AN: After a bit of a break, I've come back! I needed something shorter to get me back into the swing of things so I updated this baby. I'm happy to be done with this part because school has kept me crazy busy and I just didn't know if I'd ever update anything. Haha. :)
Thank you's from the last chapter:
Guest: Well it's here! LOL I'm just sorry it took so long.
Drfrankensara: Haha, thank you. Writing for a smaller fandom is really nice so I'll keep doing it as long as I have ideas.
Guest: Thank you! I'm glad you're enjoying the story. =D
lavender7795: Aww, thanks! Yeah, I get lazy to log in too so I'll just reply to you now. :) I'm glad you think they're in character. That's what I work hardest on. After all, a fanfic is only good as long as the characters are still the same characters you fell in love with, right?
Shinomori's woma: I do too. Honestly, besides romance, I'm an angst fan all the way. LOL Feel free to marry it. I spout out a lot of pretty sentences that need to be loved. XDDD
Guest: I hope your own story is going well. Please enjoy this part too. :D
Summary: Rewind. Part Two of the sequel to Bedtime. Looking back on his life, Kazuma finds that he's lived many small, interconnected realities, but he clings to one so much stronger than the rest.
Warnings: Nothing stands out. This is a take on Kazuma's feelings, which was sort of hard to write. Ayano is more expressive so she's an easier character to use but I liked the challenge of his perspective. Comments and questions are duly noted and will be answered ASAP (unless you're anonymous, which will then be the next chapter, haha).
Part Two: Rewind
It'd been ten years.
The thought filtered to the front of his mind as he meandered about the familiar, old streets, taking in the unchanged scenery of one of his past lives. And he'd had many, he thought with a smirk, stuffing his hands into his pockets, pondering that the July sun was overbearingly hot but somehow still comforting. Japan was all well and good, but it was impossible to replace old memories with the present. Especially not after all that he'd been through.
As he followed the path towards his destination, recollections of the woman he'd loved filled him, reminding him of the reasons he'd become the man he was today. A powerful Contractor with the ability to exorcise demons that would leave others in ashes, Kazuma had exacted his vengeance on the evil spirit that had taken his lover, the soulless spirit that had killed her right before him out of pleasure. The joy he'd gotten from that moment when he'd crushed its body with his bare hands and then ripping it to shreds with wind magic still brought satisfaction, as dark and twisted as it was.
But several years had passed since then and his freedom from the Kisaragi family had brought both peace and boredom. Of course he still took cases, consulted as necessary whenever an extraordinary demon appeared, but life had stalled for him. There was no way he could be contented with the lifestyle he had before, where he did odd jobs and asked for nothing else than companionship and a roof over his head.
He'd been tainted by the impurities of the world, as the only light in his life extinguished without chance for revival. However, it was her memory that kept him going all these years and even now Kazuma could say he'd never felt the same about anyone the way he had with her. As he made his way through the wiry gates, the quiet bared its teeth at him, haunting in a way that only spiritually sensitive people could understand. He did his best to appease the wary ghosts, appearing as harmless as possible as he moved toward the marker he hadn't seen in so long. But the apprehension never left him, even as settled his heart and came to a slow stop.
Standing before the gravestone, his eyes traced over the characters of the name he'd never managed to let go of, one that had tattooed itself into his skin, onto his very soul. The name of the person who had saved him from himself, giving him the home he'd never had, something he'd been searching for desperately after being banished at fourteen. Wandering aimlessly, it was no wonder how he'd fallen for her so quickly at sixteen, those beautiful eyes holding nothing but adoration, her arms always open if he dared himself to go to her. And though it took months of cajoling and patience, she'd worn him down and he was grateful to have found her and loved her.
It was only right that he'd visit her on the day of her death anniversary, a decade of sorrow and longing and guilt, used to fuel hatred for the monster that had stolen her from him. After escaping the Kisaragi's grasp the first time, he'd thought he'd found eternity with his soul mate, the one who would take the wounds and scars of his past and heal them with the care that his parents had never shown him. But it hadn't ended so perfectly, he noted with a deepening frown, as the orange of the late afternoon sun lit up her epitaph.
