Summary: On a day before spring, Meguro Gau was ready to die. These are the days after. (A complete story in five parts, pre-series, rated T for violence.)

Disclaimer: Nabari no Ou belongs to Yuhki Kamatani. I hope I did her lovely characters justice. Credit for this story's title and the first and last chapter titles are owed to David Levithan since they are humbly borrowed from his book The Realm of Possibility.

Notes: For the longest time, I wanted to write a fanfic about Raikou and Gau and their relationship before the events of the series. I never thought I would do it, but in November of 2012 the idea just wouldn't sit still and I decided to give it a shot. This story follows the canon as closely as it can, but obviously there will be some voyages into fanon and personal interpretation of the characters.

Dedication: I'd like to give a big shout-out to all my fellow naberries on tumblr who encouraged me while writing this and helped me in dozen of ways, big and small. This story would've never been finished if it weren't for all of y'all.


Rather Die Trying
PART 1: there was a time before you

Gau woke up the next day in an empty apartment. He sat up on the couch, blinking in the bright light streaming through the window behind him and trying to remember where he was. He started to call out "Hello?" but once he opened his mouth he felt a sharp twinge in his bottom lip. He pressed his fingers to it and they came away blotted with blood.

He remembered.

Gau got off the couch and carefully folded the blanket that had been covering him before setting it to the side. His shoes were sitting neatly underneath the Western coffee table in front of him and he recalled tugging them off the night before while Shimizu-san dug out the blanket.

Where is Shimizu-san?

"Hello?" Gau said, muffled slightly by the hand pressed to his sore mouth. No one answered.

Gau didn't want to snoop around, but he also wanted to wash up. So he located the bathroom and scrubbed his face as thoroughly as possible, wincing as the water in the sink tinged pink. Once satisfied, he looked up into the mirror. His lips were swollen and somewhat scabbed over, though the scab had split when Gau first tried to talk. His cheek was badly bruised and his nose was really tender, though Gau didn't think it was broken. When he tugged his collar down, he exposed a ring of dark marks circling his neck. It hurt when he swallowed.

He was okay. He was lucky to be alive.

Nishimura had been unarmed, but even with the knife Gau had brought he had been dominated. Gau had only managed to leave a deep gash in Nishimura's left hand before the man wrested the weapon away from him. Even with the element of surprise on his side, Gau had been severely outmatched. Nishimura fell upon him, fists clenched and swinging and landing on Gau's face while Gau tried uselessly to kick Nishimura off of him and crying out. After that yell, Nishimura's hands went to his throat.

That yell must have been what brought Shimizu-san to the alley.

Gau wiped up the water that had spilled around the sink before exiting the bathroom and finally getting a good look at the apartment he'd woken up in. It was at least twice the size of the small place he'd rented after his mother's death, maybe even three times. It was too big for any regular working class young man, but Gau had the feeling that whatever Shimizu-san did for a living couldn't be deemed regular. Regular people didn't walk around the city with authentic katana at their side and regular people certainly didn't cut down men like Nishimura with one blow.

Nishimura is dead.

Gau stilled, the fact coursing through his body like a cold jolt of lightening. Nishimura was dead. Gau had been planning the man's death for three years, waiting and seething with a quiet fury that nearly boiled over all the same. Would a knife be enough? Should Gau attack him in the street or follow him home one night? Could Gau even do it? He certainly had enough anger to make the strike against the man that killed his mother, but he didn't have the strength. Gau would make his move and doubtlessly die in the attempt. It was the least he could do to rid the world of scum like Nishimura and if he managed somehow to take Nishimura down with him, all the better.

But Nishimura was dead and Gau was alive.

Gau shook his head and moved into the kitchen to see if he could find a glass to drink with. A note on the counter stopped him.

"Gone to work. Back by noon."

Gau studied the short note. Shimizu-san's fine calligraphy was at odds with his eclectic way of dress. But then, what did Gau know of him? He'd barely said a word the night before-besides his own name and that was only after Gau had asked three times. He didn't seem to hear the first two attempts and on the third he finally snapped and spat out "Shimizu Raikou." Gau noticed that Shimizu-san's hands were clenched and trembling slightly, so he decided to stay quiet after that.

By the time they reached the apartment Shimizu-san seemed to have calmed down a bit, but the irritability was replaced by some weariness. It wasn't very late yet, but Gau was worn out by the day. So when Shimizu-san made a gesture towards the couch, Gau sank down into it and prepared to sleep without further thought.

