea to his lips. It was delicately flavoured, warm and pleasant. Across the table, he saw Rukawa do the same, and for the moment when Rukawa closed his eyes to savour the tea, Sendoh found himself hopelessly entranced.
He's such a beautiful man, Sendoh realised idly. I've never seen him like this. I never even noticed it before. Whenever I've imagined him... I've only seen his strength. I never really saw his beauty.
When Rukawa set down his tea, their eyes met, and the air simmered with warm inevitability.
Sendoh swallowed. "Is it... safe to talk here?" he hazarded.
Sendoh wasn't sure where to begin.
"How..?" he started tentatively, hesitating, then gesturing with one hand as if doing so would ask the question for him.
Rukawa frowned a little and pushed his fringe out of his eyes.
"I don't remember everything," he said. His voice was low and soft, with that same under-used quality that made it so precious to Sendoh's ears. Sendoh couldn't resist but to lean forward, keen to capture every minute syllable he uttered. "The roof came down. I woke up in hospital."
Sendoh waited, but Rukawa didn't say more.
"But... the fire? Norio?" he prompted.
Rukawa gave a minute shrug. "Norio's dead. They mentioned it on the news. Firemen found me, apparently. They said the dust from the roof must have smothered most of the flames."
Sendoh leaned back and let out his breath. "So... it was luck."
Rukawa averted his gaze and said nothing. Sendoh's implication hung in the air between them.
So there was no plan. No final trick. You really intended to die. Somehow it left him feeling a little disappointed.
"But how did you get out of the hospital?" he wanted to know. "There were guards everywhere."
"A nurse let me use her phone," Rukawa replied, taking another sip of tea. "So I called the Tokyo Sect."
"...and now you work for them?"
Rukawa gave a gentle shake of his head. "I run it," he clarified.
Sendoh frowned. Well, that explains the chauffeur and the apartment.
"Because they think you're Liron Kai?" he queried aloud.
Rukawa gave him a quick glance over the rim of his cup. "Because I know the codes," he stated simply.
Sendoh stared back at him. The codes. The damn codes. Memories rose in his mind one after the next. The codes that Tsuki had wanted, that Mitsui hadn't believed in, and that Sendoh had hoped would bring Stanley to their aid. The codes that Norio had used as pretext and that Rukawa had never told them in spite of everything they did.
How ironic that they should have saved him in the end.
Still, the mere memory made him furious. He had to force himself to uncurl his fists. They're dead, he reminded himself. They're all dead. There's no more revenge to be had.
Rukawa saw his look and gave a wave of his hand as if to dismiss his concerns. "It's past," he said. "I used Liron's name just to be cautious. I didn't know how much Stanley might have told his followers."
"But-" Sendoh couldn't help protesting, "-how can you bear hearing his name every day?"
Rukawa lifted one eyebrow. "He used me," he explained simply. "Now, I am using him."
Sendoh opened his mouth to protest but something in Rukawa's expression caused warmth to rise inside him. After a moment, an amused smile slowly crept over his face and he allowed himself to relax.
Stanley really underestimated you, he thought. He used you in the most awful way, but you didn't become furious or sentimental. You took your revenge in perfect simplicity. You've taken the sect he built, and even the name of his one love, and now you sit casually upon that throne as if it was yours all along.
"You..." he began, but then he just smiled and shook his head. Words failed him.
Rukawa didn't smile, but Sendoh thought he saw something of a flicker at the corner of his lips. They both drank from their cups quietly, and when their eyes met again, the air around them simmered.
The tea, it seemed, was destined to remain unfinished.
It was a simpler world. The fierce tangle of the past reduced to a distant vagueness. A mostly forgotten ache. Sendoh had thought there might be something complicated, something awkward or difficult, but it wasn't so.
There was cotton, light and comfortable against his skin, air to breathe, and the last orange rays of the fading sun lighting up the world as if to say look and it's for you.
Then there was Kaede.
He didn't hesitate. He moved calmly. His gentleness was enough to make Sendoh's heart ache. Soft lips against his cheek and jaw, long fingers delicately opened each button, from his throat down to his navel. Sendoh breathed in and out, feeling the taste of him rush through his senses.