As he stood before her hollow grave, Kazuma could only smile grimly at it, knowing there was no chance she rested well in the afterlife. Her soul had been consumed and he was sure she'd hated him in her last moments. Because no woman could love a man that couldn't protect her and he had failed miserably in that aspect. Slowly but surely, the sorcerer felt inside him every weight of sweet tenderness that Tsui Ling had shown him turn into repulsion at his weak self. He could marinate in that self-hatred, let it stain every cell in his body and it still wouldn't be enough. As the time slipped past him in measured moments, he stared down at the only reminder of his once-beautiful life with the most amazing woman he'd ever known until something brushed the back of his senses, pulling him back into reality.
Although the air spirits warned him beforehand, Kazuma knew instinctively who was coming up the nearby path right outside the cemetery, had felt her presence long before they whispered the words in his ear. So he didn't flinch in the slightest when he saw his former partner coming up the hill, a plastic bag in hand as she treaded up the steep incline without so much as a pant. Even from afar, he could spot that signature hair color of hers and the notion nearly made him smile. How a girl like her would one day rule the most powerful Enjutsu clan in the world would be nothing if not entertaining.
Against his initial intention to let her be, he found himself calling out to her. "Heading back so early, Ayano?"
Even now, he enjoyed catching her off-guard, watching as she nearly jumped into a defensive position. Chuckling, his eyes took in her scowl before it morphed into recognition and finally into something that resembled vague annoyance. Three years must have been a longer time than he'd previously thought because the changes in her were nothing if not mind-boggling. Instead of easy anger and noisy ruckus, Ayano was surprisingly poised even in her obvious irritation, watching him with distant caution.
Eyeing her bag, she replied with a hardened stare. "I have to leave tomorrow morning so I'm turning in early tonight. I picked up some snacks for dinner, that's all."
"You eat way more than that," Kazuma snorted, looking at the meager serving for the hearty appetite he knew so well.
She shrugged, carefully uncaring. "Not much of an appetite today, I guess." And then she narrowed her gold-tinged eyes, darkening warily. "Then again, three years means things have changed. Maybe my eating habits were one of them."
"You'll forgive me if I don't believe a word of that."
"You'll forgive me if I don't give a damn what you think," Ayano spit back, her eyes narrowing despite her calm. Ah, he'd missed that. After seeing her so composed and unaffected by him, Kazuma was wondering whether the woman before him still held any of the girl he used to know. Her obvious disdain was oddly relieving.
When he made no move to retort, the heiress took a good look at where he was standing, noticing the tombstones he had forgotten about when she had stopped. Her confusion was palpable. "May I ask why you're calling out to me from the middle of a graveyard? The dead tend to like their peace."
Immediately he sobered and she watched the change carefully, gauging his next move. It seemed that Ayano had picked up battle tactics over the years and she was using them against her own teacher, Kazuma pondered with interest. She waited patiently for him to act first, so unlike the person who used to charge in recklessly. Unbidden, her impressiveness almost had him grinning, strangely proud of the woman she'd become, the woman he had no doubt she'd be. How odd he still couldn't get used to her though.
He waved her closer before turning back to the grave, even as she shot him a bemused look. Words weren't enough sometimes and he'd always been so much better with actions. As she came to fall in line beside him, he could almost feel her tense as she recognized the Chinese characters, using her knowledge of kanji to translate the familiar name.
"It's been ten years today," he explained, stuffing his hands into the thin jacket he wore, his eyes taking in the shadows the setting sun was casting. He hadn't realized he'd spent hours staring at her resting place, holding silent conversations and yet receiving no answers. A part of him wondered if going crazy felt like this.
"I see." It was a curt reply, no flowery words of condolence or pity, just an observation that needed little else. This time, he did smile, slowly getting used to Ayano's cooled temper and wary reactions. However, Kazuma was beginning to understand just how different she was from the high schooler she used to be, as he watched her take a few steps forward before placing her food on the grass beside her feet.
All he could do was watch with stunned eyes as Ayano knelt to her knees and folded her hands in prayer, whispering something into her palms. He could feel the strain on his eyelids as his jaw unhinged while his former partner stayed there for a few moments, saying her last words before standing again. As she retrieved her things, the fire user bowed to him politely in farewell and then spun around to return to her hostel.