"Gone to work. Back by noon."

The note seemed to imply that Shimizu-san expected Gau to remain at the apartment until he returned. Gau's first thought was to slip away while he could; Shimizu-san had killed a man yesterday in a heartbeat. But on second thought, Gau had been hoping to kill that same man himself for three years, so who was he to judge? Besides, if Shimizu-san had any sinister plans for Gau, he'd had plenty of time to do them while Gau slept.

Gau pushed up his sleeve to look at his watch. It was a quarter till noon already. Usually Gau would be peeved with himself for sleeping in so late, but it wasn't like he could go to school today anyway. He might not be going to school ever again for all he knew.

For lack of anything better to do, Gau went to the couch, sat down, and waited. He was nervous, though he couldn't pin down why. He was supposed to be here-he thought so, anyway. If Shimizu-san wanted him to stay, he'd stay. He owned him that much.

Gau didn't have to wait long. Within ten minutes, he heard light footsteps coming up the stairs and then a key turning in the lock. Shimizu-san entered his apartment, face downcast, and closed the door behind before finally looking up and spotting Gau perched on his couch.

"Sorry," was the first thing he said. "I'd already missed two days at my surface job for that last assignment, so I had to go in today." He pressed the palm of one hand to his face. "I didn't mean to leave you here alone, but-" He spread his fingers to look between them. "I'm sorry, did I ever even ask you what your name is?"

"Meguro Gau."

"Meguro Gau. Sorry. I was... out of it yesterday."

"It's okay," Gau hastened to interject. This apologetic Shimizu-san barely resembled the threatening, katana-wielding man from yesterday. "Um, I just wanted to thank you because that guy-" Gau broke off, twisting the hem of his sweater. "That person killed my mother a few years ago. And he... he killed her. I didn't want someone like that walking around. But I couldn't..." He forced himself to stop sputtered before his whole life story spilled out. "So, thank you, Shimizu-san." Gau stood up and bowed low.

Shimizu-san grimaced. "Please don't call me that. Just Raikou, please."

"Thank you, Raikou-san," Gau amended, still bent at the waist. "I don't think I could ever make it up to you, but I would like to try."

Raikou-san was silent for a long time. Gau's back began to ache, so he straightened up again. The man was staring at him, one hand over his mouth, so Gau lowered his gaze to the floor-partly out of respect and partly out of an inability to meet that stare head on. Finally, Raikou-san spoke through his hand. "There is something you could do for me."

"Yes?"

"I need you to come with me somewhere. Wait-that sounds kind of ominous. What I mean is, I might be in a lot of trouble and it will be easier to explain if you were there."

His explanation really didn't make it sound any less shady, but Gau didn't hesitate. "I can do that."

"Now?"

"Yes."

"Good. All right." Raikou-san crossed the room to a wall phone, lifting it off of its hook. "I need to call to see if… my boss is in. You should probably change." He gestured to one of the sliding doors. "You can wear something of mine. It'll probably be too long, but at least it will be clean."

Gau glanced down at his sweater, noting the stains where his bloody nose had dripped and the blood from Nishimura's cut hand had smeared. He started to say something, (what, he didn't know) but Raikou-san was already murmuring something into the phone, so instead he pulled back the door.

And stopped. Instead of the storage space he was expecting, the door opened into a whole other room, Raikou-san's bedroom, apparently. How big was this apartment? Did Raikou-san live in this huge place alone? That was the impression he'd gotten last night, but Gau found it difficult to believe that a single person could afford such a large place.

Unless Raikou-san was part of the yakuza or something. Gau almost laughed at the thought, but as he stepped into the room he paused. Raikou-san killed a man yesterday. Sure, Nishimura was scum, but Raikou-san had no way of knowing that for sure when he brought his blade down on him.

"There's shirts and stuff in that drawer."

Gau jumped, backing away from Raikou-san who had crept behind him without a sound.

"There," he repeated, pointing. Gau went to the drawer and opened it, revealing a veritable rainbow of colors. Gau dug around until he found the least flamboyant sweater he could, a navy one with a low-cut neck line, then glanced at where Raikou-san had been. He was gone, so Gau tugged his dirty sweater off and exchanged it for the fresh one. His shirt underneath and slacks were still clean enough, so he left them alone and returned to the living room where Raikou-san was waiting.

