frameofmind6: (Akame: You&I)
Shuuji to Chikara (Part 3/3)

Demon hunting gets more interesting after that.

Shuuji’s not even sure why, exactly. He still doesn’t understand what they’re doing, except that now Chikara has some kind of weird device constructed from rope and fresh tree branches, which suspends the spine vertically in the center of a twisted hoop of wood, sort of like a dream catcher. Chikara calls it a compass, but it looks like no compass Shuuji has ever seen. Unless north is straight-up-into-the-sky in this era…

“The spine resonates with the demon’s youki,” Chikara explains one evening as he reinforces a bending piece of the hoop with a fresh branch. “You can feel the vibrations of it in the wood whenever you cross its path, and they get stronger the stronger the youki is. It’s basically the same thing I was doing before, except I was only able to pick up traces of any demon that happened to have passed by. This spine only reacts to the one that it came from.”

Shuuji nods over a mouthful of rice, trying to keep it all straight in his head. “So it’s like a Geiger counter or something?”

Chikara blinks at him. “A what?”

Shuuji shakes his head. “Nevermind. What makes the youki stronger or weaker then?”

“Mmm,” Chikara mumbles thoughtfully, concentrating on a tricky bit of weaving. “Time and distance, basically. And frequency. So if it’s stronger, then it means—”

“The youkai is close,” Shuuji nods. “Or passed by recently.”

“Or very, very often.”

Chikara lets him carry the wakizashi all the time now. He tried to get Shuuji to try the bow again, but after a couple more misfires and bruises and an attempt at stance-correction that ended up with the bow abandoned on the ground while the two of them rolled in the bushes very much not practicing archery, Shuuji finally talked him out of it. After all, he’d proven himself well enough with the sword in battle, and with his aim as inconsistent as it was, it seemed as likely that he’d shoot Chikara with it as the demon in any given situation. Chikara carries the bow himself now, along with the katana.

The food makes the days more pleasant as well—there’s more variety than before, and at the rate they’re making progress with the demon hunting they don’t really have to worry about running out anytime soon. Shuuji takes to getting up early and fixing breakfast for the both of them—partly as his contribution to the hunting effort, but mostly just to see Chikara smile. Chikara always used to get up before him, so he hadn’t realized until now that Mr. Samurai Man is actually really not a morning person. Shuuji likes getting to see that sleepy sluggishness in his eyes and the tangled jumble of his hair, and feel the slight clumsiness as he leans in by the fire and kisses Shuuji good morning.

It’s a soft kind of warmth he never even knew he wanted. Never would have thought he was capable of feeling. But there it is, and now he really doesn’t want it to go away.

“Shuuji?” Chikara murmurs to him one night as they lie together in the dark. The fire is banked down for the night and they’re tucked up together underneath a couple of the spare kosodes they got from the villagers. Shuuji can feel Chikara’s fingers playing idly with the beltloops on his jeans underneath the covers—he thinks they’re weird, but somehow endlessly fascinating—and see his dark eyes aglow in the reflected moonlight.

“Hm.”

“What’s a Geiger counter?”

Shuuji grins and breathes a little laugh. “Where did you hear that?”

“From you, obviously,” Chikara says, giving him a ‘duh’ look and tugging on his jeans. “You said it the other day. About the compass.”

“Ohh—right. I did, didn’t I,” Shuuji chuckles, squirming a little when Chikara’s thumb brushes his skin just underneath the hem of his t-shirt. “Well, to be honest, I don’t even really know exactly what it is—just that it’s some kind of machine that detects radiation. Or something.”

“What’s radiation?”

“It’s…energy. Sort of. I think it’s kind of everywhere, like in sunlight and rocks and everything—but the kind of radiation people mean when they talk about radiation is the dangerous kind, the kind that comes from things that produce power.”

“Like cars?”

Shuuji told him about cars the other day, when a careless remark about how much his feet hurt from walking through the woods ended up with him trying (and mostly failing) to explain the workings of the internal combustion engine. Chikara is a very curious sort. Shuuji never realized how much he didn’t know about his own world until Chikara started quizzing him about it.

“More like nuclear power plants. I mean, cars probably have some kind of radiation too, I don’t know. And people say things about cell phones, but that might just be an urban myth.”

“Cell phones?”

“Handheld devices for talking to people who are far away,” Shuuji says, holding up his free hand and sort of vaguely miming the size of one. “They’re really common in my time. Actually, hang on…”

He pushes himself up to sit and twists around, blinking in the dark. His jacket is lying on the ground just a few inches behind him, and he reaches for it, dragging it towards him. He has to dig around in two of the pockets, but eventually he finds what he’s looking for.

