Remedy :: Fan Fiction Section

Title: Inquisition
Rating: Shounen Ai
Writer's Notes: This story is roughly 37 WORD pages long, in 12-point type. I started this fic over a year ago, and fiiiinally got around to finishing it this weekend. It's more than doubled in size! Geez, and I had just intended it to be this angsty little oneshot...

Inquisition

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Chapter 1: Opportunity Knocks

With an evil grin, Himura Rikuo removed a cup from the small freezer he shared with Kudo Kazahaya, and headed for his roommate's curtained "room." Every other morning it was the same old story: Rikuo had to give Sleeping Beauty a nasty shock of some sort to get the boy out of bed and doing his fair share of the kitchen duties. In their first few months as roommates, it had pissed Rikuo off immensely that the shorter fellow was such a late riser. As time went on, though, he'd come to realise that it wasn't as if Kazahaya was lazy; the kid was a hard worker, at least when it came to the drugstore they both worked in. No, Kazahaya just wasn't a "morning person". All the same, that didnít stop Rikuo from tormenting Kazahaya: finding new ways to rouse his roommate had quickly evolved from an action born of anger to an amusing pastime.

Rikuo's eyes softened a bit when they fell on the sleeping form of his smaller comrade. Kazahaya looked so innocent, so vulnerable -- which was fitting, seeing as, mentally, he often seemed like a child.

Oblivious to the eyes watching him, Kazahaya began to frown and toss his head, muttering in his sleep, as he so often did. The taller boy's eyes grew tight with concern. Feeling momentarily guilty for what he was about to do, Rikuo consoled himself by deciding that he was probably doing Kazahaya a favour -- whatever the kid was dreaming, it seemed it was one hell of a nightmare!

The dark-haired lad reached down and pulled up the fairer-haired boy's shirt, baring a nicely-toned midriff. With a smirk, Rikuo emptied the contents of the cup onto his companion's belly.

"GYAAAAH!!!" Kazayaha leapt to his feet, icy-cold coins clattering to the floor. "YOU BASTARD!!!" he snapped at his roommate. "WHY MUST YOU TORMENT ME LIKE THIS EVERY GODDAMN MORNING?!"

"Not every morning," Rikuo replied coolly. "Only when it's your turn to make breakfast."

And it was true; when it wasn't Kazahaya's turn to cook, simply he left the younger boy to face their boss, Kakei, if Kazahaya couldn't manage to get up early enough on his own. Which didnít happen too often; Kazahaya usually made it on time, even if it meant he typically ended up devouring his breakfast on the sales floor. Kakei might have a pretty face, and always speak in honeyed tones, but that didnít make his threats of punishment any less real or dangerous. At best, Kazahaya would end up with his pay docked for the day -- the worst wasn't something a healthy mind dared contemplate beyond the notion that it would be bad.

Doubtless having similar thoughts about what might befall him if he were late, Kazahaya hurriedly brushed past Rikuo, glaring as he went stomping into the kitchenette. Neither boy would admit to the electric surge they felt with that momentary contact, though it seemed to make Kudo's normally short fuse even shorter.

Ten minutes later, Kazahaya tossed a plate of slightly burnt toast and overdone eggs in front of Rikuo -- or rather, in front of Rikuo's newspaper. A bowl of slightly undercooked rice was placed beside it.

"Itadakimasu!" said Kazahaya, with hands pressed together in respect and bowing slightly, giving thanks for his food.

Personally, Rikuo couldnít see thanking anyone, mortal or other-wordly, for food that bad. Still, he wasn't about to let the other boy get out of doing his share of the work, so he continued to suffer through the practically inedible meals without complaint. He'd given up trying to teach Kazahaya to cook ages ago; the kid was a hopeless idiot.

He peeked at Kazahaya from behind his paper. He even eats like a little kid....††

*†††*†††*†††*†††*†††*†††*†††*†††*†††

"OHAYO GOZAIMASU!!" Kudo called out cheerfully as he and Rikuo stepped into the Green Drugstore. He stopped short as he caught sight of Kakei-san, his high spirits quickly evaporating under his boss' somber, eerie gaze.

"Ohayo, Kudo-kun! I'm afraid I have some bad news Ö" the store owner began.

"Oh, come on, Kakei-chan, donít be so glass-half-empty!" chirped a man in a long black coat and sunglasses. The newcomer slipped an arm around Kudo's waist, causing the boy to yelp.

"Ohayo, Saiga-chan!" Kakei greeted his lover with genuine affection, as if the man wasn't nearly molesting one of his employees right on front of him. Or perhaps it simply didnít bother him....

Rikuo, on the other hand, felt a twinge of anger, but shook it off, refusing to even consider the feeling, much less its source.††"So what's the 'bad news'?" he asked, pretending to be as oblivious as Kakei.

"You get the day off!" Saiga answered gleefully.

"What? REALLY?!" Kudo squeaked from the headlock the larger man now had him in.

Rikuo knew better. "Let me guess: a day off, but without pay."

"I'm afraid so," Kakei concurred. "We had building inspectors here the other day, and they say we need to update the wiring. Since this is the slowest day of the week, I figured it was best to have the electricians work all day today, without interruption, so I'm closing the store for the interim. And there's a good chance weíll be closed tomorrow as well," he added with an irritated sigh.

Rikuo wasn't sure if Kazahaya was having a panic attack or was just suffocating under Saiga's arm. Probably a little of both.

"Saiga-chan, I may not need Kudo-kun today, but I will need him when the rewiring is done," Kakei pointed out.

Saiga nodded, releasing the smaller boy, then giving him a pat on the back that sent him stumbling as he gasped for air.

"Wha*cough*what about some other jah*cough*job?" Kudo wheezed.

"Nope, sorry," Kakei replied. "No clients at the moment."

"Oh, but see, this is what I mean about the glass being half-full!" Saiga said with a smile that made Rikuo's flesh crawl. "I have a job for the boyos!"

All three of Saiga's companions goggled.

"Interested?" he asked Kudo.

"HAI!!" Kazahaya answered with gusto. He couldnít afford to go a day -- much less two -- without pay.

"BAKAYERO! You donít even know what it is yet!" Rikuo snapped. "This is Saiga we're talking about, not Kakei-san!" Kakei might be a sadist, but Saiga was sadist and a letch....

"I take it youíre not interested then, Rikuo-chan?" Saiga asked with a leer.

Rikuo's eyes narrowed as he considered. He glanced at Kazahaya out of the corner of his eye. The idiot will probably end up in a world of trouble if I'm not there to hold his hand. Which isn't my problem, of course, but he does make things lively around here; it'd be a shame to let something happen to him....††Rikuo pursed his lips. "First tell me what the job is...."

Saiga withdrew what looked to be some sort of tickets from inside his voluminous black coat. "I've been making clothes for a shop at a Renaissance faire, and my partners want barkers to walk around in some of the outfits, to show them off and send customers to the booth."

Rikuo scowled. "You mean those stupid frilly outfits with the tights?"

"Well, these faires are usually a hodgepodge of time-periods and styles, so not everything is frilly, and there are longer trews that don't require tights."

Rikuo might have asked what they did require, if Saiga hadn't turned his attention back to Kazahaya.

"So all you have to do is show off the clothes and tell people to come to our booth, and you get to do whatever you like there: watch the jousting, try your hand at archery or knife-throwing, stuff your faces with turkey legs..." He held up a handful of food voucher-tokens for emphasis.

Kazahaya replied with a enthusiastic "I'll do it!", his hand clenched in a determined fist.

"Wonderful!" Saiga beamed, handing Kazahaya a ticket and some vouchers. "We have a contract!"

Kazahaya blinked, a bead of sweat forming on his brow. "C-contract?" he squeaked. That sounded all too much like Kakei-san. He remembered the time when his boss had made him wear a schoolgirl's outfit, threatening him with an astronomical cancellation fee if he reneged on the contract job.

"Baka," Rikuo muttered, shaking his head. Of course, he could still refuse, but he really didnít like the idea of Saiga and Kazahaya spending the day alone together. He told himself it was because there was too much potential for disaster with Saiga in charge, dangers far worse than Kakei-san had ever thrown there way. The kind of things Saiga dabbled in were often the kind that could get a body killed. He didnít hate Kazahaya that much, and he certainly didn't want having saved the boy's life (more than once!) in the past to turn out to have been a waste....

"So, you in, Rikuo?" Saiga asked, holding up the other ticket and the remaining vouchers.

Rikuo sighed and wordlessly accepted them.

"Why donít you boys gather a few things up before you leave?" Kakei suggested. "Some sunscreen, bug spray, bottled water, that sort of thing?"

Kudo let out a cheerful "Haaaiii!" while Rikuo shrugged, looking considerably less enthusiastic.

"Saiga-chan, can you step into my office for a moment?" Kakei asked while the boys were occupied.

Saiga felt his heart skip a beat, but it had nothing to do with the thought of a last-minute bit of nookie with his beloved. Kakei had a look on his face that always boded ill, and it made Saiga feel ill.

"I have a bad feeling about this," Kakei confided after closing the door.

"Just a feeling? Not a premonition?"

Kakei bit his lip. "I canít see anything."

"Well, it could be that nothing special is going to happen. Or maybe--"

"I thought of that. But it's not just the boys -- I can't see anything about here either. Not just today, but after. Saiga, I didnít even see this ... wiring thing. The inspector came in late last night, after I had let the boys off, and I didnít see him coming."

Saiga felt a bead of sweat trail down the back of his neck, and just barely managed not to shiver. "Maybe because you didnít know to look for it, and it's really not that big a deal?"