"Get your shoes on," he said and Gau obeyed. Soon they were out the door and headed for the subway station where Raikou-san bought their tickets and Gau remembered his wallet and school books and everything else he'd left behind at his own tiny apartment, assuming he would never be coming back. Could he even go back? Someone had to find Nishimura's body eventually and it wouldn't take a genius to connect Gau's disappearance from school with the death of his mother's murderer. It was no secret how furious Gau had been at the light sentencing Nishimura received and the fact that he'd died so soon after being released only made the death more suspicious. Gau had never even thought about how to cover up the murder because he never entertained the thought that he might survive the encounter. There was no way he could go back there.

What am I going to do?

Gau was so lost in his thoughts that he barely enough noticed when Raikou-san tugged him off of the train and marched him through the streets with one hand on his arm. They eventually approached a traditional-style inn and Gau came back to reality as he took note of the strange mixture completely of average looking people and incredibly strange people walking around. Once this thought entered his mind, he realized that he and Raikou-san could probably be described as such a pair. There was snow on the ground and Raikou-san was wearing open-toed sandals. Who in the world dressed like that?

And why am I even thinking about this? Gau scolded himself. This could be a den full of yakuza he was about to enter.

But when they entered the inn, there were greeted by a perky young woman sitting behind a desk. She jumped up when she spotted Raikou-san.

"Ah, good afternoon, Raikou-san," she chirped, bowing her head. "Did you have an appointment with the chief?"

"No, but I called ahead to Ichiki-san and she said to come here and he'd see me immediately."

"Of course." The woman stepped out from the desk, one arm extended outward. "Allow me to escort you to him." She paused and looked at Gau. "Uh…"

Raikou-san's hand pressed down on Gau's shoulder. "I told Ichiki-san he was coming too."

The secretary or whoever she was smiled sedately at Gau. "All right, then. If you both would follow me."

She led them down two halls, Gau glancing around curiously all the while. The place certainly didn't look like a yakuza den. And surely yakuza didn't hire young ladies to be secretaries. Gau allowed himself to relax a bit and once the tension left his shoulders Raikou-san's hand dropped off. Gau peeked up at the pleasant expression he'd met the secretary with was replaced by a taut, tired look. Worried, maybe? "I might be in a lot of trouble," he'd said, but what did that even mean?

The woman dropped them off at some sort of antechamber and left with one final bow. There was a door on the other side of the room and Gau could hear low murmuring coming from beyond it. "You better stay here for now," Raikou-san muttered before vanishing into the room. Gau blinked. Stay here and do what?

Gau sighed and sat down by the low table in the center of the room, folding his legs and propping his chin up on palm. He'd only been awake for a couple of hours and yet it felt like an entire day had already gone by. Left alone, his thoughts began to wander again. What was he going to do about school? And his part time job? He hadn't actually planned ahead much further than confronting Nishimura. He couldn't just go back like nothing had happened. And what about his apartment? Gau had paid the landlady this month's rent a week early and that had eaten up his meager savings…

At least fifteen minutes had gone by when the door slid open and a women dressed in a formal kimono stepped out, closing the door delicately behind her. There was something familiar about her measured movements and when she turned to face Gau, revealing her closed eyes, he made the connection. Blind, just like his mother.

"I apologize," she addressed him in a soft murmur. "We've been neglecting you out here, haven't we?"

"No, I'm fine," Gau said.

"This is a somewhat... urgent matter, so it is best to deal with it as immediately as possible. But that's no reason to leave you sitting out here." She gestured to the table Gau was sitting at. "Would you like to have some tea with me?"

"Yes, thank you."

She smiled a small, tight smile at him. "I'll just be a moment then."

She exited the room through the door Gau came in from earlier and returned a few minutes later with a tray bearing a tea pot and two cups. She lifted up the pot and began to pour. Gau's impulse was to offer to assist her, but he knew his mother never like such offers very much and this woman was obviously perfectly capable. So he sat still and thanked her when she passed a cup to him.

"You are Meguro-kun?"

"Yes."

"My name is Ichiki. I work for Hattori-san."

"Nice to meet you."

"It is unusual circumstances, but yes, it is a pleasure to make your acquaintance." Ichiki-san sipped from her cup, slim fingers curling around it. "It is not like Raikou-kun to step so far out of line."

Gau drank deeply, letting the hot tea scorch through his throat. The heat soothed his sore neck. He swallowed, then lowered his cup to the table and gripped it between his palms. "Um..." He bit his lip, but then decided that Ichiki-san seemed like the safest person to ask who might actually have answers. "I'm sorry, but I don't really understand what is going on."