“I have one. See?” he says, holding up the device as Chikara sits up beside him. He fumbles a bit for the switch in the dark—he turned it off soon after he arrived, figuring it wouldn’t be much use here, so hopefully it still has a little life left in it. Sure enough, after a couple of moments the screen lights up, and Chikara jumps, flinching and blinking away from the sudden brightness.

“Sorry,” Shuuji says with a little chuckle. “I forgot to warn you.”

But Chikara is hardly paying attention to him anymore. He’s still squinting a bit as his eyes adjust, but he’s totally mesmerized by the screen—all the little loading graphics and image-fades of the startup sequence. He gasps again when Shuuji swipes at the screen with his thumb and makes it move.

“That’s…amazing. How did you make that…?”

Shuuji laughs. “I didn’t make it. Actually,” he says as he flicks the screen around a couple more times, skimming all the little icons and trying to imagine what they look like to someone who has no frame of reference for them, “I have no idea how you make stuff like this. You have to be an expert in all sorts of complicated things that I don’t really understand, like programming and microcircuitry.”

“Your world has a lot of complicated things,” Chikara says, reaching out and swiping tentatively at the screen with his own finger. He practically snatches it back when it works.

“Yeah,” Shuuji agrees, amused at the sight. Chikara with a cell phone is a bit like a cat who’s found his own reflection in the mirror.

“How does it work?”

Shuuji flicks back to the main screen and opens up the contacts list, scrolling through dozens of names. “You put people’s numbers in here—the number is how one phone connects to another phone—and then when you want to call somebody, you just tap like this, and pick the right number.”

Chikara pokes at the screen a few more times, watching the smooth scrolling motion in fascination and clicking in and out of entries, just as Shuuji had demonstrated. He’s actually getting the hang of it pretty quickly, surprisingly. That’s intuitive interface design for you.

After a few moments, he curls his fingers away from the screen and sits back a bit, tucking his hands into his lap.

“Can I…keep it?”

Shuuji looks over at him, nonplussed. “You want to keep my cell phone? Why?”

Chikara shrugs and scratches at the back of his neck, looking away a bit. “You said there were lots of them in your time. And it would be nice to have it…so I can talk to you after you’re gone.”

Something squeezes tight deep in Shuuji’s chest. And right now, more than anything he wishes he could just hand it over and say yes.

“I’m sorry,” he says instead. “I can’t.”

Chikara shakes his head quickly, trying for a smile, shrugging it off. “It’s okay. It was just a—”

“No, I mean—it’s not that I don’t want to. It’s just…these things don’t work that way. You need cell towers and signals and battery chargers and things. I could leave it here, but…you wouldn’t be able to talk to me with it.”

“Oh,” Chikara says. He looks down at his hands again.

Shuuji watches him for a long moment. He thinks about the cave and the villagers. Torches and pitchforks. Murasaki-sama and the headman and the demon. All the food and supplies they’ve given them, which are more than enough to last them until they find the demon. But when they find the demon, Shuuji will be gone. Chikara will still be here, alone again. It might last him a while, but the rice will eventually run out. What will he do then?

Will they let him stay in the village? Will he even want to? Or will he keep moving, wander off somewhere else where nobody knows him. Where nobody wants him.

He sets the cell phone down next to his knee and wraps his arms around Chikara’s shoulders, pulling him close. Chikara buries his face in Shuuji’s shoulder and pulls Shuuji even closer, arms around his ribcage.

“I wish I could see your world,” Chikara mumbles into his neck, and Shuuji’s fingers clench a little in the back of his shirt.

“I wish you could too,” Shuuji says. He rubs small circles over the back of Chikara’s shoulder blade and presses his cheek against his dark hair. “You could come back with me, if you want. I could show you around.”

“You could show me cars.”

Shuuji breathes a laugh. “I don’t own one myself, but yeah. They’d be around.”

“And we could have cell phones. And a Geiger counter.”

Shuuji laughs again and rocks him a little, kissing the side of his head. “Kind of a weird collection, but yeah, sure. Anything you want. Even a Geiger counter.”

Shuuji feels Chikara’s arms squeeze him even tighter for a moment, feels a little shaky breath against his neck, and a warm, soft kiss. And he tries to imagine Chikara walking down a street full of cars with a cell phone in one hand and a Geiger counter in the other, staring at the world around him like it’s totally new. He tries to imagine his world through Chikara’s eyes.

It looks brighter somehow.

“I want to,” Chikara murmurs. “But I can’t. I promised the villagers I would take care of the demon, and I can’t do that if I go with you. And I can’t just leave them to fend for themselves.”