Kakei raised a brow. "It's a pretty expensive event of no consequence...."

"Maybe I should tell the boys to forget it...."

"No, I donít want to worry them," Kakei told him half-heartedly. Truth be told, he wanted nothing more than for Saiga -- and the boys, for that matter -- to stay there with him that day. But it wasn't fair to ask Saiga to renege on his responsibility to his partners just because his lover was feeling edgy, nor did it make sense to ask the boys to stick around when there was no real work for them to do. He's painted an image of himself as being a bit of a tightwad; they would know something was up if he offered to pay them for nothing!

So he put on a brave face and gave his love a lingering kiss, trying to imprint the memory of Saiga's lips against his own.

*†††*†††*†††*†††*†††*†††*†††*†††*†††

"Sugoi!!" Kazahaya exclaimed with grin, his eyes wide like a child as they walked past the colourful stands and costumed hawkers, following Saiga to the booth in question. "We get in for free, we get free food, and we get paid to just walk around, having fun!"

"Not to 'just walk around'," Rikuo countered. "Who knows what insane get-ups Saiga's gonna make us wear!"

Just then Saiga came to a halt, standing before one of the clothier stalls. "Here we are! You boys wait there by the changing room while I go fetch your costumes." And he vanished into seemingly-endless racks of bright cloth.

Kazahaya seemed a bit nervous for a moment, before snapping at Rikuo, "Well you didnít have to come with, you jerk! Besides, you deserve to be made to wear something silly, after trying to make me dress as Hello Kitty at that all-boys' school! I donít know what you're complaining about anyway; whatever Saiga gives us couldnít possibly be as bad as the wedding dress I had to wear for that festival!" he finished with a shudder.

"I'm glad you feel that way, Kudo-kun!" Saiga said cheerfully as he stepped back out of the wall of fabric. "Here we are!" He handed them each a bundle and pushed them towards the curtains of the only changing room.

"Wha--wait, why can't we just take turns?!" Kazahaya protested.

"Oh, donít be a baby!" Saiga chastened him. "Haven't you ever been in a boys' locker room?"

Not wanting to delve into his past -- as Saiga knew he wouldn't -- Kazahaya ducked his head and plodded into the changing room without further protest.

Rikuo shook his head disdainfully and moved to follow, but Saiga caught his arm.

"Now, behave yourself in there!" the older man quipped.

Rikuo narrowed his eyes. "And you do the same, out here.Ö" he replied pointedly, then slipped past the curtain.

He found Kazahaya standing shirtless and silent, facing the left corner of the little room, part of his costume lying on the bench that lined the back wall. Rikuo's eyes involuntarily followed the line of his companion's spine down to the jeans that rest low on the boy's hips, just above the tailbone, then back up to an almost-delicate set of perfectly-formed shoulders. Rikuo thought fleetingly that he'd almost expected to find a pair of wings between those well-defined shoulder blades, and felt vaguely cheated....

Kazahaya turned slowly around, his eyes riveted in horror to the bit of clothing in his hand. "Is Ö is this what I think it is?" he asked in a hushed whimper.

Rikuo fought back a grin and deadpanned, "If you think it's a bodice, then yes."

Kazahaya hung his head in defeat. He should have known. It wasn't even worth pleading with Saiga to let him wear something else -- the man would never relent, and undoubtedly would derive some perverse pleasure in the boy's attempt. And if Kazahaya didnít do this, not only would he be out a day's pay, but he would have to pay a cancellation fee as well! It just wasnít fair -- why did he always have to play a girl?

Resigned to his fate, he turned back to the pile he'd set there, which included an overskirt (Saiga had kindly included a sheet of instructions and pinned names to the pieces), a long-sleeved chemise (which looked something like a nightgown and was apparently worn under everything else), and a decorative piece for his hair. Further inspection found that there was indeed a note saying "bodice" pinned to the piece Kazahaya already held.

Allowing himself to grin devilishly (now that Kazahaya was too pre-occupied to notice), Rikuo lay his own bundle down on the right-hand corner of the bench, pulled his t-shirt off, and began to go through his own pile. He stopped cold when he caught sight of something that had been hidden within the layers of fabric.

He pulled the curtain aside, nearly tearing it off the hooks, and found a smirking Saiga waiting beyond.

"A codpiece??" Rikuo snapped at the man in sunglasses.

"For authenticity."

"You didnít say anything about a codpiece!"

"I donít recall you asking before," Saiga pointed out, "But if you object that strongly, you can back out and pay the cancellation fee, then go home," Saiga added with a smirk.

Rikuo pursed his lips, considering. It wasn't like he needed the money the way Kudo did exactly.... But there was the matter of leaving Kazahaya to Saiga; it would be like leaving a kitten in a cage with a hungry tiger. Or maybe a python.

It might have occurred to him that he could come back in as a paying guest, if not for a sharp whine interrupting his thoughts.

"How the hell do you put this thing on??!"

Throwing Saiga a disgusted look, Rikuo turned back to the dressing room. Inside, he found Kazahaya struggling with the laces to the bodice.

"Oh, for cryin' out loud -- can't you even dress yourself?!" Rikuo snapped, stepping over and untangling the mess Kazahaya had made.

"HEY, I'M NOT A GIRL, ALL RIGHT?! Why the hell would I know how to wear one of these things?!"

"Coulda fooled me Ö" Rikuo muttered.

"WHAT WAS THAT?!"

"I said 'Because it's not rocket science!'" Rikuo lied as he re-wove the laces. "Here, put your finger on the knot so I can tie it off."

Kazahaya obeyed with a glare. He continued to glower, but didnít protest as Rikuo roughly adjusted his clothes. He flushed a little at the intimacy of situation: the taller boy's hands roaming all over him (albeit a bit aggressively) to make adjustments, how the tight the space was forcing them to stand so closely. The air between their bodies quickly grew warm. Kazahaya tried not to notice the bead of sweat that made a lazy line down Rikuo's bare chest as he worked.

Then came the headpiece. Rikuo paused, his face ashen as he stared at it. It was a diamond-shaped piece of cloth, with combs beneath to hold it in place. On the top were white flowers, and it was the little blossoms that gave him pause. They reminded him very much of a comb his sister, Tsukiko, had owned. The last time he'd seen the comb, the two long prongs were covered in blood -- as was the rest of the apartment he'd shared with her. That was the day she'd gone missing; he still didnít know for sure if she was alive, or whether or not the blood had even been hers....

"You all right?" Kudo was looking up at him, a mix of concern and pity on his face.

Not for the first time, Rikuo wondered if Kazahaya had seen something of his memories and simply not said anything about it. Suddenly angry but not entirely sure why, he spun Kazahaya around, so that the boy faced away from him. Kazahaya let out an equally-angry yelp at his ill treatment, then yelped again when Rikuo accidentally jabbed him with one of the combs as he pinned the headpiece in place. Trying hard to reign in his temper, Rikuo concentrated hard on fixing it so that Kazahaya's hair was pulled up into it, save for his fringe.

Kazahaya held back a shiver as the taller boy's fingers brushed his neck, and warm breath played across his skin.

"There," Rikuo announced, turning to his own clothes.

"D-doumo," Kazahaya mumbled weakly in gratitude. He slipped his food-tokens and cell phone into a leather drawstring pouch that had been in the pile, slipped it into a pocket in his overskirt, then stepped out to Saiga for inspection.

"Daaaaamn!" Saiga crooned. "I knew youíd be perfect for that outfit!"

"SHUT UP!" Kudo snapped. "You probably made it specifically for me, anyway, you pervert! You just like to torture me!"

"Whether he did or didnít doesnít change how cute it is on you," Rikuo teased from behind the curtain.

"Oh yeah? Let's see how you look in what he made for you, smart-ass!"

Looking down at his own clothes, Rikuo realised too late that he shouldn't have teased Kazahaya. What is it they say? People who live in glass houses shouldnít throw stones.... With a heavy sigh, he stepped out of the changing stall.

He caught Kazahaya staring at him openly in surprise, and just barely kept himself from making another smart remark. Just this once, he would let himself enjoy Kazahaya's attention.

Except that Kudo's open-mouthed ogling of Rikuo in a handsome doublet didn't last long. Kudo took one look at the large, sparkling black bulge between Rikuo's legs and promptly fell over laughing.

"What the hell is that?" he managed after a moment, tears of mirth streaming down his beat-red face. "A medieval jock-strap??"

"It's called a 'codpiece', little boy," Saiga informed him cheerfully, slipping an arm around Kudo's shoulder and speaking right into his ear, as the shady man was often want to do. "Maybe when you grow up, you'll be able to wear one!" Though Saiga was being playful, Kazahaya thought there was an edge of offense to the man's voice. Kudo swallowed nervously; he wasn't sure why, but this time he didnít dare protest being called a "little boy".

Rikuo worked very hard to keep his face looking bored, though he wanted nothing more than to use his telekinetic power to throw Saiga off of Kazahaya at that moment.

Saiga made a few minor adjustments to their costumes before sending them on their not-so-merry way. If he was a little rough with Kudo, the boy didnít mention it. And when Saiga handed him a pennant on a stick that read, "I bought my bodice at Belle's Boudoir," he didnít argue -- though he did weep a little.

*†††*†††*†††*†††*†††*†††*†††*†††*†††

Kazahaya spent the first ten minutes trailing behind Rikuo, hoping the taller boy would effectively hide him. He also kept his head down, which was probably why he walked right into Himura's backside when his companion suddenly stopped.

"Ow! What'd you do that for, ya jerk?!" he snapped, rubbing his nose.