"Of course not. You are not meant to know." Ichiki-san produced a handkerchief from the folds of her kimono and dabbed at her lips. "I'm afraid that I am not permitted to inform you of anything until Hattori-san has reached a decision." She touched the side of the tea pot. "Would you like some more?"

"Yes, please." He slid his cup over to her and she took it before pouring and passing it back to them.

Ichiki-san raised her own cup to her lips again. "What you should know is that Raikou-kun took a big risk for you."

"...I understand that much."

She smiled that same stiff smile and sipped at her tea again. She didn't speak to him again. Instead they simply sat across from each other, Gau straining to hear any of the conversation from the other side of the door. It was a useless effort, so he gave up and spent the time trying to collect his thoughts.

Finally, the door slid open again. Raikou-san and an older man that could only be Hattori-san emerged, Hattori-san's hand resting on Raikou-san's shoulder.

Hattori-san was saying something to Ichiki-san, but Gau was struck by the expression on Raikou-san's face. Relief was the dominant expression, but mixed into it was strands of awe and something else he couldn't identify. It was so different from the drawn, closed off face he'd been presented with yesterday and the exhausted look from earlier that day. It was so different that Gau found himself just... staring.

"And you must be Meguro-kun."

Gau shot to his feet and bowed low. "Yes, sir." He felt his cheeks burning, though hopefully the man hadn't noticed his gaping.

The man chuckled. "There's no need for all that. Please, let me get a good look at you."

Gau straightened up cautiously. Hattori-san regarded him closely for several moments, so many that Gau started to shift his weight anxiously from foot to foot. Finally, that stern face broke with a grin.

"You know, Meguro-kun, I considered myself to be a pretty good judge of character. You have to be, in my line of work. Lies and misdirection are so commonplace that sometimes I worry I may choke on them all." He shook his head slightly from side to side. "But you seem like a trustworthy young man and there isn't nearly enough of that breed around anymore. "

Did that mean he passed? "...Thank you, sir."

Hattori-san clapped Gau on the shoulder and Gau's knees almost buckled underneath the weight of its impact. "I'd like to able to sit down and have a proper talk with you, but unfortunately I have a conference I must be off too." He turned his head to Raikou-san. "Raikou-kun, you can tell Meguro-kun whatever you deem fit." He paused and then spoke his next statement more gravely. "I trust your judgment."

Raikou-san bowed his head. Hattori-san smiled that warm, confident smile one more time, then withdrew his hand from Gau's shoulder. "I really must be going now. Ichiki." The woman re-entered the room and only then did Gau notice that all of the tea things were gone. When had she left?

"We're running a bit behind, could you call the office to let them know I'm on my way?"

"Yes, sir."

"Well, then. Raikou-kun, thank you for coming in to see me. Meguro-kun, it was good to meet you."

Hattori-san left the room, Ichiki-san close behind him. Raikou-san watched them go, then closed the door firmly and kneeled at the table.

"Sorry," he murmured. "This morning has been kind of… never mind." He brushed a lock of blond hair behind one ear. "I guess I can explain some stuff now, but I don't know if that will make it any less strange to you." He covered his mouth, glancing up at Gau over his fingers. "You might as well sit down. This might take a while." Gau sat as requested. Raikou-san tapped the table for a few moments with his free hand, then folded both of them into his lap. "I don't know how to start. Just… ask me a question or something."

"Where are we?"

Gau had thought it was a fairly simple question, but Raikou-san frowned. "…You could call this place Hattori-san's office or his headquarters or something." Raikou-san sighed. "But that doesn't really explain anything either. Okay. Forget it. I'm just going to… go. This is probably going to sound ridiculous, but whatever."

He scowled at Gau, but Gau didn't know what to say. It seemed like Raikou-san was talking more to himself than anything else. So he just waited. Eventually, Raikou-san leaned back, propped himself up with his palms, and inclined his head to the ceiling. He started talking.

"Hattori-san is the chief of a ninja village, the Iga. The village itself exists online, but this place serves as a sort of meeting grounds. I work for Hattori-san. My job is to punish clan members that disturb the balance between our world and the surface world, the normal world." Raikou stopped and looked back at Gau again. "Does that make sense?"

Gau blinked, struggling to absorb all the information that Raikou-san had poured out. "…So you're a ninja?" It wasn't that he doubted him—why in the world would he lie about that?-but Raikou-san didn't seem very ninja-like. Sure he'd taken down Nishimura as if it was nothing, but weren't ninja supposed to be more… inconspicuous?