Shuuji runs fingers through the back of Chikara’s hair and rests his chin against his shoulder. He sort of knew that would be the answer.

“It sucks,” Shuuji mumbles.

He feels Chikara nod against his shoulder again. “It really sucks.”

*      *      *

Two days later, they find the demon’s nest.

It’s a cave, about three times the size of theirs. The opening seems like a bit of a tight squeeze for a creature that size, but between the rattling of the spine and the piles of bones they find littering the floor inside, there’s no mistaking it. After some quick reconnaissance, they beat a hasty retreat back to their own cave to plan their approach.

“We have to block its escape route first,” Chikara explains. “The pulse is a defense mechanism—it’s not likely to use it unless we seriously startle it, or it feels totally trapped. Or both.”

“But how can we trap it?” Shuuji says. “It’ll just disappear again like it did the last time.”

Chikara shakes his head, pointing to the little diagram he’s drawn on the dusty cave floor with a stick. “That only works if it’s in an open space. If it’s enclosed, then it can’t disappear.”

“That seems like a serious design flaw,” Shuuji comments.

Chikara shrugs. “Can’t have everything, I guess. Otherwise the demons would have wiped us out centuries ago.”

Hm. It’s a good point.

“Anyway,” Chikara continues, “the way things happened when I saw it before, and the way you described it to me, it seems like the blast is going to be pretty localized. We just have to make sure you’re standing in front of it when it happens.”

Yeah, Shuuji remembers the lighting bolt-like beam that hit him at the construction site. He also remembers what they saw the other day. Blasts of burning pink, also coming from the demon, and many large things catching on fire.

“But it shoots other stuff too, right?” Shuuji says. “I mean, if I just stand there waiting for it to throw something at me, I’ve got about a fifty-fifty chance of getting roasted.”

“Yeah,” Chikara says, deflating slightly and pulling at his lower lip thoughtfully as he stares down at the diagram. “I haven’t really figured that part out yet…”

Shuuji leaves Chikara alone to think while he pulls dinner together for the both of them. He tries not to think too much of anything in particular himself. Thinking just makes him nervous.

It’s the demon, partly, of course. The thing nearly killed both of them the last time they crossed paths with it, and Shuuji isn’t exactly a born warrior. A few lucky hits and a lot of adrenaline probably won’t be enough to survive what they’re trying to pull off here. If he looks at the situation objectively, he knows that there’s a very significant chance this could all go badly wrong.

And if it goes right…

Well. He doesn’t really want to think about that either.

He fills the water jugs from the stream and sets the rice to boiling. Tends the fire and stokes it up a bit when it seems like it’s getting low. Prepares the fish Chikara caught on their way home and arranges them over the fire so that they’ll roast evenly.

Over dinner they talk about everything and nothing in particular. Run over the plans for tomorrow again. Argue over the last piece of fish. Shuuji makes the mistake of referencing something to do with America, and ends up explaining about 150 years of global politics. Now Chikara wants to know what the Golden Gate Bridge looks like.

(He’s confused when Shuuji tells him it’s actually painted red.

“Like a shrine gate?” he asks.

Shuuji frowns. “Actually…yeah, sort of like a shrine gate. Though I don’t think that’s what they were going for when they designed it…”)

Afterwards, they both clean up. Shuuji puts away the cooking supplies, and Chikara lays out the bedding and banks down the fire. When all is dark and quiet, they curl up close again underneath the covers, Shuuji’s fingers in Chikara’s hair and Chikara playing with his beltloops.

“Chikara?”

“Hm.”

Shuuji brushes his thumb over Chikara’s smooth cheekbone, just watching him. He knows he needs to sleep—they both do. They’ve got a lot of work to do tomorrow, and they’ll have to get an early start on it if they want to have a chance of making this work. Still, part of him wishes he could stay awake the whole night, just lying here watching him.

Or…just stay.

“Thank you,” he murmurs. It starts to catch up with him then, but he swallows it back. No sense losing himself now. “For everything. I couldn’t have—I don’t know what I would have done here without you. You saved my life.”

Chikara purses his lips a little and averts his gaze. Shuuji feels his fingers clench into a fist against the side of his hip. “You saved mine too.”

And when he looks up again, Shuuji knows he’s not talking about the demon.

He moves in close and kisses Chikara, makes it soft and deep. Takes his time. As much time as they have left and then more than that. Trying to make the time just slow down and stop, because it’s still not enough.