"Just thought I'd hold still so you could get a better look at my ass," Rikuo said sweetly. "I mean, that is why you're walking behind me instead of beside me, showing off the clothes, right?"

"Yeah, like your ass is anything to look at! I'm not letting people see me like this!"

Rikuo leaned in close, and Kazahaya took an involuntary step back. "Saiga has spies everywhere, you know," Rikuo confided, glancing about conspiratorially. "And if you donít put on a good show, I'm guessing he'll make you pay the cancellation fee after all," he added with a wink.

Kazahaya raised his arms defensively, horrified. He looked around wildly, as if the spies would be wearing signs saying who they were. "Aw maaaaan," he whined, dropping his arms in a gesture of defeat. He walked beside Rikuo now.

A few minutes later, he discovered an unexpected perk of being in drag.

"Why, aren't you a sweet thing?" said and old woman at a turkey-leg stand. "Look at that pretty bodice! Oh, but you need some meat on your bones, m'dear, help you fill it out! Here, have one on me!" And the woman held a turkey leg out to Kazahaya.

"F-for me?" he stammered, disbelieving.

The woman shook the drumstick encouragingly.††"Go on! If anyone asks, just tell them you got it from Old Meg's stand!" She added with a wink.††

"Itadakimasu!" Kazahaya said brightly in thanks as he accepted the offering. He bit into it enthusiastically, and felt grease run down his chin. He quickly leaned forward to let the drippings fall on the ground; Saiga would likely skin him alive and use his head to make another outfit if he got anything on the one he was wearing!

"Slob," Rikuo told him, holding out a handful of napkins and shaking his head with a frown.

Kazahaya glared back, but still muttered a thank-you through the turkey as he wiped his face.

As they continued on their way, Rikuo remarked, "You're gonna be a walking billboard for everybody today, aren'tcha?"

"Whaddya mean?" Kazahaya asked, truly baffled.

"That was why 'Old Meg' gave that to you -- she knew people would be drawn to you, and hoped they'd notice the turkey leg in the process!"

"What?! No way! She was just a nice old lady!"

Rikuo shook his head. "I would have thought, after all this time, you would have learned to be less trusting."

If Kazahaya didnít know better, he would have sworn Rikuo sounded ... concerned? Naaaah.... "Maybe you're the one who doesn't trust enough," Kudo shot back.

Rikuo looked as though he was going to argue at first, but said nothing. His face shifted from rage to ... Kazahaya's couldnít tell. He didnít look any happier, bit he didnít look like he was going to tear Kazahaya's head off any more either. Rikuo just turned and walked on. Kazahaya's hurried after him, tripping in his skirts a little in the attempt. He was about to apologise, then thought better of it; Rikuo never seemed to appreciate apologies. Beside, the dark-haired boy had been the one to start it! Finishing his turkey leg, Kazahaya turned his attention to the stalls as they walked, trying to dissipate some of his own anger.††

"Such a pretty girl shouldnít frown so!" called a pickle-seller. "Come, sample a spear, free of charge! It is large, and sure to satisfy you all day!"

Rikuo's shoulders were shaking; though Kazahaya couldn't see his face, he knew the other boy was laughing silently. If Rikuo could see Kudo's face at that moment, he'd be hard pressed to tell whether the lovely shade of pink Kazahaya was turning was borne of anger or embarrassment. All the same, Kudo accepted the pickle without correcting the salesman -- free food was free food!

A little farther on, Kazahaya was stopped by two teen girls who wanted to know where he'd gotten his bodice and hair ornament. He couldnít respond, his heart racing and his mouth suddenly having gone dry; he thought he was having a heart attack! They were going to think he was a total perve!

Except ... they didnít seem to realise he was a boy! He couldn't decide whether or not that was worse....

While he was deliberating the point, Rikuo answered the girls, "Sorry, my sister's very shy. We got our clothes at Belle's Boudoir. Take a left at the next intersection, then a right after that. Third stall on the left."

Giggling, the young ladies thanked him and moved on, throwing appreciative glances at Himura over their shoulders as they departed.

"There now, that wasn't so terrible, was it?" Rikuo asked playfully.

If looks could kill, then Kudo's was like a double-handed broadsword.

* * *

Chapter 2: Dude Looks Like a Lady

An hour and a hundred humiliations later found them at a fencing demonstration under a large oak. To Kazahaya's horror, when the master-at-arms asked for a volunteer, a half-drunk and very large man chose that moment to decide he wanted a better view: in his effort to push to the front of the crowd, he ended up propelling Kazahaya forward as well, until the boy stumbled to his knees in the practice ring.

"Well, aren't we enthusiastic," drawled the man-at-arm's assistant. "Here, milady," he added as he helped Kazahaya to his feet, grinning.

Kazahaya wouldnít meet the young man's eyes, fearing discovery. The thought of being revealed as a boy in drag in front of such a crowd made him ill.

"It was an accident -- my sister wasn't volunteering," came Rikuo's voice from behind Kazahaya. He felt Rikuo's hand on his back, and flinched as if having suffered a shock of static electricity.

"Oh come now, my good man," the man-at-arms admonished. "Don't be so over-protective -- I assure you that no harm will come to her. She should have the same chance as anyone to learn swordplay!"

Rikuo scowled. "You don't know her like I do. And I tell you, she wasn't volun--"

"Butt out, Rikuo!" Kazahaya snapped. "I can fight my own battles!"

Rikuo rolled his eyes. "Fine. It's your funeral."

"That's the spirit, lass!" the old swordmaster said cheerfully. He slipped a plastic-tipped practice foil into Kazahaya's hand.

Suddenly realising that they had mistaken his words to Rikuo as an agreement to participate in the demonstration, Kudo tried to protest, but the moment the grip touched his fingers, his power came online. Visions of past mock-battles played past his mind's eye as the old man gave instructions to the crowd as much as Kazahaya. The younger man tapped his foil against Kazahaya's, in illustration.

Something snapped inside Kazahaya in that moment; he sprang into action, catching the young man off-guard. The young swordmaster just barely recovered. The crowed cheered uproariously, thinking his desperate holding off of the hellcat Kazahaya to be all a part of the show, the notion of an adept fencer being put to task by a novice -- and a girl -- a joke.

Rikuo, too, watched -- the only person in the crowd who had even an inkling of what was happening. Oh, sure, there was still a lot he didnít know about Kudo, but somehow he doubted the boy was an expert fencer. No, his guess was that Kazahaya was drawing on the memories of the person who used that practice foil on a daily basis.... Worse, Kudo's eyes had that glazed look that said he was in a trance of some kind. The plastic tip prevented him from stabbing the other guy, but they could still get injured, by tripping or through sheer exhaustion. Kazahaya might even do something crazy, like take the practice tip off! How was he going to snap the kid out of it?

Snap ... That gave Rikuo an idea.

Surreptitiously, he raised a hand and focused his attention on a branch overhead. A large crack startled everyone; Kazahaya looked up just in time to get smacked in the face with the falling branch. He crumpled to the ground, and Rikuo winced. He hadn't meant it to actually hit Kazahaya. Still, the branch hadn't really been heavy enough to do much damage, and it made excellent cover for the fainting spell that usually accompanied one of Kazahaya's psychic episodes. Pushing the crowd and players aside, he gathered Kazahaya up in his arms; it was an action he'd committed countless times, but it always amazed him how light the kid was, as if he had the bones of a bird.

"We should get her to the infirmary straight away," insisted the man-art-arts, his face pale with worry.

The younger man, though, looked vastly put-out at having been trounced so. Rikuo suddenly found himself wanting to finish the job Kazahaya started.

Instead, he simply shoved the urge aside and nodded to the old man. "It's all right, we work here -- I know where the infirmary is, I'll take her," he assured the fellow, though truthfully he had no idea where the place was. He wouldn't take Kazahaya there even if he did; they were long-used to caring for their own injuries, working for Kakei.

"Send us word later of how she fares," the man insisted, and Rikuo nodded once more -- though he had no intention of coming back that way again.

*†††*†††*†††*†††*†††*†††*†††*†††*†††*†††*†††*†††

"Dude, I can't believe you got beat by a chick!" laughed a teen boy from the sidelines of the now-dispersed swordplay demonstration, and the handful of boys around him snickered with him, high-fiving.

"Something funny, Ichiro?" the fencing apprentice growled, walking towards the pocket of mirth. The boys there immediately quieted. The captain of their school's fencing team was not a small fellow; he stood four inches above their next-tallest member. And while he was quick to laugh at anyone else's pain, Hikaru Ryuken was not a fellow who laughed at himself easily.

"Ryuken-kun, be back by one-thirty," called the old man-at-arms.

With his back to his master, Hikaru rolled his eyes before turning and bowing with a "Hai, sensei."

*†††*†††*†††*†††*†††*†††*†††*†††*†††*†††*†††*†††

Though carrying Kudo didnít bother him in the slightest, he took the back way, through the woods behind the stalls, to Saiga's booth, afraid that Kazahaya might wake up en route and make a fuss.††He needn't have worried: Kudo was out like a light the entire time. Rikuo brought him through the back door, into the storage area. Saiga was there, and looked at them in surprise. Or at least Rikuo supposed it was surprise: the man was still wearing his sunglasses.

"Had a little problem at the swordplay demonstration," Rikuo muttered as he lay his companion down gently on some boxes. "He had a little episode with a fencing foil and suddenly became Errol Flynn. Had to whack him over the head with a branch."

Saiga's eyebrows shot up over the shades. "And nobody stopped you?"

"Yeah, well, I didnít exactly use my hands."

"Ah, should have known. He okay?"

"I think so."