Raikou-san was suddenly rather fascinated by the wood grain of the table."Somewhat," he muttered, tracing one of the table's whorl. "I've always been part of the hidden world, but I wasn't a member of any ninja village. I joined the Iga a few years ago."

There was something that Raikou-san wasn't saying. Gau knew from the terse explanation and feigned nonchalance, but it wasn't his place to push. He settled for a basic question. "Why?"

Raikou-san pursed his lips. "You'd probably have to hear Hattori-san talk to really understand, but... I believe in him." His voice filled with energy as he talked; Gau recognized the expression of quiet awe he'd seen on Raikou-san earlier. "You'd really have to hear it from him to get it. But Hattori-san's mission is to end the hatred and violence in the surface world through means that only ninja could. I believe in that goal. I believe in him."

End it? "Can he—could he really do that?"

"He thinks he can, so I think he can. I wouldn't have joined if I didn't have faith in Hattori-san."

One person couldn't possibly do all that. But this Hattori-san wasn't just a person, was he? He was a ninja and if ninja were real, a dream like that could become real too. It had to be possible. A world without hatred. A world without violence. A world where mothers didn't get dragged off the street and-

Gau made himself take a deep breath. As his lungs filled, his neck twinged and he pressed his fingers to the bruises there.

"Could I… is there some way I could join too? I mean, I don't know anything about ninja or whatever, but-" I feel like I've been waiting for something like this my entire life. "Even if I can't help Hattori-san, if I could just help you-"

Raikou-san's bright face turned hard. "Don't think you owe me anything. You don't. You probably saved me just by coming here with me today."

"I don't understand."

"Iga ninja aren't supposed to cause harm to civilians. It goes against our entire code." He rose to his feet in a single fluid movement. "Furthermore, it's my job to punish those who interfere in surface wordlers' lives." He held up one arm, displaying the bracelet he wore. "But that's exactly what I did yesterday. I killed that man, a surface worlder."

Gau stood up too, hands balled into fists. "B-but he wasn't a good guy! I can promise, he wasn't!"

"Even still, he was a surface worlder and I cut him down. If someone else did that, the punishment would be death, delivered by my sword."

"Then… why did you kill him?"

Raikou-san folded his arms over his chest and cast his gaze to the ground. "It's... difficult to put into words. I wasn't thinking. I just had to save you."

"But why?"

Raikou-san didn't offer any answer. Gau also opened his mouth to seek a proper explanation, but Raikou-san's dark frown and distant eyes made him stop. Besides… what did it matter why? He was alive and it was thanks to Raikou-san. Surely nothing else was more important than that.

Gau sat back down at the table heavily. He wished Ichiki-san had left the tea out if only so he'd have something to occupy himself with."I'm not saying I'll join just because you saved me," he declared. "I want to help." He met Raikou-san's eyes, trying his best to keep his voice steady. "I know I'm not a ninja or anything. I can't fight. I can't really do anything. But if I can help, I want to."

"Why?" Raikou-san demanded, stepping forward. He had that face again—the one Gau had first seen when Raikou-san stepped into the alley and drew his sword. Gau tried to maintain eye contact, but finally he was forced to look away. His fists tightened under fingernails pressed into the palms of his hands.

"I told you about my mother. I thought that all I could do to make the world right was to try to take down the man that killed her." He summoned the nerve to meet that fierce stare again. "But if Hattori-san can change things and if I can help, I want to."

The blond man shook his head. "The hidden world is dangerous, especially for those who weren't raised in it."

"I didn't think I was going to survive beyond yesterday anyway," Gau countered.

Raikou-san reached across the table and cuffed Gau's temple lightly. "That's no reason to throw your life away. You're a normal kid. Go back to your normal life."

"…There isn't really anything to go back to," Gau admitted under his breath. "My mom... there's no one else." Raikou-san was silent and Gau didn't dare look up. The quiet stretched for at least a full three minutes before Raikou-san finally exhaled a loud rush of air.

"All right, all right," he said. "I'll talk to Ichiki-san and see what she thinks. She's always saying I could use an assistant."

Gau got down on his knees and bowed till his forehead almost touched the floor. to his feet too and bowed deeply. "Thank you."

"Don't thank me just yet. Give it a month and you'll see that this was the worst decision you've ever made in your life."

Gau didn't agree, but he kept his mouth shut. Yesterday, he thought his life was at its end. Today, he knew that it was only just beginning.


there was a time before you
but I can't remember it now