Gentleness, he realised, is truly the privilege of the strong.
He could feel Kaede's eyes roaming over him as the shirt slipped from his shoulders and pooled around his wrists. He wondered what he saw. How long they had been waiting. And yet for the first time, Sendoh realised that he felt confident. He didn't feel as if he were missing something. The last few years had put him back together, crawling upwards from his lowest point, remembering himself, regaining himself. He felt stronger than he had ever been. The numbers no longer unnerved him. He'd long outstripped that old legend in notoriety. For the first time he felt as if he might be a real match for Rukawa Kaede.
And when Kaede met his eyes, something glittered there, and Sendoh guessed he saw it too.
It was no longer a case of potential. This was in full bloom.
Sendoh smiled and lifted a hand to touch Kaede's cheek.
Their lips met.
It wasn't star-bursts or syrup, but a realness that touched his soul. Something wholly satisfying. Beauty that penetrated their every facet, yet couldn't be understood by the eye. Sendoh felt his whole being thrum with the quiet perfection of their togetherness.
They moved fluidly and easily. Kaede's gentle fingers were soft as they teased him, tugging off his socks, lacing into his hair, or twisting luxuriously around him, causing Sendoh to hiss and close his eyes. There was no shyness in his manner. He knew what he wanted, and he knew it was now. Sendoh found it both electric and soothing. He responded in kind, his movements gentle as he tugged Kaede's shirt away, fiddled inelegantly with the button on his jeans, all the while leaving his adoration in a pattern of kisses across his lips.
Scars don't heal, but they fade. And so it was. Those long ago wounds, like patterns and ripples across a still pond, were only faint echoes now. The noise of it seemed to have assimilated into the very fibre of his soul until the stillness returned. Pain may have made Rukawa Kaede who he was, but it didn't define him now. There was very little about him, Sendoh found, that sang of hurt or loneliness.
Norio's marks had mostly vanished, but the remnants of the fire were far more prominent. A huge swath of scarred skin shimmered under Sendoh's hands, residue from the flames that had crawled over him. His entire right side, from his hip to his neck, jaw, and the lower portion of his right ear, was smooth and filmy. Patchy skin curled in wisps upwards over his right cheek.
The scaring continued across his back. There, just above his hip bone, the damaged skin was stretched thin, dark and discoloured. It looked like a strangely-shaped bruise, blue and black in hue. It took Sendoh more than a second to realise that it was the remains of the number twenty-three.
The tattoo that had once held such significance had been reduced to a strange blotching of ink. Sendoh ran his hand gently over it, but didn't comment on it. He was surprised by his own ambivalence. It really didn't seem so important after all.
Kaede gave him an impatient glance, and they continued.
Soon Kaede swum a little lower, kissing him at the peak of his pleasure, running over him in warm swirls and the curling embrace of his tongue. It was more than Sendoh had expected, and set his thighs trembling helplessly, his stomach just a jumble of pleasure-wafted butterflies.
Then, lower still, Kaede's fingers were brushing gently at his gateway, and Sendoh's pleasure splintered abruptly like a knife through a mirror.
He winced, tried his best to control his reaction, but felt everything fall away from him as black tides suddenly rose like walls in his mind. He sat up, his arousal completely gone, his expression betraying his mortification.
Embarrassed, ashamed, he forced himself to look towards Kaede, feeling as if he needed to explain. But when he met Kaede's eye, he saw there was no need.
Both of them were facing the same dark bridge. They had met in the very depths of that agony, after all.
He knows. Of course he knows. Perhaps no one knows this fear, this hurt, better than he does.
Kaede gave no reaction. No disappointment, surprise or impatience. He settled back, next to Sendoh, their arms pressing together, where they lay side by side on top of the sheets, hands and fingers casually tracing the shape of one another. Sendoh's racing heart gradually slowed, the tickling of his pleasure returned. Kaede's cheek was pressed against his bare shoulder, his eyes closed, his breathing gentle as if in sleep. Sendoh could not suppress his sigh.
