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11/26/2021 02:54 PM 

THE DIAGNOSIS OF A COMIC BOOK CHARACTER

THE DIAGNOSIS OF A COMIC BOOK CHARACTER

by KNIGHTHOOD

PART I: Psychiatric Mood Disorders

Mood disorders are a type of mental disorder characterized by a disturbance of emotions, or mood. In the not-too-distant past, these were classified as affective disorders. Mood disorders in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders - Fourth edition, called the DSM-IV, are divided into: a) Depressive Disorders, b) Bipolar Disorders, c) Mood Disorder Due to a General Medical Condition, and d) Substance-Induced Mood Disorder.

The specific types of mood disorders that I will discuss for the purposes of this paper, are the Bipolar Disorders.

The essential feature of a Bipolar disorder is the presence of at least one Manic Episode. Unipolar or Major Depressive Disorder is characterized by one or more Major Depressive Episodes, but there will not be any Manic, Mixed, or Hypomanic episodes. If even one Manic episode occurs, or the person has a history of even one Manic, Mixed, or Hypomanic episode, the diagnosis of Major Depressive Disorder has to be changed to a Bipolar Disorder.

A Manic Episode is defined as being a "distinct period during which there is an abnormally and persistently elevated, expansive, or irritable mood." (DSM-IV, 1994.) The disturbance must be accompanied by at least three additional symptoms, including, from the DSM-IV: (1) inflated self-esteem; (2) decreased need for sleep; (3) more talkative than usual or pressure to keep talking; (4) flight of ideas or subjective experience that thoughts are racing; (5) distractibility; (6) increase in goal-directed activity or psychomotor agitation; and (7) excessive involvement in pleasurable activities that have a high potential for painful consequences.

The elevated mood of a Manic Episode can range from euphoric and cheerful to a kind of "high" seen with intoxication. It is expansive and indiscriminate. This elevated mood can become increasingly one of irritability and anger when the person's desires are thwarted. A lability of mood, i.e., rapid swings between euphoria and irritability, are frequently seen.

Inflated self-esteem is also typically present in a Manic Episode, and can range from arrogant self-confidence to grandiosity, and can often become delusions of grandeur.

The person in a Manic state needs little sleep; when the sleep disturbance is severe, a person can go days without sleep.

The speech of a person in a Manic state is usually "pressured" -- accelerated and difficult or impossible to interrupt. It can be loud. The individual may become theatrical and overly dramatic. If the person's mood has become irritable, the speech may be typically aggressive, hostile, and consist of angry tirades and threats.

Significantly (for the purposes of this paper) the increase in goal-directed activities involves the excessive planning of, and participation in, multiple activities that can have political, as well as sexual, occupational, or religious overtones. The person suffering through a Manic Episode may simultaneously take on new ventures without regard to the apparent risks, or the need to complete each venture satisfactorily. There is an increased sociability, but one that is demanding, domineering, or intrusive. During a Manic Episode, the individual often shows psychomotor agitation or restlessness.

Elevated mood, grandiosity, poor judgement, and irritability almost always lead to reckless behavior, involvement in activities (sexual, business, political) that are likely to end up having very negative consequences.

The impairment caused by a Manic Episode must be severe enough to cause a significant break in the individual's functioning, requiring hospitalization to stop the person from being a danger to him/her-self and others. If psychotic features are present during a Manic Episode, by definition, there is a marked impairment of functioning.

One problematic area in my diagnosis is the criteria: that the symptoms of the Manic Episode or Episodes must not be due to the physiological effects of a substance, or a general medical condition. Sometimes it is not easy to decide, without extensive medical examinations and testing, what is caused by a genuine, pre-existing Bipolar Disorder, and what is caused by additional factors, such as the development of a general medical condition. Also, it is possible that Bipolar Disorder is caused by physiological factors, or a general medical condition, in everyone, so that the degree to which genetics and environment or environmental stressors interact and cause an individual to develop a Bipolar Disorder is unknown.

Bipolar Disorders are distinguished by the occurrence of at least one Manic, or Hypomanic (a less severe form of a Manic Episode, with less severe symptoms) Episode, which are usually accompanied by Major Depressive Episodes. The Manic and Depressive Episodes are said to cycle, that is, occur and reoccur in patterns. Manic symptoms must have been present for at least one week, and if these are Hypomanic symptoms, for four days.

Some of the symptoms of a Major Depressive Episode are: depressed mood, markedly diminished interest or pleasure in all, or almost all, activities nearly every day, weight loss or gain, insomnia or hypersomnia, psychomotor agitation, or retardation, fatigue and loss of energy, feelings of worthlessness and/or inappropriate excessive guilt, diminished ability to concentrate, indecisiveness, recurrent thoughts of death. A person in a depressed mood will also feel anhedonia, the complete loss of the ability to feel pleasure in usually pleasurable activities. The person also feels strongly pessimistic about the future. There is self-denigration, and self-accusation. The outward appearance of a person suffering from a Major Depressive Episode is usually sloppy, unkempt, unshaved. The face has a dull, masklike expression.

There are several different types of Bipolar Disorders, including Bipolar I -- Most Recent Episode Depressed, and Bipolar I -- Most Recent Episode Manic. There are also: Bipolar I, Most Recent Episode Mixed, Most Recent Episode Hypomanic, and Most Recent Episode Unspecified.

There is also Bipolar II Disorder, which is characterized by recurrent Major Depressive Episodes and Hypomanic Episodes. There is Cyclothymic Disorder, which is characterized by the chronic cycling of Hypomanic Disturbances, and less severe (Dysthymic) Depressive Episodes. And there is Bipolar Disorder Not Otherwise Specified.