The way Rikuo bit his lip told Saiga that he wasn't nearly so certain. He brushed a strand of hair from Kazahaya's brow without even realizing he did so; Saiga pretended not to notice. Kudo stirred, his eyes fluttering open. An almost-imperceptible look of relief crossed the dark-haired boy's face.

Kudo's eyes snapped open and he sat up, looking about in confusion. His memory caught up with him apparently; his eyes widened with alarm, then squeezed closed in a wince. He moaned and fell back against the boxes, covering his eyes with his hand.

"Kazahaya?" Himura asked. Saiga would swear he detected a not of worry.

"Go ahead and say it," Kazahaya said.

"Say what?"

"That I'm an idiot and had no business participating in that display."

Rikuo was silent so long, Kudo peeked out at him from beneath his hand, the confusion clear even with half his face obscured.

Rikuo was scowling -- that was nothing new. But he wouldnít meet Kudo's eyes as he spoke, which was unlike him. So was his reply.

"And just what kind of a jerk do you think I am, anyway? You got shoved into the ring; you didnít volunteer! That old man put that sword into your hand; you didnít take it! I'm not about to blame a guy for something that wasn't his fault!"

It was Kazahaya's turn to let the conversation hand for a moment, as he tried to think of a reply. "G-gomen." Sorry.

Rikuo sighed heavily. "You're always doing that. Why donít you just try not saying things you need to apologise for in the first place?" That was something typical of Rikuo to say, although he sounded far less angry -- more tired, really -- than he usually sounded when dealing with Kudo. Almost rueful.

Such a statement would usually see Kudo spitting like a cat back, but instead he just stared at Rikuo, a thoughtful frown on his brow.

"So ... what happened? I mean, the last thing I remember was that old guy shoving a foil in my hand. Next thing I know, I'm here...." He winced, probing gingerly at his forehead with his finger. Other than a faint welt, though, his injury was negligible, to Saiga's mind.††"My head hurts a little; did ... did I faint in front of all those people?" he asked weakly.

Normally Himura would have laughed and rubbed the ordeal in Kudo's face. Maybe, like Saiga, Rikuo saw the forlorn quality in Kudo's eyes, or heard it in his tone, and took pity.

"No, you didn't. You kicked that jerk's ass, actually." There was an undisguised glee in Rikuo's words

Kazahaya, inexplicably, felt a surge of pride that was as rare as the compliment. Then he wondered why it had affected him so -- what should he care what Rikuo thought of him?

"In fact," Rikuo added, "I was half-afraid you were gonna kill the guy until that branch fell on you!"

Kudo scrunched his nose in a way Saiga found absolutely adorable -- a sly glance at Rikuo told him the black-haired boy was similarly charmed.

"A branch?! Just ... fell on me?? What--" Kudo's eyes widened till the irises were drowning in pools of white, then narrowed until they were barely visible. Rikuo almost deluded himself into believing the pupils ha become slitted, like a cat's. "You did it," he accused Himura.

Again, Rikuo was silent. Finally, with unusual patience, he confessed, "Like I told you, I was afraid of what you might have done to him, and that was all I could think of to snap you out of it. In fact, I didn't mean to hit you; I just wanted to startle you. You were moving too fast for me to aim very well," he added with a small smile, finally meeting Kudo's eyes.

Kazahaya wanted to scream, to accuse the other boy of lying and having hit him on purpose, but two things gave him pause. The first was the notion of having posed a threat to another human being because of his power; such a thing hadnít happened in along time. In fact, the least time it had, he had run away from the only life he had ever known. The second was the sincerity he found in Rikuo's eyes. Though the boy hassled him relentlessly on any given day, he was telling the truth about not having wanted to hit him, Kazahaya was sure of it. Rikuo might truly have stopped Kazahaya from doing something terrible.

"I ... I'm glad you did it, then. And I know you think it wasn't my fault, but ... well, I told you to butt out when you were just trying to help -- if Iíd let you help, you wouldnít have had to whack me over the head. I am sorry," he held up a hand when Rikuo tried to reprimand him again, "and I'm grateful that you got me out of there before I could ... well, do something awful." Kazahaya looked away, ashamed.

Saiga waited for Rikuo to call the boy an idiot, as would generally occur whenever Kazahaya tried to apologise to or thank his tall companion.

Instead, Rikuo shrugged and looked away, then said, quietly, "That's what friends are for."

When Kazahaya gawked at Rikuo, his eyes were sparkling, his long lashes wet. "Friends?" he whispered.

Saiga felt another stab of pity; he and Kakei had long conjectured that Kudo hadn't had much in the way of friends or family before Rikuo had found him half-frozen and carried him home. Unfortunately, Rikuo and Kazahaya had fought like cats and dogs from day one. Now that he thought on it, though, their fights, over time, seemed to be moving out of the arena of actual anger and into one of simple habit, especially after coming back from their mission at an all-boys school. The wall that had been between them was cracking; maybe now they were both ready to start tearing it down of their own will?

Rikuo pretended not to have heard Kazahaya's query. "I'm gonna go get some lunch; you guys want anything?"

"Wha? Oh, I'll just come with you!" Kazahaya said, swinging his legs over the boxes. He swayed a little, and put a hand to his head.

"I donít think so, little boy," Saiga said. "Look, you can both stay here; I made sandwiches enough for an army," he told them, walking over to a cooler. He grabbed a scarf out of a box and wrapped it around a handful of ice. "Here," he told Kazahaya, holding the scarf out to him. "You keep that on that noggin while you eat, and if you can walk a straight line and touch your nose when you're done, you can go play after."

Kazahaya didnít even protest this time, only nodding and taking a half-hearted bit out of the sandwich Saiga handed him next.

"Well, I gotta get back to work," Saiga added. It took everything he had not to tell them in his usual lewd manner to behave themselves, but even he could sense that something fragile was in the making.

*†††*†††*†††*†††*†††*†††*†††*†††*†††*†††*†††*†††

The boys ate in silence. When Kazahaya finished his sandwich, Rikuo didnít even ask, but simply fetched him another from the cooler.

"Thanks," Kazahaya said with a small, sad smile.

"So what do you think we should do after we eat?" Rikuo asked.

Kazahaya simply shrugged, his eyes on his food.

"You up for a little archery?"

Kazahaya paled. "I'd better not. Who knows what I'd pick up from a bow that's been in a thousand hands."

Rikuo could have kicked himself. Still, he had to wonder.... "I thought you didnít pick things up unless you wanted to?"

"Most of the time, yeah. But ... well, you saw what happened at the demonstration. Instead of gaining more control over my powers, I seem to be getting worse." he added miserably.

"Maybe you're just getting stronger?" Rikuo suggested. "Like in a video game -- when you go up a level, it gets harder...."

Kazahaya looked a little hopeful. "Have you had that problem?"

Rikuo nodded. "Not so much lately -- maybe I've plateaued, I dunno. But Kakei used to work with me on developing my power, until I reached a level where he felt I could continue on my own."

Kazahaya felt an inexplicable stab of jealousy. "He's never tried to work with me and my power...."

Rikuo shrugged. "Maybe he felt you were already strong enough when we found you. Although he does seem to be testing your abilities with the tasks he gives us -- maybe he just decided your gift needed a more subtle approach."

"That makes sense, I guess...." Kazahaya grew thoughtful. He couldn't picture Rikuo ever being any less confident in his abilities than he was now, nor could he picture Kakei-san reprimanding the other boy for any sort of failure. No, Kakei-san and Rikuo's relationship seemed different somehow from Kakei-san's and his own. More personal. How long had Rikuo been at the Green Drugstore anyway?

"You're quiet," Rikuo remarked.

"Ah, I-I was just thinking," Kazahaya said, suddenly blushing.

"'Bout what?" Rikuo asked. Kazahaya had expected a wise-ass remark about his intelligence -- or lack thereof -- but none was forthcoming.

"N-never mind, it's not any of my business," he finally replied, bracing himself for the retort that just had to be waiting somewhere on Rikuo's tongue, if not the tip.

Rikuo shrugged. "You know ..." he began, "it's not unusual for people to live together to know something about each other. So go ahead and ask -- and if I donít want to answer, I won't. Okay? And the same goes for you -- you let me ask, and if you donít want to answer, you don't have to. Deal?"

The look in his eyes was oddly intense; Kazahaya got the distinct impression that this was more than just some casual conversation. He wondered if it was wise to accept he offer, but .... he was so tired of carrying his burdens alone! Maybe Rikuo was, too. And hadn't Rikuo proven himself trustworthy on numerous occasions? If he couldn't trust the guy, who could he trust?

"Deal," Kazahaya said quietly. Rikuo motioned for him to continue. "I... I was just wondering how long you've been at the Green Drugstore is all."

Rikuo knew his companion would get around to asking something to that effect someday -- had intended to tell him in any case -- but it didnít make answering any easier. He waited so long that Kazahaya thought he wasn't even going to answer, and jumped a little when Rikuo began to speak. "I've known Kakei and Saiga a long time -- my sister, Tsukiko, was friends with them. She has a talent, too -- one for healing. One day I came home from school, and she was gone. The room was covered ..." his voice threatened to crack; he dropped to a whisper, "covered in blood. Our parents died in an accident years go, so Kakei took me in. He felt someone was collecting people with gifts, and was afraid I'd be next."

Kazahaya felt his skin go cold, and realised he'd been sweating. "Collecting ..." He looked down at the ground.

Rikuo scowled, but with concern, not anger. "What?"

"Who does Kakei think is doing the ... collecting? And how long have they been at it?