Chikara’s hand untangles itself from his beltloop and flattens against the small of his back, pulling Shuuji flush against him, and Shuuji tries to keep it in his mind how they fit so he can take it with him. Shuuji’s hand finds its way inside Chikara’s shirts, pulling them down over his shoulder until he can kiss his way along. And somehow he’s not afraid anymore, as long as he’s here. While Chikara is close, Shuuji’s not afraid of anything. Not of being alone or finding someone new. Not of fire-breathing demons or the daily grind. Not even of losing him.

It’s a late night after all, and the warmth in the cave comes more from the two of them than the smoldering fire in the pit. They fall asleep wrapped up in each other, skin against skin, Shuuji’s jeans tangled up with Chikara’s kobakama in a pile by their feet. And Shuuji is happy.

*      *      *

He wakes before Chikara again the next morning. For a little while he just lies there, feeling Chikara breathe against his back. Feeling Chikara’s hand against his stomach. Memorizing everything carefully, down to the smallest detail of cold toes and the occasional snore against the back of Shuuji’s neck.

When he finally can’t hold it any longer, he slips carefully out of Chikara’s arms and pulls on his jeans, walking outside the cave to relieve himself. He heads on down to the stream after that to wash up a bit and get water for breakfast. Once he has the rice on the fire, he digs a piece of paper and an ink brush set out of the supplies given to them by the villagers. He’s about to carry them outside, when he glances down at the brush set, recalls his horrible failures at calligraphy in grade school, and sticks it back in the pile. He grabs his jacket off the floor instead, digging a pen out of the pocket as he walks back outside.

A few feet away, out of sight of the cave’s entrance, he crouches down on a fallen log to write. It’s a bit messy still, since he doesn’t have a flat surface to work with, but it’s alright. It’s a short enough message. Somehow it seems like it should be longer, but every time he tries to write something more, he can’t think of anything that hasn’t been said.

Finally he gives up, putting the cap back on the pen. He stares at the message for a few moments, hoping his handwriting isn’t too messy, and that the kanji haven’t changed too significantly in the past few hundred years. He doesn’t think they have. Some things never change.

Then he digs around in his jacket pocket again and pulls out his cell phone. The battery is fully dead by now, but it doesn’t really matter. He wraps the note around it carefully, tucking the ends of the overlarge paper together as neatly as he can, like a present.

The rice is simmering nicely when he returns to the cave, but he spares it only a glance, crossing to Chikara’s things instead. He has more of them now, several shirts nearly spilling out of their bundle. At least he’ll be warm enough when winter rolls around. Shuuji unties the corners and digs through the pile, finding that old, threadbare one down at the very bottom. He tucks the package inside it carefully and puts the others back on top, tying everything up together again just the way he found it.

By the time Chikara awakes, Shuuji is dishing out the rice.

“Come on, lazybones,” he chides as Chikara blinks and frowns at his surroundings. “Eat up.”

*      *      *

They set out as soon as they’ve finished breakfast. Chikara leads the way with the compass, though they both know where they’re headed by now—still, considering what they’re about to do, it’s important that they don’t have any unexpected company before they’ve finished the preparations. Shuuji carries a large bundle strapped across his back, filled with the necessary tools.

It takes them the better part of the day to finish laying their trap. They work together on most of it, and it doesn’t leave time for much more than the necessary conversation. They both keep a close eye on the compass propped up just outside the cave’s entrance for any further developments. It hasn’t stopped quivering since they came within sight of the place.

The sun has just fallen below the horizon by the time they’re finally finished. They clear up all their tools as quickly as possible and bundle them away underneath a pile of bones inside the cave, even brush their footprints out of the dust and light a fire just inside to burn pungent leaves and at least confuse the traces of their scent. They don’t want anything discouraging the youkai from returning to its lair tonight. When there’s nothing more they can do, they each take up position on opposite sides of the cave mouth, pressed up against the wall and out of sight of the outside.

And then they wait.

Shuuji has the compass balanced on his knees where he sits to the left of the door. It’s getting quite dark now, but he can still see the spine quivering steadily in front of his face. It’s slightly hypnotic.

And then it stops.

And speeds up.

He grips the frame tighter, suppressing a gasp—the spine is wriggling so hard it’s almost like a live thing trying to jump right out of his lap. He can’t say anything, but he holds the thing up to get Chikara’s attention, peers over and meets his eyes in the dark. Chikara gives one firm nod and readjusts his stance, katana in hand.

For a long while, there’s only more silence.

And then he hears it—a rustling in the brush, something moving closer. It’s unhurried, but heavy…and very, very large. A little snuffling and a grunt, a few branches yanked carelessly from the trunks of trees. A long wet tongue sliding over razor sharp fangs, and then another little snuffle. It gets closer, the rumble of breath and footfalls making tiny vibrations in the floor and the walls—and then, at last, the twilight is partially blocked out by a giant head ducking through the cave entrance, followed by an even more giant body.