There can be accompanying psychotic features, with either the Depressive Episode (most recent or current), or the Manic Episode (most recent or current). The actual specifier, "Severe With Psychotic Features," indicates the presence of either delusions or hallucinations (usually auditory). Most commonly the content of the delusions "is consistent with the manic themes." (DSM-IV, 1994.) That is, these are mood-congruent features; the content of the delusions corresponds to the goals and activities that the individual is engaged in. If mood-congruent psychotic features are present, the prognosis is better, than if mood-incongruent psychotic features are present. Some common psychotic delusions are: grandiose delusions -- a delusion of inflated worth, power, knowledge, identity, or special relationship with a deity. Delusions of reference -- where a person believes that events, objects, or other person's have a particular and unusual significance. Delusions of persecution, the central theme of which is that the person is being attacked, cheated, persecuted, conspired against.

 


 

PART 2: Background and History of Magneto

The comic book character Magneto was created by writer Stan Lee and artist Jack Kirby for Marvel comics, in the very first issue of the comic book X-MEN, back in the fall of 1963.

The character initially was portrayed as a raving, typical villain, with the mutant super-ability to channel the earth's electromagnetic field, and perhaps produce his own magnetic energy as well. The first run of X-MEN went on hiatus in 1970, and when the book was resumed in 1975, new writer Chris Claremont took another look at all these characters called the X-Men, those Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, and others created, and those Claremont created or co-created, and gave them histories, backgrounds, and complex personalities.

Marvel Comics has a domain, a continuous back-story, called "the Marvel Universe," or, "Marvel Continuity." This has been, in the past, mostly rigorously adhered to. Each writer/artist team acknowledged the writing and art of teams before them, and continued these characters' adventures by building on what had come before. Sometimes the more recent stories "inserted" or "retconned" (which stands for retroactive continuity) background or history for characters. So while the actual chronology of the stories isn't in order, a fan of a particular character can collect all the references to this character, and form a time-line, or historiography.

This is the case for the character Magneto. The following biographical sketch incorporates all Magneto appearances and all Magneto facts, up until the present time. Many aspects of the character's history and personality have to be deduced, or inferred. Much is extrapolated from what is known.

Magneto's birth-name is unknown. He has called himself "Magnus" for many years, and henceforth will be called Magnus in this paper.

Magnus was most likely born in the late 1920s, to a middle-class or professional and educated Jewish family that resided somewhere in Central or Eastern Europe. He was most likely born in Poland. (New Mutants #61.) His family either spoke German, or Yiddish (Uncanny X-Men #327) but that could be because his parents were from Germany, and moved to Poland in the 1920s, or, they lived in one of the German-speaking regions of Poland, such as West or East Prussia.

From what little we've seen of Magneto's family -- in nightmares and intrusive flashbacks -- they were well-dressed in up-to-date clothing, and were not peasants or living in poverty. (New Mutants #49, Uncanny X-Men #274.)

Magneto's family was deported from their home, probably just after the start of World War II, in 1939. It is unclear whether or not they were exiled first, as many Jews were from West and East Prussia at that time, and then were murdered, or whether they were led directly from their homes to the killing fields. But the fact is, at some point between 1939 -- when his family was registered as all Jews were in Poland (New Mutants #61) -- and 1940, Magneto's entire immediate family was led to a mass grave, along with many other people, some Orthodox Jews, some urban assimilated Jews like Magneto's family, and shot. We know that Magneto was a boy at the time, probably 13, and his only sister was older than he. His parents and sister and he were shot by Nazis using machine guns. They fell into the mass grave, but unknown to Magnus, his nascent mutant powers first manifested at this terrible moment, and deflected the Nazi bullets, saving himself but not the rest of his family.

Magnus clawed his way out of the mass grave, after quick-lime had been thrown on top of it, but before it was covered over. (X-Men, vol.2, #1, New Mutants #49.) He was caught almost at once by the startled SS who were in the process of burying the dead. Not knowing exactly what to do with him, and thinking he was older than he actually was, they sent him to Auschwitz, which had opened in the summer of 1940. We can surmise that Magnus' family was murdered either by the SS during the first deportations that lasted through the summer of 1940, or by the Einsatzgruppen in 1941, and that he was at Auschwitz "from the start," as it has been stated in the narration (Classic X-Men #12), and that he was a boy when he was first sent to Auschwitz, and that he "grew up" there. (Uncanny X-Men #161.)

More importantly, Magnus survived Auschwitz until almost the end of the war. He survived, we know, because at some point he was transferred to the Sonderkommando (Uncanny X-Men #274), where he became one of the "crematoria ravens" who helped the Nazis lead the victims to the gas chambers, collect their belongings, pull the bodies out of the gas chambers, and burn them. The Nazis always chose Jews for the Sonderkommando, and this is a very important fact; it was a part of the Nazi campaign against, and hatred of, the Jewish people, to give some of the young men a chance at life in exchange for keeping the death-factory running!

It is also surmised, that young Magnus could not have survived the first year at Auschwitz, before he was old enough for the Sonderkommando, without the "protection" of an older Jewish or Polish prisoner or kapo (prisoner-guard who was given power over the others and acted like a kind of overseer). He was probably physically and sexually abused at this time.

Like all Auschwitz inmates, young Magnus would have suffered from the most humiliating and dire circumstances on a daily basis. He suffered constant physical and psychological abuse, malnutrition, and the effects of diseases. As a member of the Sonderkommando, Magnus would have made a daily "deal with the devil" -- to stay alive while he helped kill his own people. Sonderkommando members were also given enormous amounts of vodka, to keep them working.

