by llamajoy

It wasn't so bad, he thought.

His campaign had been smooth, maybe eerily so, the family name perhaps lending him a bit more weight than even he had expected. With the election in just a few days, all that was left for him to do was smile at the news cameras and shake a few more hands, and the city seemed to know it. Even better was what the rest of the world didn't know: things were going well for the new team, all of them young and eager to please. Barely codenamed, the four of them were already blooded, and their first two missions were successes.

He'd found a hard-working and friendly drycleaner who asked no questions and told no stories; his suits were impeccable and the team had no stains.

He had a name-- two names, really-- something he'd never even thought to ask for. (Maybe life really was a zero-sum game, and he'd traded those names for the friends who had lost theirs.)

And if he felt alone, so much the better; the more removed he could remain, the safer his proteges would be. Of course he was only human, but he could tell himself that a DVD and his fresh homemade pasta sauce were all he really wanted out of a chilly Saturday afternoon.

None of that explained why he was walking the long way home, through alleyways that had been familiar, in younger days. (Crazier days, maybe, when a night might have meant dodging bullets, or nursing bullet wounds, or even just hours of tense and boring silence when nothing happened at all.) Truly successful politicians wouldn't be carrying their grocery bags along the back roads, far from their office buildings, balancing on the curb alongside the forgotten railway tracks.

Well, a real politician wouldn't be walking home at all; he would be bundled on the train or driving his expensive car, insulated from the November air and the early dark. It made him bite his lip; the world might not have guessed it on the outside, but it would be a while before he learned to start thinking like a Takatori.

Like his father.

He dodged a huddle of sleeping vagabonds, dropping the last of his change into their dirty styrofoam cup. (At least, he thought to himself, his father would have done that, too.)

It shouldn't have felt like home. The nice little flat he was headed for, that should have been home-- the one that he'd always thought he'd wanted, his own tiny real estate planted tenaciously in the heart of the city, no sharing the bathroom, no labeling things in the fridge, all the hot water he could ask for.

But instead he was thinking of his team of kids-- ha, they were older, weren't they, than he had been?-- and against all his better reason he was envying them. When he knew they were probably thinking the same of him: Lucky Persia, home in his nice warm place, safe and alone, encountering nothing more violent than their staticky radio reports, than the red blips of their action on his monitors.

At the next intersection, a streetlight flickered to life, casting shadows around another pitiful figure. Poor homeless soul, he thought, the back of his throat prickling with familiar guilt. At least that last group had had blankets. It was a cold night to be on the streets alone. He dug one-handed in his pocket, but he already knew he wasn't carrying any more cash. "I'm sorry," he said aloud, though the man didn't move.

Something caught at the corners of his mind, his attention snagged in spite of himself as he tried to walk by.

Was the fellow sleeping? There was blood on those bare hands, and that tangled hair was... startlingly red.

He knew that face.

Even if had been years, and a hundred unspoken things, and just about every way that it could have gone wrong-- gone up in flames, gone down in smoke, gone out of its mind-- even then, the man who was and was not Takatori Mamoru could not walk away.

Down went his bag in a tumble of tomatoes; off came his coat. "Abyssinian!"

Of course he was not Abyssinian, not anymore. They were no longer Weiß, Weiß was no longer them. The man on his knees on the sidewalk was not Bombay, nor even Tsukiyono Omi, but his hands remembered all the motions, and his blood remembered the heartache. He wrapped him in his coat to try to still his shivering, made a tourniquet of his shopping bag to stop the bleeding as best he could. It wasn't quite enough on either counts; he'd always been the smallest of them, and his narrow coat around Abyssinian's shoulders seemed a dubious mercy against the elements. Worse, the wound was deep, and the other man's pulse uneven.

Then he remembered that he was Persia, now, and things had changed. Steadier fingers found the button on his watch to radio for a car, and his own voice sounded calmer when he spoke again: location, dispatch, and a medic, too. A man down, one of their number-- whether the wounded wanted to admit to it or not.

Even unconscious, he was clinging to his mask as tightly as ever: Abyssinian the remorseless, the flawless. His pale face was even paler than last Persia had seen it, and his katana was nowhere to be seen.

For the first time, it occurred to Persia to be angry. "Say something, Fujimiya. Give me a sign."

Abyssinian stirred, opened his eyes with a struggle. And it was a marvel, to see something on that expressionless face: pain, defeat, then surprise. It was like a brightly-flowering weed springing suddenly through a crack in the pavement. Persia choked on a laugh. How long since he'd defaulted to a flower metaphor? He hadn't even started a garden; his new place didn't have so much as a flowerbox in the window. Not until that moment had he noticed the lack, but now his thoughts were blooming and spilling over one another, half-forgotten names coming back to him, echoes of color and shimmer and the sour-sweet smell of mulch and things alive.


The man who had been Fujimiya Aya was watching him, and thus named, he could not look away. "What happened to you?"

"No more-- than I deserved."

"Hush. This is no time to be melodramatic; you're badly hurt. Tell me who did this to you."

The brightness of those eyes was fading, a flower picked too late. "Doesn't matter."

Mamoru tightened his grip on the wounded man's shoulders, shaking his head, trying not to notice the stain seeping along his shirtsleeves. "You listen to me, Abyssinian. No, Fujimiya. Ran. There is a car on its way, and a medic to patch you up. And it is going to drive us both to my place, where you are going to lie low until you heal." Ran tried to speak, but Mamoru interrupted, words coming out of him all in a rush. "Don't argue with me. You're coming with me-- and I'm going to pick up my tomatoes and-- make us spaghetti-- and-- at the end of the winter, we are going to plant rosebushes-- and you are going to stand up and take it like a man, because so help me you are NOT-- putting me through this-- again."

Ran's mouth twitched, impossible to say by streetlight if it were a smile or a grimace, and his eyes closed.

A rushing noise of car engines and quick feet was catching up to them, but not before Mamoru heard Ran whisper, "Mission accepted, Persia."


b i s h o n e n i n k