They wait until it’s all the way in, taloned feet crunching over piles of bones, tail flicking a bit this way and that as it sniffs around to figure out what unfamiliar creatures have been in its territory while it was away. Shuuji meets Chikara’s eyes across the gap again. Chikara watches until the creature is as far in as it’s likely to go—and then he nods.

Shuuji rams a shoulder against the edge of the makeshift door they’ve built, shoving it as hard as he can across the entrance. The creature snarls and turns, but Chikara is already on the attack, the end of his weighted rope wrapping tightly around its wings again until it’s thrashing back the other direction, trying to figure out what else is on him.

“Anchor it!” Chikara yells, throwing Shuuji the other end of the rope. It’s nearly pitch dark in here now, only a little bit of light seeping through the cracks in the wooden door, and Shuuji actually trips over the metal stake he’s supposed to tie the rope too. It’s a lucky thing too, because the moment he drops to the ground, a beam of bright pink shoots over his head and sets the net of vines covering the cave wall behind him on fire.

At least it solves the sight problem.

“Are you okay?” Chikara yells from across the room, busy slashing at the creature’s attacking tail.

“I’m fine,” Shuuji says, quickly wrapping the rope around the stake as tightly as he can and tying it off. Then he looks up again.

“Look out!”

Chikara sees the claw coming at him from the other side and rolls backward, out of range. When he gets up again, he’s pulled another rope from inside his shirt, and he sends it swinging at the hind legs. It catches one but misses the other. Shuuji tries to run across to tie the second rope to one of the anchors at the opposite end of the room, but he gets intercepted by giant, snapping jaws and has to stumble backwards to keep from being bitten in half.

“I’ve got it,” Chikara tells him. “Distract it for a minute, will you?”

Shuuji throws his sword up just in time to get knocked off his feet again by a giant claw. “No problem,” he croaks. His cheek stings, just below his left eye, and he lifts his fingers to it, feeling for the wound. It’s just a small gash, only leaves a little bit of blood on his fingertips. There’s another horrifying screech, and he has to roll quickly to the side to avoid being impaled by the return strike.

“There!”

“What?” Shuuji scrambles to his feet and stumbles back to the wall, just out of the creature’s reach. Except by the tail, he realizes in the nick of time, and ducks under it as it gouges an eight-foot gash in the rock over his head.

“That light!” Chikara yells back, breaking off to beat back a flailing claw with a couple of efficient strikes. Shuuji looks where he briefly pointed, and sees a familiar pink-white glow emanating from beneath the heart of the beast. It’s dim yet, but it’s definitely growing steadily. “That’s it! It’s coming!”

And he can hear the ringing too, growing louder. For a moment he thought it was just in his head, but it’s the light. It’s the light.

“What—now? Already?” Shuuji says, swallowing the sudden burst of fear. He flattens against the wall again as the creature tries to reach him with a claw. “Are you sure?”

“I’m sure!” Chikara calls back. “Stay in front of it. The next one will take you home.”

Shuuji swallows again, staring from the creature’s hideous face back to Chikara, still fighting off its struggling limbs.

“Will you be okay?”

“I’ll be fine!” Chikara says, not taking his eyes off the claw that’s just tried to rip his arm off. “Just go. Don’t worry about me.”

Shuuji looks up at the beast again, which has locked eyes on him where he’s hiding pressed against the rock. The thing is rearing back slowly, wicked teeth bared and dripping with venom, black, reptilian eyes blinking like a promise, like a threat. The glow is getting stronger, and Shuuji’s heart feels like it’s about to beat out of his chest. Everything in him is telling him to get away now. To just stay.

“You’re absolutely sure, right?” he shouts back, over another deafening roar.

“I promise you,” Chikara yells. “I won’t let it hurt you. And if it does—” he breaks off with a grunt, slashing three talons off the creature’s free hind claw, “—you can haunt my ass for all eternity.”

Shuuji opens his mouth to respond, but the youkai beats him to it. All of a sudden a beam of light bursts forth, blanking out those eyes, those teeth, those claws. The cave, the door, the ground under his feet. Shuuji turns his head at the last moment trying to get one last glimpse of Chikara. But everything is already gone.

*      *      *

It’s raining when he wakes.

It’s dark at first, so dark he can’t even tell if his eyes are open or closed once he thinks he’s opened them. He blinks the water away—not a downpour. Just tiny little droplets that leave him feeling damp and cold and heavier than he ought to be.

Then suddenly a really bright light shines directly in his face and he gives a shout, flinching and rolling to his side.