Magnus, however, tried valiantly to keep his humanity. He tried to help other inmates, smuggling food to them, and giving them hope. (Uncanny X-Men #199.) At some point, Magnus met or saw a young girl, most likely a Gypsy, or Romany, possibly of the Sinte tribe, named Magda. She was most likely brought into the camp in 1943, when the German and Austrian Gypsies were sent to Auschwitz, to the Gypsy Family Camp. Magnus fell in love with this girl, and brought her food, and helped her survive. In August of 1944, the entire Gypsy camp was murdered, taken to the gas chambers -- Magnus apparently saved Magda, but no one else in her family. He apparently bribed guards, kapos, and anyone else he had to, to transfer Magda to the Jewish woman's camp. Magnus probably told Magda about the murder of her family (Classic X-Men #12), but he may or may not have told her about his being a party to the murder, as a member of the SK.

In the winter of 1944-1945, as the Russian army closed in on Auschwitz, Magnus killed an SS soldier who was about to kill Magda, and the two of them escaped into the snowy woods to the northeast of the camp. Magnus was most likely 17 years old at this time. Magda was probably younger, around 14 or 15 years old.

They wandered for a long time, and Magnus took care of Magda, finding her food and clothing. They eventually settled in a Carpathian Mountain village, where after several years, during which time they recuperated from their ordeal, they were married. It is surmised that Magda, who was very beautiful, was badly treated in Auschwitz and she would have found an intimate relationship with Magnus difficult if he had pressured her immediately after their escape. Given his tender concern for Magda, we can presume that he waited for her to recover, physically and emotionally, and agree to marry him. Magnus seems to have been in love with Magda from the start. We don't know when Magda fell in love with Magnus, or how she defined love. He was her saviour, her protector; Magnus promised her he would always look after her, and protect her. (Classic X-Men #12.)

Magnus' daughter was born a few years after he and Magda were married. The girl was named Anya. Magnus adored Anya, and she was the light of his life. He called her his "talisman" -- the promise that things were going to be better, and the world was a better place. (Classic X-Men #12.)

Magnus was restless, however. From an educated, urban family, he found life in the Carpathian village to be restricting and frustrating. He therefore insisted that they move to a bigger city, one where he could find work (as a carpenter and general contractor) while he went to university in order to better himself, and their station in life. Magda did not want to move.

They arrived in the Soviet city of Vinnitsa when Anya was around 4 or 5 years old (some time in the late 1950s). On the very first day there, after his very first day of work, the foreman on the job tried to cheat Magnus out of his pay. Magnus used his powers for the second time, but this time he realized it. He sent a crowbar flying at the foreman's head, barely missing him. When he arrived back at the inn where his wife and daughter were staying, he saw that it was on fire, and Magda was frantic -- she had left the child alone, upstairs, she said, so that she could find something to cook for dinner. Magnus and Magda ran into the burning inn, and as the building's ceiling started to collapse, Magnus formed a magnetic force-bubble to protect him and his wife. They both were amazed, and Magnus was suddenly jubilant. He felt he could save Anya, with these new powers. But, when he and his wife ran outside, the foreman pointed him out, and the police, along with several members of the crowd, grabbed Magnus, beating him up while he begged them to let him go so he could save his daughter. While his daughter screamed for help, and called "Poppa!" Magnus could not help her. Finally, Anya fell burning from the building, landing just in front of Magnus. The crowd, somewhat stunned, backed away and let him go. Magnus, in a fit of rage and grief, unleashed his powers for the third time that day, and sent electromagnetic radiation -- like horizontal lightning -- shooting out in all directions, killing the police and members of the crowd who were nearby. Magda, meanwhile, stood there untouched. She seemed to be going into a dissociative state, calling her husband a "monster." She ran away from him, as he called and called her to help him bury their daughter, to come back to him. Magnus was too weak and injured to run after her. Shortly thereafter, he took the body of Anya and escaped into the woods, where he buried the child.

He then began a years-long search for Magda. He went to a forger named Georg Odekirk, who gave him a false identity, one which people in the Marvel Universe (and readers) would come to believe was genuine. This was Erik Magnus Lehnsherr, a Sinte Gypsy; he took that identity in order to hide from the Soviet police and KGB, and, to more effectively search for Magda, in the camps and settlements of her people.

Unknown to Magnus, when Magda ran away, she was pregnant with twins. She later ended up at Wundagore Mountain, in the country of Transia, at the citadel of a villain-scientist named the High Evolutionary (Edward Wyndham). With a cow-woman as midwife, Magda gave birth to Pietro and Wanda, and then ran out into the night, into the snow, disappearing, her fate unknown. Bova, the cow-woman, and her master, the High Evolutionary, gave the twin infants to a Gypsy couple (the Maximoffs) who had lost their own babies.

Magnus, meanwhile, searched Europe for Magda, couldn't find her, and finally gave up and immigrated to Israel. He had no family, and even though he had forged "Lehnsherr" papers that could get him into any country, he decided to go to Israel, as a Jew. It is presumed that he dropped the name "Lehnsherr" at this time, and entered Israel as "Erik Magnus," since all he needed to enter the country was his Auschwitz tattoo, the testimony of other survivors who knew him, and the fact he was circumcised. (Which he would have been, or the Nazis wouldn't have categorized him as a Jew in the first place, since with his family dead, he could have pretended to be of another religion or ethnic group, and gotten away with it, given his looks.)