He would have given himself willingly. There was little else that he wanted except to please him, to give him those moments of full-bodied flight. There was not a shred of pride in him that he would not have laid at Rukawa Kaede's feet. But even though it had been years since he'd experienced it, the agony of intrusion and the ugly tearing of his soul were bright and sharp in his memories. He tried to force it all away, shut the lid on that particular box, but it was impossible. It had formed itself into a primeval terror over which he had no control whatsoever. He could feel it at the core of himself like a coiled snake waiting to be stirred up again.
He could easily have tied himself in knots about it but Kaede soon distracted him, shifting his weight and renewing the games of his trailing hands. Then he sat up and his eyes seemed to look down into Sendoh's soul.
Something flickered there.
"Close your eyes."
Sendoh hesitated but did as he was told, though was unable to suppress the slight tick that appeared in his brow. He wanted to give himself up to the moment, but it was not an easy thing. Kaede's warm mouth moved languidly over him again, driving him steady back towards glittering euphoria. The moans worked their way up Sendoh's throat where he managed to swallow only half back down again. The run of hands over his thighs was pleasantly ticklish, but still unable to fully eradicate his mind's focus on his most hidden and shameful spot.
When Kaede drew away once again, Sendoh felt the anxiety stir in his gut, winding him tight as a spring. He could feel Kaede moving, shifting his weight, keeping one hand moving at a leisurely pace along Sendoh's length. Sendoh shivered and squeezed his eyes tighter, nervous of the intrusive contact to come, and dreading his own reaction to it.
When the sensation finally hit him, however, it was not what he had expected at all. His eyes were open in a moment.
Kaede's face was turned upwards, sightless and frozen in a gasp. If it hurt, he didn't show it, his body taut and chest rhythmic as he sunk into Sendoh's desires.
Sendoh reached out and caught his hips in his warm hands, eyes wide.
"No, wait," he gasped. It was hard to concentrate with heat like thunder pulsing around him.
Kaede's decadent glance sent Sendoh's remaining logic spiralling to the back of his mind. He had to fight himself to focus.
I can't...his consciousness shouted at him. It's not... those things... Kaede has... no one should do this to him...
Despite the panicked memories of Kaede's agonies, he could do nothing before, with a final shift, Kaede's weight was flush against his hips.
Sendoh tossed his head slightly and groaned. Soft lips on his mouth pulled him firmly back to himself. He couldn't resist it. It was godly.
Damn, he told himself. Damn, damn, damn.
Then, before he knew it, they were moving together.
From then on, the moments were no longer linear. The way Rukawa's body rose and fell above him or the way Sendoh pushed him down into the sheets, catching his lips, his neck, his everything in his fingers, his kisses, his hunger. He felt thin ankles in his hands, then shoulders, thighs, strands of hair. Logic told him it couldn't all have happened at the same time, and yet if there was order, and progress, and rightful chronology, it slipped beyond meaning.
It was a powerful dance, with the last light fading red and orange around them. Neither leading, neither being led. No anger, no ferocity. Nothing that either of them had ever experienced before. There was no conscious thought involved. The dynamic, and the moments, slipped back and forth between them as naturally as the quiet waving of tree branches in a breeze.
They seemed to be reaching through one another, past physical limitations, and meeting on some other plane.
Only at its least was it a dance of bodies. Look closer, and you'd see a melding of souls. So simple, and so right, that all the great yawnings of the black past failed in its presence. So beautiful, that when it was over, Sendoh found his cheeks wet with tears.
I know what it means, he realised later, staring up at the ceiling. As if I'm standing on the edge of a chasm, looking back down and seeing how I climbed it. All the mistakes I made are clear to me. I know where I stumbled. All those years – I understand them perfectly. How every step was just one step closer to this. How I am meant to be no where else but here.
And the palace I built was nothing less than the place where he lives in my soul.
Rukawa shifted on sheets beside him. "What do you want to do?" he asked in a contented, sleepy voice. Somehow Sendoh knew he wasn't just referring to today. He had the rest of his life to plan for.
A world without boundaries. It was difficult to get his head around. The door would open to his touch. He could possess things – money, clothes, a set of keys. The people he passed in the street would tilt their heads in greeting, or look away, without ulterior motives. It would take months to shake the feeling of constantly being sized up. Years to stop subconsciously doing the same to others. But it was a process – albeit a slow one – and he was resigned to that.