“Oh no—sorry, I didn’t mean—I’m really sorry. Are you okay?”

“I…I think so,” Shuuji says, trying to calm his racing heartbeat and blink the spots out of his eyes. His ribs still feel a bit achy from a week ago, and the blows he took during the most recent fight didn’t help any. He’s having a little trouble getting his breath under him.

The fight. Chikara.

Shuuji sits up. His head feels a bit woozy, damp like the rest of him. He’s sitting in the middle of the construction site in the glow of the security guard’s flashlight. There’s a discarded hardhat lying next to him, there are papers scattered on the ground all around him, spotted with raindrops, and there’s a wakizashi in his hand. There’s no sign of the attacking light.

“Where on earth did that come from?” the guard says, sweeping the flashlight over the short blade.

Shuuji looks down at the blade and turns it over in his hands. He doesn’t know what to say. He didn’t even mean to take it with him, should have thought to drop it right before he left. Chikara might have needed it.

Too late now.

“It’s a long story.”

*      *      *

The cab was where he’d left it too, though by the time he’d gotten back he’d racked up nearly half an hour of waiting time. He caught hell from his bosses in the morning too, but not for disappearing to the eighteenth century for two weeks—just for turning in a mess of rain-splattered papers.

He stays late to try to make up for his error, and it’s after dark by the time he makes his way home. There are garbage bags full of tunafish cans slumped over at the top of the stairwell again, and he sorts them into the trash chutes without complaint. He’s too tired to muster any real annoyance.

Once inside he changes out of his suit and into his sweats and a t-shirt. He wanders into the bathroom and peels the bandaid off his face to inspect the little gash just below his left eye. It seems to be heeling well enough, he finds, though it still bleeds a little when he pokes at it too much. He tries not to do that.

He finds the tube of antiseptic in the bathroom cupboard and dabs a little over the wound, then covers it with a fresh bandaid.

The floorboards creak underfoot as he walks back out to the kitchen and fills a cup of ramen with water. While it’s in the microwave, he cracks open a beer and takes a sip, leaning back against the counter while he waits for the little numbers to finish counting down. Then he sits down in the middle of his couch with his meal balanced on his knees and stares down at the sword lying in the middle of his coffee table.

It’s quiet here.

He cleaned the blade as soon as he got home yesterday. He’s not really sure what to do with it—these things are illegal to keep without a license, after all, but he can’t really even think about giving it away. He’ll have to get a sheath or something for it at least—you can’t just leave an open blade lying around on your coffee table. Even leaving a sheathed blade on your coffee table is sort of weird. But for now, that’s where it is.

There are very good reasons he’s here and not there right now. He knows that. Tries to remind himself periodically throughout the day, thinks about his family, his friends. Maybe he doesn’t see them as often as he’d like anymore, but there’s a big difference between not seeing someone often and never seeing them again. And how would they feel if he just disappeared one day and never came back, without a word?

Maybe a little like this.

But even if it weren’t for that, he couldn’t have stayed there. He wasn’t cut out to live like that, not forever. He’d never have survived on his own. Not that he’d have been on his own, if he’d stayed—but you never know. Things happen. Nobody can predict the future.

He turns the TV on for company, but keeps it low, because he’s not really interested. Just using it to drown out the thinking, mostly. After he finishes his cup ramen, he gets out his computer and starts surfing the web, looking for any information he can find on the life of Oishi Chikara. Even though he’s a little afraid of what he might find, it would be better to know.

Unfortunately, there isn’t much. Some rumors, maybe, and fictional speculation—but there doesn’t seem to be any historical record of him at all anywhere after he was pardoned for the crimes of the ronin. He seems to have wandered off the face of the earth. Presumably census takers and historians didn’t spend much time checking random caves in the woods in those days, and since he stopped telling people his name…

Shuuji hopes he lived a long and happy life. Believes it. Has to believe it.

*      *      *

It’s a cool, crisp, sunny day, and Shuuji is sitting near a window in a second floor Starbucks sipping his coffee and trying to catch up on some reading. Nothing exciting, unfortunately. A trade magazine, necessary for work. Whenever his eyes glaze over and drift toward the busy street below, he takes another sip of his coffee and shifts in his chair again, trying to spark some interest in the relative virtues of various girder measurements.

There’s some shuffling off to his side as a group of people crowd in and settle at a table nearby, and he leans away to give them space to maneuver. When all the shuffling is done, he shifts back again, only then realizing that there’s someone still standing near him, just a little too close. He wishes the person would step away a few inches and give him some space—it’s not a freaking train, after all. If he just wants to stand, he can do that outside. And Shuuji was finally getting into a groove with the girders.