Rikuo shrugged, still watching Kazahaya intensely. "Whoever they are, they're one of us -- and stronger than anyone Kakei's ever known. Now can I ask you something?"

Kazahaya nodded, but wouldnít meet Rikuo's eyes.

"What are you running from?"

Kazahaya looked up quickly with his typical deer-caught-in-headlights expression; it made Rikuo want to shake the boy. "What makes you think I'm running?"

Rikuo frowned in frustration; after a moment, his features softened, though he still looked concerned. "Fine -- a deal's a deal. If you donít want to answer...." He shrugged and started to rise to his feet.

"Wait!" Kazahaya reached out for Rikuo's hand. "I--"

"All right, boyos," Saiga barged in, "Time to get back to work. Well, provided you're feeling well enough, Kudo-chan." The tension in the room was so palatable he thought he could swim in it; a brow peeked over his sunglasses. "Am I interrupting something?"

"N-no!" Kazahaya insisted, hopping to his feet. "We were just leaving!" And he moved for the door.

"Not quite yet," Saiga said, stopping him with a hand to his chest.

*†††*†††*†††*†††*†††*†††*†††*†††*†††*†††*†††*†††

On their way back from the food bazaar, Hikaru announced to his cronies that he wanted to check on the young woman who'd been brained by the tree branch. A quick visit to the infirmary revealed that she'd never gone. As they left, Hikaru espied a young lady wearing the same hair ornament that the girl he'd fought against had worn. He complimented her and asked where she'd gotten it, claiming he wished to buy one for his girlfriend. She'd happily obliged him with directions.

"Boys, let's take a detour," Hikaru told his companions. He had a suspicion that needed confirming.

*†††*†††*†††*†††*†††*†††*†††*†††*†††*†††*†††*†††

"What's wrong with the stuff I'm wearing?!" Kudo moaned, eyeing the new bundle of clothes in Saiga's arms balefully. Having determined that Kudo was fit to walk again, Saiga was pitilessly putting him back to work.

"We've sold out of that bodice and that hairpiece, that's what! I want to start pushing the coathardies and surcoats now," Saiga said with a frightening gleam in his eye. "Now you're going to have to change in the stockroom -- I need the dressing room for customers." And he wasn't kidding -- there was a bit of a line forming outside the curtained area.

Still moaning, Kazahaya nevertheless obeyed, shuffling his feet as he went into the back room. The good news was he didnít need Rikuo's help this time: there was no tying involved. A coathardie turned out to be a long-sleeved, form-fitting dress that was belted low, just above the hips. The surcoat was another sort of sleeveless dress worn over it. The sides of the surcoat were cut out from the shoulders to just below the hips, at which point it flared into a long, loose skirt.

The effect, Rikuo thought when Kazahaya stepped back out, was surprisingly provocative. He was glad Saiga hadnít made him change as well; he was now thankful for the presence of the codpiece....

Saiga nodded his approval.

"There aren't any pockets this time," Kazahaya whined, holding up his pouch.

"Tie it to the belt," Rikuo suggested. Saiga was again shocked at the absence of the word "stupid".

When Kazahaya had finished tying the pouch on, Saiga then pulled a comb out of his pocket. "Hold still," he ordered. He undid the hairpiece, then combed Kazahaya's hair down. "Let's see..." he said, looking at one corner of the stall. He selected a ribbon, and set to French-braiding it into the boy's hair. Rikuo had to admit he was impressed.

Why does this guy know how to French-braid?? Kazahaya wondered. He cooks, he sews -- but he's such a tough-guy! Kazahaya started to shake his head to himself, but a hard yank of his hair by Saiga quickly aborted the attempt. When Saiga roughly pushed him over to the mirror, he had to admit it: he looked like a chick. He wasn't happy about it, but there it was.

Unfortunately, unbeknownst to him, Hikaru had spotted him long before the "transformation" was complete.

*†††*†††*†††*†††*†††*†††*†††*†††*†††*†††*†††*†††

"I knew it!" Hikaru crowed as he and his friends walked away from Belle's Boudoir. "That wasn't a girl I fought at all! That's why he didnít go to the infirmary -- he was afraid he'd be found out!"

When they'd seen the kid getting his clothes from the man in the trenchcoat and go into the stockroom, they'd come around the back and peeked through a crack in the impromptu wooden wall. They'd seen everything -- it was pretty obvious the girl was really a guy. Of course, his companions had been more than a little disappointed -- they'd been expecting a naked chick, after all -- but Hikaru felt vindicated.

And soon, thanks to the notion forming in his head, he'd be avenged.

*†††*†††*†††*†††*†††*†††*†††*†††*†††*†††*†††*†††

They avoided mentioning their conversation after leaving Bell's Boudoir, Rikuo purposefully leading them in the opposite direction from the gaming area. They made their way slowlyy through the faire. They listened to traveling troubadours. They watched a short play, a blacksmithing demonstration, jugglers, and jousting. They were remarkably civil, even enjoyed each other's company (though neither was likely to admit it). And each frequently cast curious, veiled glances at the other.

Kazahaya wondered at how his heart seemed to flutter, his skin to burn, and his lips felt ... lonely, much as they had when he had momentarily gained Rikuo's passion for chocolate once when Rikuo had dropped a shoe on him to wake him up. This felt like a craving too, but for what? And why did it get worse every time he looked at Rikuo or brushed against him?

Moreover, why couldnít he stop looking at Rikuo?

Towards the end of the day, they finally reached the gaming arena. Though Kazahaya had made it clear he wouldnít touch the weaponry, he insisted that shouldnít keep Rikuo from playing. First up was archery.

Kazahaya was always a little high-strung, he knew that. When Rikuo broke the string on one of the faire's sub-par bows, he couldnít help but note how apt the comparison was: he felt like he was going to snap any moment himself

He'd wanted to answer Rikuo's question, but it was like the proverbial cat had stolen his tongue. Now he was bursting with the need to say it -- as much to get it off his chest as in recompense to Rikuo for answering his own question. He supposed it was just fear that kept him silent: there was a good chance Rikuo would either be disgusted when he heard the truth or take pity on him, and Kazahaya wasn't sure he could stand either scenario. But what frightened him even more was that he still wanted -- no, needed -- to answer Rikuo despite those possibilities.

Rikuo had gotten another bow from the game's barker, and was sighting the target.

"You're aiming to low," Kazahaya told him absently, still mostly lost in his thoughts.

Rikuo scoffed. "You havenít even touched the bow, how would you know?"

"I--" and again, he couldnít seem to speak. "Never mind," he said finally.

Rikuo sighed, and went back to concentrating on the target. This time he raised the point a bit, so that it aimed slightly above the target. He let the arrow fly.

A perfect bull's-eye.

He gaped at Kazahaya, astonished. The other boy looked sad and a million miles gone as his eyes watched the other archers. Rikuo was struck by how much the boy looked the part of some tragic maiden from a fairytale. He shook a momentary fantasy of playing the hero to Kazahaya's damsel from his mind, glad again for the codpiece.

They moved on through the games; Kazahaya wouldnít touch the knives or axes, but proved himself remarkably skilled at the ring toss and throwing a ball through a hoop.

For a guy who always has his head in the clouds, his concentration can be incredible -- sometimes , Rikuo noted to himself.

Finished with the games, they moved to finish browsing the last of the stalls, passing a fortune-teller's tent as they made their way.

"Surely you wouldnít miss an opportunity to see your future, boys?" an old, craggy voice called from within the tent.

Kazahaya stopped. Was she talking to them? Did she know--

"Yes, dearie, I know full-well that you're not what you seem. Why don't you come see what else I know?"

"Ignore her," Rikuo advised, laying a hand on Kazahaya's shoulder. "If we want to know the future, all we have to do is ask Kakei!"

Nodding, Kazahaya turned away, trying hard to ignore the tingle he'd under his skin felt when Rikuo had touched him.

"Oh, surely you wouldnít deny an old woman like Ozuma some company?" came the voice again.

Kazahaya looked back towards the tent. "It's not like it would hurt to humour her..." he said.

Rikuo sighed, scowling, but nodded.

Inside the tent they found the usual fortune-teller trappings: silk scarves, incense, candles, and a small round table with a crystal ball, runes, and tarot cards scattered on its surface. An old woman -- Ozuma, Kazahaya presumed -- in gypsy-ish garb sat on the far end of the table, and gestured to two plush chairs opposite her. Warily, they sat; Kazahaya pulled the purse off his belt to get more comfortable, then lay the advertising pennant on top of it.

"Now, give me your hand," Ozuma told Kazahaya.

"Ah ... I'm not the one with a question," Kazahaya said, not wanting to be impolite but also not wanting to risk another episode with his gift.

"I know," she told him. "The tarot, runes, the pendulumn -- these are all devices used to help us bring to the surface answers that are already there. He may have asked the questions," she said, gesturing to Rikuo, "but it's you, and only you, who can answer them. The problem," she continued, "is that someone has gone to great lengths to ensure that you cannot speak the answers aloud. In their arrogance, they assume that speech is the only method by which knowledge can be imparted -- and that your power is only receptive. Once you are willing to let others in, that will change."

She turned her attention to Rikuo. "I regret that I cannot help you speak to your sister--" Rikuo started at this "--but take heart: it is because Tsukiko is still alive, and my gift is only for speaking to the dead."

Rikuo stood, knocking the chair back. "What do you know of Tsukiko?!"

"Only that you look for her -- and that you already have the answer of where and why. The spirits are barred from saying any more on the subject -- just as he is," she added, gesturing to Kazahaya. "But there is a way around that geis for him. You have all the pieces, if you can trust each other enough and cooperate."