Erik Magnus worked in a hospital in Haifa. It was primarily a psychiatric hospital, that treated primarily Holocaust survivors. While it is doubtful that Magnus sought therapy himself, or was willing to tell anything about himself due to the events in Vinnitsa, for which murders he was a wanted man, he would have been exposed to group therapy, and staff meetings, at this time. Magnus was caring and devoted, and there is testimony that he was helpful in alleviating the distress of his fellow survivors who were patients in that hospital. (Uncanny X-Men #161, Uncanny X-Men #321, X-Men vol. 2, #40 and #41, X-Men Unlimited #2.)

At this time, some 20 years ago, Magnus first met Charles Francis Xavier. Xavier was also a man of immense power, and a mutant. Unlike Magnus, he had years to become accustomed to his immense telepathic abilities, and to form theories and a philosophy about the existence of "mutants" among the general population. Xavier was from a privileged American family, from upstate New York. At the time he first met Magnus, he was already thinking of ways to ensure the peaceful co-existence of mutants and non-mutants.

Charles Xavier had come to Israel at the request of Dr. Shomron, an Israeli psychiatrist, who needed his friend's help in the treatment of a Holocaust survivor named Gabrielle Haller, who remained in a state of rigid catatonia. Xavier used his psionic powers to help Gabrielle recover, and Xavier, Gabrielle Haller, and Magnus became close friends.

But not long after, Baron Strucker, a Nazi war criminal who had escaped justice, and who had taken over a neo-Nazi organization named HYDRA, attacked and kidnapped Gabrielle Haller. (It turns out, he was the Nazi SS officer who had sexually abused her when she was a child in a concentration camp, and he had implanted in her mind, the map of a huge stash of Nazi stolen gold.)

Xavier and Magnus came to Gabrielle's rescue, but in the course of the fight, Magnus used his powers openly, became violent and agitated and suddenly -- after killing the Nazis (but not Strucker, a perennial Marvel villain who has popped up time and time again) against Xavier's wishes, he used his magnetic powers to raise the huge hoard of gold and carry it off, declaring that the gold would be used in the struggle of mutants to secure a safe place in the world.

This is the first recorded instance, witnessed by Xavier, where Magnus clearly identified with being a mutant. The gold -- Nazi gold stolen from mostly Jewish victims, some of which Magnus himself had helped pull off of dead bodies when he was in the Sonderkommando -- had passed from being the gold of Magnus' Jewish People, to being the gold of his Mutant People.

Magnus next, apparently, began working for a covert agency, probably the CIA, but possibly he was a double-agent for Mossad and the CIA. He took the codename MAGNETO at this time. He ostensibly was hunting Nazis for the CIA, but as a double-agent, working for the Israeli government, he actually was finding the escaped Nazi war criminals and turning them over to Israel for trial. (Classic X-men #19.) During this time, Magnus met a beautiful doctor named Isabelle, who understood he was a mutant, and tried to help him. Magnus may or may not have had a sexual relationship with Isabelle. (Classic X-Men #19.) At moments when he was most close to Isabelle, when it seemed the next step was for him to begin making love to her, Magnus was overwhelmed with memories of Magda. He was reminded of Magda's words, accusing him of being a "monster." Magnus seems to have feared two things: being disloyal to Magda, who he still hoped to find, and, becoming a "monster"-- that is, he feared that if Isabelle became his lover, he would lose control of his powers once again, become the "monster" that Magda had accused him of being, and kill Isabelle.

Unfortunately, his worst fears were realized in a way. While Isabelle was comforting him, trying to relax him by giving him a back massage, in their hotel room in Brazil, Magneto's Control, his boss at the CIA, showed up with some thugs, who grabbed Isabelle by the hair and slit her throat. They threw her body down next to Magnus, who was just realizing what was happening. Then, Control admonished Magnus for capturing "our" Nazis (as in, Nazis the US government wanted) and turning them over to Israel. In other words, Magnus' status as a double agent had been discovered. Control ordered his men to kill Magnus, but Magnus declared himself MAGNETO, a superior being, a mutant, homo- sapiens-superior, and rose into the air, in a sense declaring war on the human race while killing the CIA men below him. (Classic X-Men #19.)

Magneto's next known appearance suggested he was attempting to organize some sort of resistance movement, or at least was trying to expose how governments around the world were misusing mutants. (Generation X #10.) There is very little known about Magneto's activities at this time.

Magneto at some point around 11 years ago, created a costume for himself, and a helmet, and formed an organization, to counter the group of teens that Xavier founded (the X-Men). He called his group, with ironic intent, The Brotherhood of Evil Mutants. (As in, you think all mutants are "evil" well, then, here we are, the "EVIL" mutants.) The members of this group included Toad, Mastermind, and two teens -- twins -- from Transia, whom Magneto had rescued not long before. The twin youths were named Wanda and Pietro, codenamed the Scarlet Witch -- who had probability-altering powers, and Quicksilver -- who had super-speed. Magneto had no idea these were his children with Magda, and he treated them quite brutally. He was alternately cold, aloof and withdrawn, and ranting and manic at this time, as witnessed by Wanda. (X-Men -1.)

Briefly, Magneto attacked Cape Citadel, and the X-Men defeated him. (Uncanny X-Men #1.) Thus began a long enmity between Magneto and the X- Men and various X-Men allies. Magneto's attacks were always accompanied by his elaborate speeches about mutant superiority. Magneto's initial goals were to rule the world and turn it into a place where mutants wouldn't be persecuted, but where he, Magneto, would be the sole dictator. He also made vague and contradictory statements about mutants generally ruling over non-mutant humans.