Instead, the guy clears his throat, and Shuuji has to suppress an irritated sigh.

“Excuse me—sorry, but it’s sort of crowded. Is this seat taken?”

Shuuji shakes his head distractedly, sending every “don’t bother me, I’m busy” signal he can muster. “Go ahead,” he mutters, gesturing toward the chair without looking up from his magazine.

He hears the chair legs scrape against the tile floor, and at the edge of his vision he sees a man in a dark hoodie sit down opposite him, sipping at his own coffee and looking out the window.

They’re quiet like that for a while. Shuuji carries on with his reading. The guy in the hoodie just drinks his coffee and stares out at the city.

Then there’s another little clearing of the throat, and Shuuji tamps down another sigh.

“Sorry, I don’t mean to bother you,” the guy says. “But…do I know you?”

Shuuji gives a cursory glance up at the guy’s face, his dark, slightly curly bangs covering his forehead, a pair of sunglasses hanging from the front of his white v-necked t-shirt. He shakes his head and returns to his reading. “Sorry, you must have me mixed up with someone else.”

“Oh.” He sounds slightly disappointed. “Sorry, I thought…nevermind. You look like someone who lives in my building, I guess.”

Oh—wait a sec, that’s right. The hoodie, the sunglasses, the stupid baggy jeans—ugh. Trash chute guy. Damn it, now he’s going to have to be polite and make conver—

When he looks up the second time, everything stops.

The clothes are different. The hair is different too, shorter and messier, sort of rumpled like his outfit. And it can’t be, because that’s totally crazy, but his face—his face and his eyes and his voice—and now that Shuuji really looks at him, it’s there too. Something behind his eyes, looking back at him. Waiting for him to notice.

“Are you…who I think you are?” Shuuji says, a little croakily. He’s trying not to make a scene or give himself away, because it can’t be. It just can’t. That’s crazy.

A little smile pulls at the other man’s lips, and he looks down at the table between them. He rummages in the pocket of his hoodie for a moment and pulls something out, setting it down carefully in front of Shuuji.

He juts his chin toward it as he hides his hands in the hoodie pocket again. “You left this.”

His old cell phone.

He picks it up gingerly and turns it over in his hands. The battery still doesn’t work when he tries to turn it on, but that might not just be for lack of a charger anymore. The whole thing looks sort of banged up—there are a few small dents in the back of the case, and the screen has a big crack across the top. But it’s definitely his.

Shuuji stares at him again. Tries to swallow, but his mouth has gone all dry.

“Chikara?”

Chikara just stares back. And then there’s that smile again, a little breath of relief. A little nod.

“How? How did you—how?”

“Murasaki-sama,” he says, tugging at his sweatshirt front a little self-consciously. But that glow in his eyes as he says it tells Shuuji he’s been waiting for this for ages. “We were right about her—the demon blood thing. Actually,” he looks a little sheepish now, “we probably should have gone straight to her in the first place, as it turns out. It took her a while, but she was able to use that phone to trace you back to where you had come from and send me after you. Not, like, as a phone,” he clarifies when Shuuji gives him a confused look. “Just as an object. An artifact that had made the jump with you. If you had been there it would have been easier, because you could have told us exactly when we were aiming for. As it was, we sort of had to…guess. A little bit.”

Shuuji stares down at the phone. Guess.

They had to guess?

“How long have you been here?”

There’s a sheepish tilt of his mouth. “About a year.”

“A year?” he repeats, heart clenching. That’s a lot of canned tunafish. “Why didn’t you contact me?”

“I did,” Chikara says. “I came looking for you as soon as I got here, but you didn’t recognize me, so I figured I must be too early. Or maybe you just…didn’t remember.”

Shuuji looks down at the phone again, running a fingertip over the crack. He hates the thought that Chikara was here all along, having followed him across time only to end up alone again in an even stranger place than before. He knows what that’s like—though at least Shuuji had the benefit of having seen a few movies and read a few history books before his little adventure. Shuuji’s ill-informed ramblings about cars and nuclear power plants could hardly have constituted a samurai’s guide to modern living.

“How did you know I would remember you now?”

Chikara grins again. Reaches out a hand and brushes a knuckle over the bandaid on Shuuji’s cheek. “Just a hunch,” he says. “I know you’re crap with a bow, but I didn’t think you were quite that accident prone.”

Shuuji has to consciously resist the impulse to grab Chikara’s hand and press his palm closer to his face. They’re in public, after all. And they’re already getting weird looks from a few people for all the demon-blood talk.

“Why?” he asks. “Why did you go to all that trouble?”