Rikuo looked at Kazahaya with accusation in his eyes. Kazahaya knew something about Tsukiko and wasn't telling him??

Kazahaya missed the look, his eyes still on the old woman. "A geis? Is that why I couldnít answer him, each time he asked me?"

The old woman grew serious. "If he asked you about your past? Then yes. The spirits could at least confirm that what prevents them from telling me about your history prevents you from doing so as well. And it prevents the spirits from telling me anything about Tsukiko, just as it blocks Kakei. All they can tell me is that Kudo's power can find the answers -- which you already suspected," she added, looking to Rikuo. Then, "Say hello to Saiga and Kakei for me, will you?" she said dismissively.

††Kazahaya goggled. "You know K--"

Ozuma held up a hand. "Sorry, but the free part of your session is over. Any more questions will cost you 200 yen apiece." She winked.

Unsettled, Rikuo brought Kazahaya to his feet by the arm, eager to be away. More than slightly unnerved himself, Kazahaya didn't complain.

"Oh, and boyos? Donít be afraid to hold hands!" she cackled as they hurried out of the tent.††

*†††*†††*†††*†††*†††*†††*†††*†††*†††*†††*†††*†††

Ichiro heard the old woman's last words to the departing pair, and curled his lip in disgust as he trailed them. When they paused at a stand, he took a moment to text a message to Hikaru and the others, telling them what the fortune-teller had said about how the boys shouldnít be afraid to hold hands.

SUM 4TUNETELLR! Hikaru texted back.

*†††*†††*†††*†††*†††*†††*†††*†††*†††*†††*†††*†††

"So what do you think?" Kazahaya asked Rikuo quietly a few minute later. "Do you think Ozuma's for real?"

"I donít know. She could have been a plant by Saiga -- he could just be messing with us." Rikuo saw that a nearby clerk had looked up at the mention of Ozuma's name. "Look," He said under his breath, "I donít think we should talk about this out here, where people who know her and our ... employer are standing around. Let's go in there." He gestured to the Haunted Dungeon, a macabre exhibit of torture devices from the days of the Inquisition.

Kazahaya visibly shuddered. "No way I'm going in there!"

Rikuo gave him a lopsided grin. "Donít worry, I'll be there to protect you."

"That's not it!" Kazahaya hissed. "What if I brush up against something in there? I touched a dag--" he started to cough. When the fit subsided, he said, "She was right about one thing, at least: I just tried to tell you something of my past, and look what happened! And I did try to answer you before, too -- I wanted, but ... I donít know -- when I tried, nothing would come out!"

Rikuo gave Kazahaya a hard look. "Seriously?" he asked at last "Because we did have a deal, you know -- if you simply donít want to answer, it's your prerogative."

Kazahaya frowned. "You think I'm lying? Don't you trust me?"

Rikuo snorted. "You, lying? You couldn't lie to me save your life. But that doesnít mean you can't delude yourself."

"What's that supposed to mean?!" Kazahaya demanded, fists on hips. Then he gasped, patting one hip with his hand. "Oh no!"

"What?"

"I left my food tokens back at Ozuma's tent!"

"So? That day's just about over, and it's not like you even needed to use any of it!"

"Yeah, but if we end up coming back tomorrow, I might need them!"

Rikuo rolled his eyes. "Why'd you have to go and take it off in the first place?" he snapped. "I donít want to go back there!"

"Who asked you to?" Kazahaya shot back, pushing past him, back towards the tent.

Just then, Rikuo's cell rang; it was a text from Saiga. "This place is closing -- meet me back at Saiga's booth," Rikuo called after Kazahaya.

*†††*†††*†††*†††*†††*†††*†††*†††*†††*†††*†††*†††

Done with the demonstrations for the day, Hikaru had caught up with Ichiro.

"Get this!" Ichiro began, grinning. "That guy in drag went back to the fortune-teller, but that other guy went back to that shop. And, even better, the little drag queen is afraid of the Haunted Dungeon!"

Just then, the boy in question started to walk their way. Hikaru put on his most sincere smile and approached him.

"Hail, my lady! I am glad to see you out and about after your accident this afternoon -- I trust this means you are well?"

Kazahaya ducked his head and stifled a moan. "Yes, thank you. If you'll excuse me, I'm late...."††

"Oh, well I know all the shortcuts here -- tell me where you're going, and I'll get you there as fast as possible!"

"Er, that's okay, I can manage!" Kazahaya assured him.

"Oh, please, milady! I feel so bad about this afternoon -- let me do you this small favour to make amends!"

Kazahaya sighed inwardly, and just barely kept his outward self from echoing the action. He quickly decided that acquiescing would see him free of the swordsman faster than arguing any further. "All right then," he nodded.

"Wonderful," Hikaru said, slipping his arm through Kazahaya's, ignoring how the boy stiffened. "There is a path behind these booths...."

He led Kazahaya behind the Haunted Dungeon. His cronies came around the other side; together, they jumped the boy, gagged him, broke down the door, and dragged Kazahaya kicking and screaming into the building. No one else was inside, the attraction's attendant having left early. There was no one near enough to hear his muffled cries, save those who had captured him.

There was no one to hear the laughter of said captors as they strapped him to a garroting chair.

* * *

Chapter 3: The Little Death

"Where's the kid?" Saiga asked when Rikuo arrived. They were the only ones in the shop, Saiga's partners having left.

"He forgot something as your friend Ozuma's," the dark-haired boy muttered in reply.

Saiga laughed. "She's a hoot, ain't she?"

"Is she for real?" Rikuo asked as he watched Saiga counted the contents of the cash box. "I mean, she told us some strange stuff...."

"You mean is she really psychic? Sort-of. She's not a pre-cog like Kakei, she's a ghost-talker."

Rikuo stared hard at Saiga. "She said Kazahaya is the key to finding Tsukiko. That better not have been a joke."

Saiga snapped to attention. "She what?"

Rikuo repeated the contents of the conversation they'd had with the woman, adding, "If she's telling the truth, why hasn't she told you this earlier?"

Saiga grew thoughtful, clearly amazed at the revelation. "She canít choose what the spirits tell her -- or when," he added absently, still absorbing the news. "Well, let's get going, then. The sooner we get out of here, the sooner Kazahaya can poke around in your head for clues."

*†††*†††*†††*†††*†††*†††*†††*†††*†††*†††*†††*††††

Kazahaya had fought his captors as best he could, but the moment his skin touched the chair, his efforts went entirely to battling his own power. Were it an ordinary object, it likely wouldnít have even been activated. Alas, the wood of the garroting chair had been exposed to the psychic impressions of hundreds of deaths, and the final moments of fear the victims had all lived through. Kazahaya lived them all, every second of pain and anguish, every death, all at once.

The chair was designed to kill its victims slowly, the screw in the back being turned until it either went through the victim's neck or crushed their spine, or the prisoner strangled themselves against the iron restraint around their neck as they strained to get away from the screw. Hikaru didnít even need to turn the screw for the chair to work on his own prisoner, though. He and his friends exchanged puzzled glances as Kazahaya's back arched, the boy's eyes wide as he, unbeknownst to the bullies, suffered the phantom injuries of those who'd sat there before him. If they had know, they might have been pleased by the news.

As it was, they wondered why the boy had stopped screaming and thrashing when they'd strapped him down. They wondered why he strained like he was being electrocuted. They wondered why he seemed to be choking, why he then stopped breathing, why he slowly sagged in the chair and stared back at them with glassy eyes. All they'd done was strap him down! Confused and terrified, not because of the boy's apparent death itself so much as what might happen to them because of it, they scrambled to leave.

That was when the ringing started.

*†††*†††*†††*†††*†††*†††*†††*†††*†††*†††*†††*†††

Saiga and Rikuo locked up the shop, then head towards Ozuma's tent, expecting to meet Kazahaya on the way. They made it all the way to the fortune-teller's place without seeing him, and assumed he was talking with the woman. She was just leaving herself when they arrived. She grew alarmed when they asked if she'd seen Kazahaya.

"He left a few minutes ago!" she told them. She closed her eyes, communing with her spirit guides. Here eyes snapped open, revealing great worry. "My guides cannot see him!"

They started to head back towards Saiga's stall. Rikuo pulled out his cell phone and called the boy. He immediately heard the loud, grating strains of the boy's chosen ringtone.

It was coming from the Haunted Dungeon.

Remembering Kazahaya's fear of the place -- and that the boy probably had good reason to be afraid -- Rikuo hurried to the door. Something was wrong here. The door was locked, but he didnít let that stop him, his psychokinetic power snapping the lock without a thought.

The first thing he saw was Kazahaya, lying slack in the garroting chair, eyes wide and sightless. His stomach did a nasty loop; he had an idea of what the thing might have done. He didnít have time to contemplate it though, as he caught sight of the boys racing through the back door.

The world went red. He heard several ugly snaps -- the next thing he knew, the boys were falling to the ground. He didnít know what he'd done; he didn't care. All that mattered to him was the too-still form strapped to a monstrosity.

He broke the restraints with his power, then gathered up the slight form in his arms and set him gingerly on the floor. He waved his hand in front of Kazahaya's eyes, but they were unresponsive. He felt for a pulse: nothing. No rise and fall of the chest, either. He didnít hear the moan of denial that spilled from his own lips before he pressed them against Kazahaya's and shared his breath. Once. Twice. He didnít notice Saiga streak past him to deal with the assailants, nor Ozuma kneel across from him as he began chest compressions.††

"Your power!" she said, laying her hand over his. "Use it on his heart!"

"That'd kill him!" Rikuo protested.