Magneto was captured by an alien being named The Stranger, along with Toad (Mortimer Toynbee). (Uncanny X-Men #11.) Magneto escaped once, returned to earth, tried to defeat the X-Men once again, but this time, Xavier called the Stranger back! The Stranger recaptured Magneto, and threw him back on a cold, barren planetoid prison, where Toad had remained. (Uncanny X-Men #18.) This event seems to have triggered something in Magneto, since he became incoherent, threatening, making delusional and grandiose statements about conquering the universe! (Avengers #47.) Magneto escaped the Stranger a second time, on this occasion with Toad, returned to earth, and attacked Wanda and Pietro, who had joined the hero group, the AVENGERS, and were more than happy to have nothing whatsoever to do with Magneto.

At this time Magneto built an extraordinary island base with incredibly advanced technology, and articulated vague goals about conquering the world again. But soon, Magneto became completely distracted by the need to get control of Wanda and Pietro, and then, the X-Men. When he found out that Xavier, his old friend, was supposedly dead, he gloated in a wild, incoherent speech full of rage. (Uncanny X-Men #43.) Magneto was eventually defeated by the X-Men and the Avengers, and pretended to fall to his death on some rocks, to cover his escape. (Uncanny X-Men #45, Avengers #53.)

He next showed up in the Savage Land, a place where dinosaurs still live, that exists in a timeless Triassic state. It is located somewhere under Antarctica. Magneto built himself a citadel. He kidnapped local swamp-dwellers, primitive people, and abusing his own body, using his own life force and magnetic powers, he mutated them, genetically altered them, turning them into his slaves. All the while he was masquerading as The Creator. (Uncanny X-Men #62, #63.)

Again, he goals were contradictory, clear and vague at once, his actions seemingly brilliant and insane. He was manipulative and talked endlessly, but despite having some design on using the mutated humans as an army to conquer the world, ultimately there was almost no point to all Magneto's activities.

The X-Men defeated him once again, and at the end of this story (Uncanny X-Men #63), he was last seen on his knees, shouting, "Yes ... too late ... TOO LATE! Too late to do ANYTHING ... BUT DIE!!" as his Savage Land citadel collapsed on him. He made no attempt to escape, or ask for assistance, and instead seemed to be hyper-dramatic and out of touch with reality.

Magneto survived, however, and was rescued later by Prince Namor, the Submariner, ruler of the undersea kingdom of Atlantis. (Fantastic Four #102.) Magneto tried to trick Prince Namor and the people of Atlantis to help him invade the earth. He kidnapped Sue Richards, the Invisible Woman, from the Fantastic Four. (Fantastic Four #102, #103.) Sue's husband, Reed Richards, also of the Fantastic Four, stopped Magneto, and was able to take him prisoner. How this was done, is significant. Richards used a device that turned Magneto's own powers against him; like a Chinese-finger-puzzle, the more Magneto used his powers, the more he was restrained -- ensuring that only HE captured himself. (Fantastic Four #104.) The Fantastic Four placed Magneto at this time in a small, completely non-magnetic prison cell, and inhibited his powers with an anti-magnetic force field

Magneto eventually escaped after going into a completely quiet, meditative state. Once he was back in a more grotesque version of his old costume, he reappeared trying to build a machine that would mutate ALL of the non-mutants on earth. His speeches were by now incoherent, his actions bizarre and violent.(Amazing Adventures vol.1, #9, and #10.) Magneto tried to carry out his plans in illogical ways; he was observed by many at this time, having captured Black Bolt, the king of the Inhumans. (The Inhumans are a group of altered humans who live segregated from the rest of humanity. Pietro, (Quicksilver), married an Inhuman princess, Crystal. Black Bolt is married to Crystal's sister, Medusa.) Witnesses at this time uniformly reported Magneto to be insane. They reported hearing "insane" laughter, and witnesses could see Magneto's face as wide-eyed and maniacal, his features twisted. He almost succeeded in destroying every non-mutant human in the world, using nuclear energy to power his "universe machine." However, when it was clear he was defeated, Magneto detonated the nuclear energy canister he was going to use as a power source, and attempted to vaporize himself, saying, as he appeared to die, "Now ... the power is MINE ... the GLORY -- THE HONOR -- FOREVER -- MAGneto's...."

But he survived. He battled the AVENGERS again (Avengers #110, #111), and kidnapped Wanda, making her dance while under his mental control. He didn't know she was his daughter, but it still was a terrible moment. By this time, he was visibly altered -- his eyes wide and staring, with huge circles underneath. His body ravaged by the explosions and injuries he'd sustained. He used a special costume that once belonged to another one of the X-Men, Angel (Warren Worthington III), to siphon off the life-energy of Angel and this helped keep Magneto going. He obtained the costume by attacking Xavier and the X-Men in the X-mansion (Xavier's estate and mansion in Westchester County, New York), beating the crippled Charles Xavier and the young X-Men, and trashing the contents of the mansion. It is significant to note, that although Magneto had often threatened he would kill Xavier and the X-Men, when he caught them off- guard at this time, he did not kill them, but instead ranted at them, threatened them, physically abused them, and destroyed their property. Furthermore, he sent video pictures of the whole scene of destruction to Avenger's Mansion, in New York City, where the Avengers watched helplessly, and were thus lured to the mansion to render assistance. Which is how and where Magneto captured them. The Avengers defeated Magneto once again, captured him, and attempted to imprison him in an energy-globe, deep underground.

This prison globe was small, and Magneto was completely isolated. Magneto was able to escape when the approach of a comet caused just enough of a shift in the energy globe's integrity, that Magneto was able to use his powers to get out. (Defenders #15.)