Chikara reaches into his pocket again and pulls out a rumpled piece of old-fashioned paper, creased and worn at the edges. Shuuji recognizes the handwriting immediately.

I love you.

I’ll never forget you.

In the future, I hope you’ll find happiness.

—Shuuji

Shuuji squirms with embarrassment and folds the paper away quickly, hoping no one saw. There was a reason he’d only meant for Chikara to find it after he was gone. He’s not good at things like this, especially when they’re true.

“Because the future is where you are,” Chikara says.

*      *      *

“It wasn’t easy,” Chikara murmurs with a little put-upon sigh. They’re curled up together in Shuuji’s bed, their shirts on the floor and pants a bit undone. Chikara’s got his fingers hooked in Shuuji’s beltloop, and Shuuji is still marveling over the shorter hair, running his hands through it. “I got arrested twice in the first week—once for the sword, the other time for stealing.”

“Stealing?”

“I wasn’t trying to—I gave them money, but…I guess it was sort of out of date. It got worked out though—actually, I think some of it’s in a museum somewhere now. Some guy gave me a check for it that paid my first three months’ rent. Oh! You should have seen me when I accidentally stepped on the remote control once in my first flat. Damn near threw the TV out the window.”

Shuuji laughs. “And I’ve noticed you still haven’t learned how to use a can opener.”

Chikara’s eyes go all wide, like he’s just suggested the most revolutionary thing imaginable. Even better than cars and Geiger counters. “They make openers for cans? Where? How do they work? Where do you get them?”

Shuuji laughs again and pats him on the cheek, rolling in to give him a little kiss on the lips. “I’ll buy you one tomorrow,” he promises.

“My hero,” Chikara grins.

Shuuji pinches him in the side for that one, and they roll and squirm a bit as Chikara tries to get his revenge. He’s already told Shuuji he’s a very big fan of these modern mattresses. Much bouncier than the ones he’s used to back home (though he also assured Shuuji he hasn’t really had cause to put one to the test until today). He’s also addicted to coffee and tuna-mayo onigiri (which explained all the mangled tunafish cans). He even has a cell phone, though he doesn’t have any numbers in it yet except the one for his boss at the shipyards, who calls him in for extra shifts periodically.

“Hey,” Shuuji says, when finally they settle again, tangled a little closer than before.

“Hm,” Chikara murmurs as Shuuji leans down and kisses him softly, smoothing the hair back from his brow.

“I was just thinking, you know…I actually already have a can opener.”

Chikara nods back, not taking his eyes off Shuuji’s. “Do you? Lucky.”

“Yeah. And it seems sort of silly to buy a whole new one. I mean, one is really all you need most of the time. And it would be no problem to share, seeing as I don’t eat nearly as much canned fish as you do.”

Chikara gives this another little thoughtful nod. “That seems very reasonable. It would be sort of inconvenient to have to run down the hall every time I want to make lunch though.” There’s an innocent blink. “Don’t you think?”

Shuuji grins and breathes a laugh, lower lip sliding between his teeth. “Yeah. Very inconvenient. I guess…maybe you’ll just have to move in here then. You know—so we can share the can opener.”

Chikara purses his lips in mock seriousness and nods again. “Yeah. That seems like the only solution. But that would probably mean we’d have to share a couch too. And a television. And a mattress.”

“Don’t forget the Geiger counter.”

“No we’re all set for that,” Chikara says, shaking his head. “I’ve already got a Geiger counter.”

Shuuji chuckles. “Well you see? That’s perfect then. I’ve never gotten around to buying one.”

“Really? Hm. We might need another though. I don’t know if I’d really want to share mine…”

“Even if I promise to teach you how to properly sort your garbage into the trash chutes?” Shuuji offers.

Chikara gives him a considering look. Then nods. “Okay. Okay, I guess we can make that work.”

“Oh good, I was starting to worry.”

“But you have to give me your cell phone number,” Chikara adds sternly.

“Why?” Shuuji laughs. “So you can check up on me and make sure I’m not doing nefarious things with your Geiger counter?”

“No,” Chikara says. And he draws a fingertip along Shuuji’s forehead, gently stroking aside a lock of bangs.

“So I can still talk to you when you’re far away.”

Shuuji smiles wide at that and pulls the covers over both of their heads. By the time he’s done with him, he and Chikara are tangled together so tight it seems like they’ll never be far apart again.

He gives Chikara his cell phone number anyway though. Just in case.

*      *      *

A/N: This was really fun to write... ;)

Comments are always appreciated!

(P.S. There's also a short dumb omake here -- read at your own risk... ;)
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