He couldn't react fast enough.
Clasping her wrist, Kazuma found himself invading her space, her own confused gaze freezing him stockstill. It had been a long time since they'd touched. His body must not have remembered because the shocks of electricity that shot up his arm were alarming, diffusing into his skin and prickling underused nerve endings. He couldn't remember the last time someone had affected him so badly and it was even more dangerous that it was Ayano who was doing it, making him lose both his bearings and common sense.
"If you needed something, Kazuma, you didn't have to grab me," she snorted with effort, obviously trying to play nonchalant. But it seemed that he was not the only one feeling the coursing awareness, a sensation that was crawling and settling into his very core. It was enough to have her fingers trembling, as she tried to loosen his firm grip on her smaller limb.
"Why did you do that, Ayano?" Although the question was simple, the Contractor was starting to realize just how complicated her answer could be, and just how complicated his own words were. Things had never been simple for them. He doubted this would be any exception.
"I prayed for a soul that died unnecessarily. No more, no less. Now, please, just let go." But she was lying. He could see it in the way her eyes flashed in panic, the way her fingers were unsteady despite their strength, how she didn't use her magic to fight her way out. Ayano was just as unsure as he was, but somehow that did nothing to soothe his nerves.
"What are you not telling me?" Ignoring her soft command, Kazuma loosened his grip so it fell to her hand, the porcelain skin under his fingertips strangely soft for a warrior. Perhaps she'd stopped training over the last few years, preferring her studies and normalcy while away from home. He wouldn't know. He wasn't in contact with the Kisaragi family much anymore nor had he ever checked in on her.
Ayano's silence nipped at their bodies just as the warm wind of night began to blow. Turning her head away, he could see the frown in her profile, the uncertainty mixing with the heat of some other emotion. But the way it flickered in her eyes, a dull color in her copper-colored irises, had him wondering how old that second feeling was. Because while it burned bright and strong, it had the shine of something aged, decrepit in its existence. With a look of unbridled unwillingness, she answered him in her smallest voice.
"I prayed for you."
Astonishment filled his face, eyes going wide as his grasp fell limp. Suddenly Kazuma was glad she wasn't looking at him because for once his hard-wrought uncaring mask had fallen away, replaced with genuine confusion and discomfort. He didn't like not understanding things and this was certainly something he didn't think he could comprehend without her explanation.
"What do you mean?" he replied, more forceful than he intended. From the pit of his stomach, a quiet rage built up inside him, taking form and aiming at her expressionless visage. "What could you possibly ask Tsui Ling for? And why me? I've never asked for or needed your prayers."
Ayano flinched then, looking openly hurt for a second and the guilt stabbed just as fast down his body. But there was anger there too, at her presumptuousness, that he would ever want her help. He was a lone wolf by nature, had been ever since being cast out as a teenager. There was nothing she could offer his hardened heart, nor would he ever accept it.
But instead of haughty words and booming denial, things he expected and wanted in the face of his adversity, Ayano was calm, steady. As she turned back to him, the pink-haired child that he knew was no more, replaced by this poised stranger. The person looking back at him was an adult, someone with life experience and silent courage, a strength he hadn't known she was capable of. And somehow Ayano made him feel so small with nothing but a soothing nod of her head.
"I asked her to help you," she explained, voice even and tempered in the midst of her turmoil. "I never knew her and I didn't know you until after she… passed on. But I do know you loved her and she loved you. Up until now, you still have't gotten over her. You'll probably be mourning for the rest of your life."
She moved her gaze away, her eyes hardening with remorseful bitterness. "But Tsui Ling wouldn't want that for you, not if she was the kind of person you said she was. She'd want you to move on and be happy, not just for your sake but hers as well. A woman who loved you so honestly would never want to hold you back."
"And who would I go to after, when I'm hurt and looking for a shoulder to cry on? You?" An acidic chuckle left his lips, a madness that had long festered inside him with no escape. It fed on his guilt and selfishness, eating at his insides, contained only by sheer force of will. But her words were potent poison, a key to the box he hadn't realized was so close to breaking into splinters.