Next, Magneto formed another group of "evil" mutants, recreating some of his Savage Land mutates. These included Lorelei, a mutate woman whom Magneto seemed to be personally attached to, although it is highly unlikely he had a sexual relationship with Lorelei, or anyone, at this time. Magneto then attempted to attack the United Nations building, lifting it magnetically in the air, while he used a being he had created himself, grown from a test-tube, Mutant Alpha, to try and conquer the world. BUT, this creation, Mutant Alpha was evolving at an accelerated rate, and became a "star- man" almost overnight. While Xavier, and Dr. Strange, and other heroes looked on, Mutant Alpha judged Magneto, and the others in his little Brotherhood. Mutant Alpha decided to give Magneto a second chance, and reduced him to the age of a six-month old baby.(Defenders #15, #16.)

Charles Xavier took baby Magneto to Muir Island, and gave him to the care of Dr. Moira MacTaggart. The baby was put in a cell, but Moira tried to treat him with love and care. Whatever Xavier felt he was going to do, to change Magneto, he never got the chance. An agent of the alien Shi'ar empire, Davan Shakari, re-aged Magneto, restored him to his prime, his health, and restored all his memories, all at once. (Uncanny X-Men #104.)

Magneto briefly attacked the X-Men on Shakari's advice, (Uncanny X- Men #104) and planned revenge, for his being a helpless infant in Xavier's care. But his mind wasn't in ferment, and the memories were haunting him, even while he captured the X-Men (the new team) and imprisoned them in his Antarctic base. This time he strapped the X-Men to chairs that suppressed their powers, and reduced them to the level of six-month-old babies! He created a robot, named Nanny, who he dressed in a cliched maid's costume, and programmed with a horrid, sickeningly sweet voice and over-attentive manner, to "care" for the X-Men in their helpless state. Thanks to Storm, whose coordination was extraordinary, even when she was a baby, the X-Men were able to escape, but Magneto's Antarctic base was destroyed in the process. Magneto was very proud of his Antarctic base, and indeed it was comparable technologically speaking, to anything other Marvel Universe geniuses could have created. (Uncanny X-Men #112, Uncanny X-Men #113, Classic X-Men #12, Classic X-Men #19.)

After this, Magneto continued to alternate between periods of violent behavior and quiet, intense brooding, up on the asteroid base he built for himself, that he positioned in stationary orbit over the then Soviet Union, probably over Anya's grave. (Uncanny X-Men #125.)

After one such period of violence, where he ordered all of earth to give up their nuclear weapons, and let him, Magneto, rule the world in order to bring peace (and he was sincere, too), he once again battled the X-Men. This time, on his Caribbean island base, he almost killed Kitty Pryde, who was them around 14 years old, a Jewish girl, codename, Shadowcat, a member of the X-Men. Magneto had a breakdown of sorts, suddenly refusing to fight any more, suddenly becoming aware of what he was doing. He disappeared. (Uncanny X- Men #148, #149, #150.)

Magneto disappeared to brood, once again, on Asteroid M. But an incoming being, from an alien techno-organic civilization with rigid rules and regulations, a being who was a "mutant" and did not want to comply with those rules and regulations and was fleeing to earth, collided with Asteroid M, breaking it to pieces. Magneto was sent falling to earth, where he ended up seriously injured and near death, floating in the Atlantic Ocean. (New Mutants #21.)

He was rescued by Lee Forrester, the captain of a boat, sometime X- Men ally, and super-hero groupie. He fell in love with Lee, and because of that relationship, Magneto seems to have calmed down. (Uncanny X-Men #188, New Mutants #23, #24, #26, #28.) It should also be noted that, at this time, Magneto's injuries were serious enough to require hospitalization, and that when he returned with Lee Forrester to his Caribbean island base to recuperate, he found it very difficult to use his magnetic powers. Although the extent of Magneto's physical injuries are unknown, he was clearly in enormous pain every time he attempted to used his powers in any significant way).

Xavier appeared thrilled that Magnus agreed to try Xavier's way once again, and had seemingly reformed and was still "good." (Uncanny X-Men #196.) Soon thereafter Magneto gave himself up for trial, when he was captured by agents of the US government while attending a Holocaust memorial event in Washington DC. He was brought before the World Court, and Gabrielle Haller was his defense lawyer, but the trial was disrupted by an attack from the children of Baron Strucker. The Strucker twins (the Fenris) were defeated, but Xavier became gravely ill, and he decided to leave the earth, and go off with his lady-friend, the Majestrix of the Shi'ar Empire, Lilandra. He convinced Magnus to take over for him, as head of the X-Men's youngest recruits, the New Mutants.(Uncanny X-Men #199, #200.)

Magneto did so. He tried. He tried to control himself, to think rationally. He had the support of Lee, for a time, and of the X-woman Storm, who believed in Magneto and helped give him confidence. But eventually, after being baited by the Hellfire Club, after joining the Hellfire Club at Storm's advice, after Storm and the other X-Men appeared to die, and left Magneto without any emotional support, Magnus started becoming more and more agitated, delusional, returning to his old patterns of thinking and behaving. (Most of the New Mutants run between #35 and #75; X-Factor #9; Uncanny X-Men #196, #199, #200 - #203, #210 - #213, #219; Fantastic Four vs. the X-Men; X-Men vs. the Avengers; Vision and the Scarlet Witch vol. 1 #4; Vision and the Scarlet Witch vol.2, #1, #3, #6, #12; Secret Wars vol. 2, Fallen Angels #1, #2.)

Magneto claims that when he put on the old red and purple costume, and abandoned the New Mutants, he was just trying to give the world someone to hate. That he was just trying to play the part of villain, so the world would be after him, and leave other mutants alone. (Uncanny X-Men #253.)