But there were limitations still. With a criminal record and twelve years behind bars, plus a complete lack of formal education, most companies would consider him unemployable. Not to mention his own peculiar idiosyncrasies that made normal working life a near impossibility.
He couldn't tolerate people standing behind him, for one thing. He felt hopelessly uneasy when confronted with simple, social tasks such as choosing seats in the cafeteria, or engaging in conversation with unfamiliar people. Even the most innocuous use of the word bitch was likely to result in a fight.
He hesitated. What did he want to do?
"If you want the sect, I'll give it to you," Rukawa said, quite unexpectedly. "If you don't..." he added, "I'll disband it."
Sendoh turned his face to look at him in surprise. "What? Why? Isn't it your livelihood?"
Rukawa frowned slightly. "I kept it mainly for your twenty-five."
Sendoh stared at him blankly, uncomprehending, and Rukawa raised one brow.
"Who do you think was supplying Kogure?" he asked.
Sendoh sat bolt upright. "You're... one of Kogure's contacts?"
Rukawa's silence sufficed as answer enough.
Sendoh shook his head in disbelief. "But... but why didn't Kogure tell me?"
"He didn't know, though he might have guessed. So might you."
The book, Sendoh recalled numbly. Of course, he sent the book.
He looked down at Rukawa who soon looked a little uncomfortable under his stare. Sendoh sighed and rejoined him on top of the sheets, pulling him fast against his chest and squeezing his eyes shut. It felt remarkably easy.
"You know the first thing I'm going to do tomorrow?" he began drowsily. Rukawa did not reply, his warm swallow breath ticklish against Sendoh's skin. "I'm going to walk to the corner store," Sendoh continued to himself, "and buy Kogure an entire goddamn box of Benson Hedges."
Rukawa only shifted slightly, settling against him more comfortably. Sendoh reached out to rub the strands of his hair between his fingers as if just checking his realness one last time. His contentedness felt like a huge, expanding wave in his chest. He smiled idly to himself.
Only a few minutes later, they were both asleep.
Miles away, in the cemetery's silence
the sounds of life came from the far side of the wall.
But no words. No need for words.
Only trimming shears abandoned
in the wet grass
It's finished! Hooray! I'm so glad! I have SO many other projects I've been putting on hold because "OMG I have to finish Thine Own before I work on this other stuff or I'll NEVER actually get it done."
Final chapters are always the hardest :( I usually only physically print out one final version of each chapter for a very final edit, but I've printed about seven different versions of this (meaning I thought I was finished about seven different times only to decide to change a huge quantity of stuff!) For perspective, I printed the final chapter/epilogue for R+J only twice each :(
Haruko's little segment was uploaded separately just because the difference in the time line needed some preservation.
I'm working without a Beta Reader here so I'm doubly paranoid about everything (it makes life a lot easier when there's someone to say "you've totally fucked up this bit" instead of me constantly going "Maybe I've fucked up all of it? Maybe none of it makes no sense? Maybe I need to start everything from scratch... AGAIN!"
I would love to have a beta reader ~ but it has to be someone violent, highly critical, and obsessed with absolute perfection! Basically, I need someone who is as critical of my fics as I am (which is hard, because I'm never satisfied with anything). If you think that may be you, please do let me know!
Here's a little run-down of all the songs that made this fic possible (check out my youtube channel to listen to them all in one convenient playlist!)
Come in Closer by Blue October (Fic theme!)
Laura Palmer by Bastille (if this fic was a movie, this would play in the credits :P)
23 by Jimmy Eat World (Kaede's Song)
What I've Done by Linkin' Park (song for Kaede's past)
Who Am I Living For by Katy Perry (Akira's theme)
Not Afraid by Eminem (Akira's alternate theme)
No More, Break, Get Out Alive, Life Starts Now and Riot, all by Three Days Grace
This is War by 30 Seconds to Mars
Everytime by Britney Spears (Kaede's 'death')
Yesterday by Leona Lewis
I'm Alive by Leona Lewis
Save Me by Nickelback
Far Away by Nickelback (Epilogue!)