"The spirits say he is not with them -- nor will he be this night, if you do as I say! Concentrate!"

Tears streaked down his face as he closed his eyes; if he did this, he could kill Kazahaya. If he didnít, the boy could die. I can't lose him! The thought shocked him, but he couldn't deny it's truth. And it wasn't just because the boy was his last possible link to Tsukiko, either.

"Trust yourself, and the love you bear for him," Ozuma whispered. "Though your words may sting him sometimes, you know you would never truly hurt him."

Another precious second ticked by, his hands shaking against Kazahaya's chest. Holding his breath, praying he wasn't making the worst mistake of his life in listening to some old crackpot , he bit his lip and did as Ozuma bade.

Kazahaya shot upright, gasping. He started to fall back, but Rikuo caught him. Kazahaya instinctively turned towards him, his hand reaching up to grasp Rikuo's doublet for support. He began to tremble, breathing shallow. "So much death," he whispered. "I felt them all! So many!" He fainted; Rikuo panicked a moment, until he realised the boy was still breathing, his heart still beating.

Saiga came back inside. "You broke their legs!" he informed Rikuo cheerfully. "Every single one of them. They'll have a fun time trying to explain that in the morning, when someone finally finds them. Lucky for them it's not cold out."

"That's all?" Rikuo said, getting to his feet carefully, and holding Kazahaya close. He had something akin to murder in his eyes.

"They weren't trying to kill him, just scare him," Ozuma told him. "They've paid for it, and Kudo is alive. Turn your attention to where it's important -- caring for Kudo and finding Tsukiko."

Rikuo looked down at sleeping form in his arms. He forgot about everything else.

*†††*†††*†††*†††*†††*†††*†††*†††*†††*†††*†††*††††

"He'll be all right," Kakei assured Rikuo, brushing a stray damp lock from Kazahaya's forehead in a surprisingly tender gesture for the drugstore manager.

They'd undone his hair and exchanged the coathardie and surcoat for sweatpants and a sweater, Kakei stressing the need to keep Kazahaya warm. The boy was still suffering from shock, shivering slightly beneath the blankets as he slept uneasily. Rikuo had traded his doublet and trews for just a pair of jeans; the other boy might be cold, but the heat was cranked.

"You're sure about that?" Rikuo replied, eyeing Kazahaya skeptically -- the boy didnít look fine, not by a long shot. He wished they could have taken the boy to the hospital, but there was a chance they would an MRI; if they did, and discovered Kazahaya's abnormal brain structure, they'd find some excuse to keep him there and study him like a lab rat. Rikuo couldnít let that happen.

"I've looked just now and have seen a future for him -- and you," Kakei said cryptically. At least, Rikuo told himself it was a cryptic remark, though his suddenly elevated heartbeat suggested otherwise.

"When he's feeling better, we'll explore what Ozuma said about his power being able to help us find Tsukiko. For now, he needs plenty of rest -- and so do you," he said firmly. "There's plenty of room in the bed for both of you, if you donít want to leave his side," he added with a wink as he rose to leave. He paused at the door. "Oh, and Rikuo? Ozuma was right: donít be afraid to hold his hand." And he left with a sly look in his eye.

††Rikuo wasn't about to get into bed with the guy; he knew how violent Kazahaya could get, and could just imagine the boy's reaction if he woke up to such a scenario. But holding his hand? They'd done that before, even if it wasn't entirely intentional either time. Maybe Kazahaya could accept it was simply the hand of a concerned friend if he woke up with Rikuo's hand still in his, and not freak out too much or try to clobber Rikuo. Although, truth be told, he'd rather see Kazahaya angry and violent instead of like this.

"I'm sorry I wasn't there for you," Rikuo told him, remembering the promise he'd made when he'd first suggested they go into the Haunted Dungeon. It had been made half in jest, sure, but that didn't make it any less real.

He slipped his fingers into Kazahaya's icy palm. The other boy's fingers tightened around his, the grasp of a drowning man.

The room around Rikuo disappeared.

*†††*†††*†††*†††*†††*†††*†††*†††*†††*†††*†††*††††

Rikuo was standing in a sunlit meadow. Off in the distance was a large manor; behind him, a thick wood. Directly before him ran two children, one boy and one girl, laughing as they played tag. The girl was having difficulties, running around in a kimono, but the boy was clearly holding back. The boy looked much like Kazahaya, but about eight or nine years younger.

Rikuo heard Ozuma's words to Kazahaya, a ghostly echo, "In their arrogance, they assume that speech is the only method by which knowledge can be imparted -- and that your power is only receptive. Once you are willing to let others in, that will change." Was that what was happening? Was he in Kazahaya's mind? He felt an intruder, and tried to wake up, but nothing happened. He could feel Kazahaya's hand in his, and tried to let go, but nothing happened. A cry from the dream-Kazahaya caught his attention.

The girl had caught him, but this time grabbed hold of the boy instead of just tagging him, and wouldnít let him go. She and Kazahaya grew older right before Rikuo's eyes, until Kazahaya was much the same as when Rikuo had first met him. Rikuo found himself brought in closer, through no effort of his own. He couldnít back away, either, and when he tried to close his eyes and plug his ears, he could still see and hear. The pair seemed not to notice, as he unwillingly eavesdropped on them.
"You love me, don't you, Kazahaya?" the girl asked, her voice sultry.

"Of course, Kei, but ... you're my sister--"

"Then why do you refuse me? They want this! There is no one else here, no one else in all the world for either of us -- can't you see that? Can't you see how I burn for you?" And with that, she burst into flames.

Kazahaya screamed, and pulled free. He ran, and the flames came hot on his heels, devouring the meadow grasses. Rikuo found himself pulled along with Kazahaya, unable to help as the boy escaped into the woods. The fire didn't follow, but for a while, Rikuo could still feel its heat.

Kazahaya slowed, and as he did, they trees grew bare and snow began to fall. Grass gave way to brick. Kazhayaha collapsed at the foot of an evergreen in the middle of a market square, busy shoppers ignoring him. Rikuo felt himself going through the same motions he had on that day originally, almost a year ago. He lift Kazahaya and slung him gently over his shoulder.

The scene blurred, and he was sitting at the side of Kazahaya's bed -- not in waking life, but in the memory of that first night.

Kazahaya's eyes fluttered open. "Rikuo? How long have I been out?"

Rikuo started. He looked down, realizing he was holding the dream-Kazahaya's hand. This wasn't the way that night had happened! "What's the last thing you remember?" he asked cautiously.

"That guy ... the one from the duel, he and his friends jumped me! They dragged me into that Haunted Dungeon place and--" he stopped, breath coming shallow with the memory.

"Don't think of it!" Rikuo warned, squeezing Kazahaya's fingers. "Look, you're not really awake; Kakei told me to listen to Ozuma's suggestion. I understand what she meant now -- when I held your hand, I think you're power ... well, it brought me into your head. I saw you and a girl in a meadow -- I tried to leave, but I couldn't. I tried to block of my senses, but that didnít work either. Do you remember what Ozuma said about there being other ways to impart knowledge besides speech, and that your powers weren't just receptive -- this must be what she meant!"

It took Kazahaya a minute to process it all; when he finally spoke, he seemed defeated. "You ... you saw Kei?"

"Your sister, right?" he wondered if he should admit to having seen Kei come on to her own brother. "Did you live in that big manor house?"

Kazahaya nodded. "We lived there our whole lives. Our parents died when we were infants. We were raised by a nanny and tutors, and were never told who adopted us. We seldom left the property, and when we did, we weren't allowed to interact with others. We never went to school, never met other children. W weren't allowed to watch the news on TV or read a newspaper. We were taught archery and kendo. When our powers manifested, any time that wasn't spent in scholarly study was usually spent training with our abilities. We would never admit it, but we were lonely. And as we got older..."

"Your hormones came into play," Rikuo supplied grimly. "Kei turned to the only male she really had access to." Suddenly Kazahaya's innocence made so much sense. He'd always seemed to scare like a rabbit at even the slightest hint of sexual advances -- he must have turned off that part of himself in order to protect his sister.

"It wasn't her fault," Kazahaya whispered, pleading. "They wanted us to breed, they said. They wanted to see what would happen if two people like us had children, how the power might be passed on. But for all they did to shelter us, I had touched things that showed me glimpses of the outside world through the eyes of our caretakers. I knew our nanny disapproved of what they wanted us to do -- that the world would, if the public knew -- but she wouldnít quit because she cared for us. So I decided the only thing for it was for at least one of us to leave. I wasn't sure if either of us could survive on our own, so I left, thinking to come back for her when I had whatever we needed to survive."

Rikuo just sat there for a long, awkward moment. All he could thing to do was squeeze the boy's fingers, to let him know he wasn't disgusted at Kazayaha over the truth. Kazahaya ducked his head, but didnít pull away; Rikuo realised with a stab that the boy might not appreciate pity. Rikuo also felt awful for all the times he'd harassed Kazahaya over what had seemed like a lack of intelligence; he understood now that it was really a simple lack of experience. Kazahaya and his sister had been fundamentally abused. And now he understood what Kazahaya had been so unwilling to speak of his past.

Then he remembered another thing Ozuma had said about there being a force blocking Kazahaya from speaking of his past even when he wanted to -- the same force that kept Kakei from being able to see what had happened to Tsukiko. And he remembered Kazahaya's reaction when he spoke of Kakei's theory that people like them were being collected by someone.

"You were collected!" Rikuo breathed. "I bet that the monster who kidnapped Tsukiko also kidnapped you and your sister! They fixed it so that if you ever escaped, you couldn't tell anyone about what happened to you so you couldnít alert the public about what they were doing!"