After allying himself with Rogue, Ka-Zar (leader of the Savage Land), Nick Fury (SHIELD), and some Russians, Magneto defeated a villainess named Zaladane, whom Magneto killed execution style while Rogue (his latest love) pleaded with him not to. Magneto left Rogue and the others, and promised he would be fighting "evil" mutants, and trying to help all mutants. (Uncanny X-Men #274, #275.)

But, he didn't keep that promise. Instead, he ended up rebuilding a fancy version of Asteroid M, and sat there, in space. His hair grew long and wild, he was unshaven, his appearance and mood were dark and brooding. It was at this time that a would-be assassin named Fabian Cortez showed up in Asteroid M's space, with a bunch of escaped prisoners (henceforth known as Acolytes), all mutants, who claimed Magneto was their "Lord." Magneto at first tried to send them away. But Cortez manipulated him, secretly amping his powers, forcing Magneto to become dependent on him, while pushing all the right emotional buttons. Cortez's goal was the murder of Magneto. He engineered events such that Magneto became a villain again in the world's eyes, Magneto became an enemy again of the X-Men, and Magneto became manic again, engaging in violent and threatening actions, making violent and threatening hyper-dramatic speeches.

Magneto discovered something in the midst of the initial fight with the X- Men, that was provoked by Cortez. He discovered, that while he was a baby, Moira MacTaggart had tried to change his genetic structure, to make him better able to deal with his immense powers. Moira's theory was completely rooted in the biomedical model: Magneto had gone insane, but this was due to the overuse of powers his brain could not handle.

Magneto became totally obsessed with what Moira had done. He immediately kidnapped Xavier, also, blaming him, although Xavier had nothing to do with this. Magneto forget entirely about Cortez, about his "Acolytes" and about any goals he might have had. Instead he forced Moira to "alter" the X-Men the same way he had been genetically altered, which he claimed, was an attempt by Xavier and MacTaggart to mind-control him. Which of course, was not what Moira had tried to do. But Magneto insisted, raved, yelled, and clapped a metal body suit on Moira, to torture her into doing what he wanted. (He once had cared very much for Moira, and had good memories of her treatment of him, when he was a baby. He accused her now of betraying him.)

Moira did something superficial to make the X-Men look like they were under Magneto's mind control, but she fixed it to work only until they used their mutant powers. Once they did, and exerted their strong individual wills, the effects of Moira's changes on the X-Men were negated. Meanwhile, Cortez was slowly killing Magneto. Cortez's mutant power was/is the ability to amp or augment another mutant's powers, to dangerous levels. And, after Magneto was sliced by Wolverine's claws in that prior battle with the X-Men (X-Men vol. 2, #1), and was badly injured, Cortez pretended to heal him while instead amplifying Magneto's own powers to mask the effects of the wound

Magneto finally began to discorporate, the molecular bonds of his body were being pulled apart. Cortez's intent was discovered, Asteroid M was falling to the earth, and Magneto once again elected to die, with his Acolytes, those desperate young mutants whom Cortez had tricked and used. (X-Men, vol. 2, #3.)

Magneto crashed, but was saved by the sacrifice of one of the Acolytes. All the other Acolytes of this first band, died. He was badly injured and somehow got to Antarctica, and his citadel there, to recover. He once again went through a spell of isolation, letting his appearance become unkempt, not knowing which direction to turn. At this time, he saved Xavier's life when the latter was injured during a blizzard, near Magneto's citadel. (X-Men Unlimited #1.)

Another mutant, named Exodus, now seems to have found Magneto -- during this time of depression and brooding. Exodus, a telepath and teleporter, who suffers from psychotic episodes, seems to have been a catalyst for a return of Magneto's own violent and psychotic behavior. Although Magneto said he was attempting to create a mutant homeland in space -- a homeland named "Avalon" -- not exactly a name that someone like Magneto would give a place -- he actually did nothing but attack Charles Xavier and the X-Men during a little girl's funeral, and then attack the earth with a special electromagnetic pulse-wave that killed thousands.

Magneto's mania escalated during this attack on Xavier, the X-Men, and earth. His speech patterns and tirades in particular were wildly contradictory, hyper-dramatic, and threatening. He was clearly delusional, and dangerous. Finally, in desperation, Xavier led an away team to the space-station/ship, for a final attempt to stop Magneto. At this point, Xavier did something he swore he'd never do. He mind-wiped Magneto, leaving him a mental vegetable.

Magneto was cared for on Avalon by mutant followers, another group of Acolytes. He may or may not have been waking up. He may or may not have been rational.

A few months ago, Marvel Time, Avalon was attacked and destroyed, and Jean Grey and Scott Summers helped save the Acolytes. The X-man Colossus saved the seemingly comatose Magneto. But once they landed in Antarctica, Magneto disappeared.

The next thing everyone knew, there was this long-haired, twenty- something, amnesiac man, calling himself Joseph, who everyone thought was Magneto. Joseph seemed to be a Magneto who had been once again de-aged, and didn't know who he was.

Joseph was and is an innocent, and was supposed to be the good side of Magneto, or the sane side of Magneto. No one knows, since now, Joseph apparently is NOT Magneto. The real Magneto showed up, just weeks ago, more distorted and irrational than ever before. He was wearing a costume, pretending to be someone else. He tortured and tormented the X-Men he captured. He sent out bounty-hunters to capture Gambit, an X-man, but then captured his own bounty-hunters, putting his former love Rogue in the arms of Gambit, watching them have sex (it is implied) in a cave while they were wearing chains. (Yes, this was in an X-Men comic.) Either this is some terrible mistake by the writers, or it isn't Magneto, or, Magneto is exhibiting the most manic and psychotic symptoms yet.