"It doesn't have to be me. Any woman would do as long as you loved her." The earnestness in her hurt expression dominated, though the low blow obviously stung. It was difficult enough to live with her unrequited love. To have him put it down, reject it harshly with sarcastic humor and complete callousness, almost made her lose nerve. But this talk had to come some day and both of them knew it was long overdue.
He snorted carelessly. "No one before and no one after has meant nearly as much to me as Tsui Ling. And I wouldn't disgrace her memory by going after someone until after that damned demon was dead."
"And now he is, but what do you have to show for it, Kazuma? What about now?" The seriousness of her tone was not lost on him, as she stood to full height and focused her bright eyes on him. As he searched his brain for an answer, the anxiety grew as he realized that he had none. His sole purpose of becoming a Contractor was to carry out his revenge, but it had been a long time since that monster had been killed. As Ayano watched him, she took his silence as the uncertainty it was.
"I would never ask you to forget her, you know," she continued gently, as if afraid to say the wrong thing. "But you're killing yourself by not letting her go. She's not coming back and you shouldn't have to wait forever. No one expects you to either. You're the only one who thinks that falling in love again would mean betraying her."
"I won't get hurt like that again, Ayano. Nor will I ever love another person half as much as I loved Tsui Ling, not in this lifetime."
Pausing for a moment, she gathered herself, her grim face morphing into harsh acceptance. Her words reflected the change. "Then I guess I was wrong about you, Kazuma. You were never all that strong to begin with if that's the path you've chosen." Stunned speechless, he watched as Ayano stalked away, her hands gripped into fists as she went. But then she stopped as if remembering something, surprising him again when she spun back around and glared with intensity that nearly had him reeling.
"Even if you're an asshole and a jerk and a billion other things, Kazuma, you still deserve happiness. I think Tsui Ling would agree that the world wants that for you. And even though I'm so mad at you right now, I want you to be happy too." Even if it's not with me.
The words were silent but the sentiment was there, hidden beneath the surface but never breaking the delicate tension. She knew that both of them silently acknowledging her feelings was one thing. To outright confess them was a mess she couldn't handle, especially not after she was rubbed raw from his indignant anger. Soon though, she told herself as she left, her mind racing as fast as her heart. She'd confess when the time was right. After all, she didn't want to regret it when she got back to Japan to finish the deal she'd started with her father because by then it would be too late. But it wouldn't really matter even then, would it? After all, they were a pair that had never really met in the middle, always just missing each other no matter how many tries they got.
As her shadow fell out of sight, Kazuma wondered how many times she'd walk away from him like this, how many times she'd stood strong one minute and then disappeared the next. And then he wondered how many times he'd let her, how many times she'd turned to him when his back was to her and she forced herself to turn away so as not to disturb him. He wasn't the steady support she needed. He was constantly moving, chasing the next thing on his list, never allowing himself to make roots nor letting anyone to get too close.
How long had Ayano been staring at him from afar as she eased her way under his skin, clutching that soul he thought had died a decade ago?
He wasn't good for her and Kazuma was all too aware of that fact. He cared about her, wanted the best for her, and he knew he wasn't it. All these years, he'd been consciously hurting her, keeping her at arms' length while she smiled and pretended she wasn't hurt, that she understood why he did it. But her patience had finally worn thin and she'd gotten tired of waiting, just as he'd planned. Funny, he never imagined that it would hurt this much.
As he turned back to Tsui Ling's tombstone, Kazuma murmured, questioning it as if it could give him a reply, "So what do I do now?" All he received was that accursed silence, forcing him to turn away, disheartened. He couldn't understand why he felt as if a part of him had been ripped away, a piece that was different from the one his Chinese lover held but was no less than it, an equal that could easily stand on its own.
And nothing scared him more than the thought he might be losing it forever.
AN: I'm switching back to Ayano for the next part and I think I'll be adding a fourth one to this mini-series. Where I was gonna end it seemed very bleh and I didn't like it. =)
Next Chapter: Regret. Part three of the sequel to Bedtime. Everyone has secrets, even Ayano.
I hope you guys enjoyed! Reviews are loved and criticism is encouraged, of course. Gotta keep improving. :D
Until next time~