Kazahaya nodded. "That makes sense! So maybe if went back to the manor, we'd not only rescue my sister--"

"But mine as well!" Rikuo's eyes narrowed as he thought on it. "Thing is, we donít know for sure that this trail will lead to her -- and even if you could find your way back, they might not be there anymore..."

Kazahaya bit his lip, frowning. "You think they might have moved to another location, in case I broke through whatever they did to me and came back with the authorities?..."

It was Rikuo's turn to nod. "So we should still have a look at my own memories, see if we can gather any clues."

Kazahaya nodded, then frowned, sniffing the air. "Do you smell something burning?" he asked.

The hospital-style curtain that separated their two "rooms" was on fire. Rikuo pulled Kazahaya out of the bed, and together , still holding hands, they ran outside, onto the back stair.

Except that it wasn't the back stair.

They stood on a scaffolding, smack in the middle of a medieval square, a throng of unwashed peasants cheering on the ground below them. Two strong men dressed in black, with black cowls over their faces, grabbed them, pulling them apart. Despite the separation, though, Rikuo could still feel Kazahaya's hand in his.

A woman dressed in royal raiment stood in a royal box, watching them. There was something unsettlingly familiar about her. Then movement caught Rikuo's attention: the apprentice swordsman from the faire stood off to one side of the scaffolding, pointing an accusing finger at Kazahaya. "Thoust standeth accused of witchcraft and the sin of loving another man! That man!" he said, pointing art Rikuo for emphasis. "How plead thee?"

Kazahaya paled, and looked to Rikuo. At first his eyes were wild with confusion and denial. As the moments passed, though, they softened. Rikuo realised he was seeing his own unspoken feelings for the boy being reflected back at him -- and that Kazahaya, in turn, knew and understood how he felt. The problem was, while Rikuo's spirit soared with the revelation, Kazahaya seemed ashamed. "Guilty," he whispered, and Rikuo felt the quiet sound hit him like an arrow.

"Strap him to the chair," ordered the woman.

Kazahaya didn't struggle as they strapped him down and began to turn the screw, calmly accepting his fate, tears falling from his eyes.
"Kazahaya, you idiot, wake up!" Rikuo roared, struggling against his captor. "That jackass's opinion doesnít matter! You haven't done anything wrong! It's not a crime to love someone!"

At that moment, Kazahaya screamed in agony--

*†††*†††*†††*†††*†††*†††*†††*†††*†††*†††*†††*††††

Rikuo awoke so forcefully he leapt to his feet. On the bed before him, Kazahaya was arching his back, eyes rolling and lids fluttering. His hands gathered the sheets in tight fists. He seemed to be choking.

Rikuo grabbed Kazahaya's shoulders, holding him down. The boy's body bucked under his hands. He climbed onto the bed and, with a bit of effort, knelt over him. "Kazahaya! Kazahaya! Snap out of it!!"

The smaller boy suddenly stopped thrashing, though his breathing was ragged. His eyes shot open. He looked around, and relaxed against the mattress.

Rikuo exhaled slowly, and eased back, straddling the other boy's knees. "You all right?" he asked as Kazahaya struggled to sit up.

Kazahaya ran a shaking hand through his hair. "I saw them again. Not so many, but ... but even one is too many," he finished with a sob.

Rikuo slid his arms around the smaller boy and held him while Kazahaya shivered and grieved for a hundred lives lost. Even when the sobs subsided, the shivering didn't, and Kazahaya's hands on Rikuo's back felt cold still.

"Let's get you another blanket," Rikuo suggsested. Kazahaya seemed reluctant to let go as Rikuo pulled away. The taller boy was back in a few moments, having quickly found another blanket it their linen closet. "Lay back, and I'll get you tucked in."

"You're leaving?" There was a note of panic in Kazahaya's voice.

"I'll sit with you a while longer if you want, but you need rest.".

Kazahaya ducked his head. "I-I don't want to go back to sleep. I don't want to see ... them again. And I donít ... donít want to be alone."

Rikuo sat in the chair next to the bed. "Like I said, I'll sit with you for a while, but ... well, you have to sleep sometime -- and so do I."

"You could sleep here..." Kazahaya said quietly, still not looking at the other boy.

Rikuo was silent. Every inch of his body was screaming a resounding Wahoo! -- except for his brain, which was screaming, Pervert! Donít take advantage of him!

"Please," Kazahaya whispered. He looked up at Rikuo with tears in his eyes (the boy must have a reserve tank, Rikuo supposed), and added, "I-I donít want to be alone." He ducked his head again. "Never mind, you probably think I'm being an idiot...." He wrapped the blanket he already had around himself, and curled up his side, facing away from Rikuo.

"No, I don't," Rikuo told him, sitting in the now-vacant space on the bed. "I just want to know ... I dreamt I was in a dream that supposedly belonged to you. Did it?"

There was a moment of silence. Then, "You were really there?" Kazayaha asked quietly, in amazement. "That conversation we had about Ozuma, and then what happened after, with that guy from the faire ...?"

"So it was real."

Rikuo's baritone rumbled pleasantly through Kazahaya's skin; he shivered again, but not from a chill this time. Rikuo misunderstood, and drew the second blanket over them both.

"And ... when that guy accused you of ... and you said guilty... did you mean of ... both charges?" Rikuo asked.

"You mean do I really love you?" How could he love this man, whom he fought with constantly? This man who teased him at every opportunity? All those times he'd flirted with Kazahaya, had Rikuo been sincere? Was he attracted to Kazahaya? Was Kazahaya attracted to him? In the dream, there had been a moment when he was sure of the answer -- and it was yes. But boys weren't supposed to love boys ... were they? He'd never really allowed himself to contemplate his own sexuality. But his friends at the all-boys school he and Rikuo had investigated, Nayuki and Mikofujiwara -- they'd been in love, and they were good people. Kakei and Saiga ... well, they were mostly good. Maybe, like Nayuki had insisted, guys loving other guys wasn't so unusual a state of being. He'd spent his life so cloistered, how could he tell?

All he knew was that he'd been so cold after his ordeal, both inside and out, but Rikuo's touch had warmed him like nothing he'd ever felt. He'd been starved for contact for so long -- no one but Kei had ever hugged him growing up, and when things changed between them, he'd had to keep even her at arm's length. Then he met Rikuo, and it seemed like they were constantly touching, whether it was because Rikuo had to carry him, or he needed to hold Rikuo's hand to use his power, like at the movie theatre, or because he looked to Rikuo for safety instinctually -- whatever the reason, each touch left him craving more, like a drug, even as he'd convinced himself he hated the other boy. He had to admit, if he'd ever really hated Rikuo, he didnít now. But did that mean he loved him.

"I donít know," he finally answered. "I've never ... I don't know how to recognise that kind of love. But I can tell you that in the dream, I believed it -- so maybe somewhere inside me I do. All I know is ... I think I'm ready now to ... you know ... f-find out?" he squeaked. When Rikuo didnít reply, Kazahaya asked the question that terrified him the most, his need to fill the quiet stringer than his fear of the answer. "What about you? I ... kind of always thought you hated me."

Rikuo smiled, but Kazahaya couldnít see it. "If I hated you, I wouldnít care what you did. And I sure as hell wouldn't carry your ass home all the time! I was just ... frustrated. You didnít know things that I thought everyone knew, like--"

"--how to prepare rice?" Kazahaya finished with a smile in his voice.

Rikuo grinned. "Yeah, that. I never would have imagined someone could have gone through what you've been through. It's not your fault you weren't taught basic life skills -- I'm guessing they wanted to make you as dependant on them as possible. Anyway, I'm ... I'm sorry for how I treated you. But if I get mad, it's because I worry -- you scare the shit outta me sometimes, you know that?"

Kazahaya laughed a small laugh. "I guess I'll have to work on that."

Rikuo smiled and turned on his side, snaking an arm around Kazahaya's waist and pressing his chest against the smaller boy's back. He felt Kazahaya stiffen, and drew back. "G-gomen," he stuttered, feeling like a heel.

Kazahaya quickly turned onto his back. "No, it's not that!" he protested. "I want you to touch me," he confessed, turning a fetching shade of pink, "... I just ... I'm not ... used to it," he finished in a small voice, sitting up. "I guess I'm kinda jumpy?"

Rikuo smiled his understanding. "I'll just sleep here next to you. That is ... if you still want me to...?"

Kazahaya could only nod, shyly. Then, "I-is it just me, or is it hot in here?"

"Why donít you take off your shirt?" Rikuo suggested, a glint in his eye.

Kazahaya swallowed hard, but did as Rikuo suggested. Then, in a surprisingly bold move, he lay against Rikuo. He immediately bolted upright, though; Rikuo bit back a growl of frustration.

"We forgot about your sister!" Kazahaya exclaimed. "We were supposed to look into your memories, to see if there were any clues!"

Rikuo thought of what Kazahaya had been through already, and of what little memory he had of that night when he'd come home from school, the apartment he shared with Tsukiko covered in blood. "We can do that tomorrow, after you've rested," Rikuo told him gently.

Weariness hit Kazahaya like a tsunami. He lay back against Rikuo, who put his arm around him. Rikuo's hand gently rubbed his shoulder and back. Kazahaya snuggled against the dark-haired boy's chest, feeling warmth wash over him, chasing his tension away. He felt Rikou kiss the top of his head and heard him murmur a good night.

"Oyasumi," Kazahaya said sleepily.

That night, in dreams, the boys shared each other's company in another sunlit meadow -- one far from sinister manor houses or instruments of death.

~Finis~†††

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