 


 

PART 3: Diagnosing Magneto

Magneto's diagnosis is, (without the codes):

Axis I

Bipolar I Disorder, Most Recent Episode Manic, Severe With Psychotic Features, With Interepisode Recovery --- PROVISIONAL.

It is clear from Magneto's history, that he displays all the symptoms of a Bipolar I disorder. The horrors of his childhood, and subsequent traumas, did not touch off a depressive or manic episode. This happened later in his life, after the onset of his powers. Although there was a stressor involved, at the onset of his first Manic Episode (possibly when he battled Baron Strucker and stole the gold, definitely when Isabelle was murdered), this was not linked more or less to his life history, or the use of his powers, than earlier stressors were.

Magneto seems to cycle from depression to mania over long periods of time, perhaps months in the depressive stage, and weeks in the manic stage. He demonstrates symptoms of grandiosity, inflated self-esteem, theatrical and dramatic speech that is also hostile and delivered in angry tirades. He demonstrates flight of ideas, and distractability. Due to his high intelligence, the increase in his goal-directed activities takes the form of brilliant scientific and biological research, but otherwise, his behavior involves excessive planning, taking on multiple unfinished tasks, unusual restlessness and inability to stay with one task or goal for long, or carry through any project to its conclusion.

The times Magneto was interrupted from carrying his plans to fruition, by the X-Men, or by the Avengers, or the Inhumans and Fantastic Four, were in fact times when the threat posed by Magneto's mania made such interference necessary, and in no way mitigate his symptoms. There is ample evidence that, when left unhindered, during the course of a manic episode, Magneto has been just as apt to abandon plans, promises, and goals, undertake new business before finishing old, and to become excessively involved with the planning of and participation in, a number of contradictory and unconnected activities.

Magneto has demonstrated psychotic features, such as delusions of grandeur, delusions of persecution, and delusions of reference.

Magneto has demonstrated the symptoms of depression when he's not manic. He has retreated to isolated bases, especially his asteroid base in orbit, isolated himself, and failed to take care of himself, and in fact has been shown to present an unkempt appearance during these episodes. He remembers and broods about the things he's done while in his manic phase, and this contributes to his depression.

But, there have been times when he seems to have been neither manic nor depressive, when there was interepisode recovery, as when he had the emotional support from a lover (Lee Forrester), or a friend (Charles Xavier).

Magneto's mental illness does have two possible etiologies due to a general medical condition. One etiology could be his powers, and their effect on his central nervous system and brain. And the other, is an extra bundle of nerve fibers between his pons and medulla oblongata. I've given his Bipolar I diagnosis the PROVISIONAL note, because Magneto needs to be thoroughly examined by a team of doctors, including specialists in neurology. He needs to be observed over a period of time, months perhaps, and the use of his powers monitored carefully, so that any affects on his brain and body can be measured.

Magneto's twin children, now grown, Wanda and Pietro Maximoff, have each demonstrated episodes of manic and depressive behavior, and this could possibly support a diagnosis of Bipolar I Disorder, since research shows this disorder tends to run in families. On the other hand, they could have inherited something of their father's mutant physiology, and although their powers are different from his, there may be an underlying biogenetic cause of the Bipolar I symptoms in Magneto's children.

Also on Axis I --

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, Chronic, in partial remission.

Magneto's Holocaust experiences, and the murder of his daughter Anya, have caused the symptoms of PTSD to appear. But in more recent years, not all the symptoms have appeared at the same time -- for example, Magneto has had intrusive and disturbing dreams, but he has been able to talk about the Holocaust, and about his daughter, and visit Magda's memorial marker, indicating Magneto has not consistently avoided these places or thoughts that cause him pain.

Also on Axis I --

Other Substance Dependence -- PROVISIONAL

Again, Magneto's powers may be causing his brain to produce elevated levels of the neurotransmitter Endorphin, which is a pain suppressor. Between the time that Magneto left Israel, and Isabelle's murder, Magneto was subject to excruciating headaches every time he overused his magnetic powers. It is theorized that Magneto's brain began to compensate for this pain, by producing endogenous Endorphins, or some unknown, similar neurotransmitter, in ever increasing amounts. This served to cause his nerve cells to create new receptor sites for the Endorphin, which meant he needed to use his powers more and more, to stimulate the production of more and more Endorphin, to give him relief from his body's physiological reaction to the overuse of his powers, which is pain. Magneto also might experience increased self-confidence, and a feeling of well-being, with a lessening of his PTSD symptoms when this occurs, due to the increase in Endorphin levels.

Axis III --

Possible damage done to his body by his powers -- medical examination needed. Possible effects of extra nerve fibers in his brain, and increased metabolism due to his magnetic powers, must be determined with a thorough medical examination, and observation. Medical evidence suggests, that, since the pons is a part of the metencephalon (afterbrain) and is composed of bundles of fibers and nuclei, the extra fibers in Magneto's brain are an extension of the pons. The medulla oblongata, or narrow brain, contains the vital centers regulating heart action, vasomotor activity, respiration, deglutition, and vomiting. This might suggest that, if the extra bundles of neurons in Magneto's brain are connected to his mutant powers, his mutant powers of magnetism are part of his autonomic nervous system. Or, some portion of his mutant abilities are a part of his autonomic nervous system.

The pons contains the points of origin for nerves controlling chewing, facial expressions, salivating, equilibrium, and hearing. The medulla also contains nerve centers for hearing and equilibrium, as well as neck muscle control and tongue muscle control. Some of these bodily activities are voluntary, most are involuntary. The fact that Magneto's extra nerve fibers appear in this area of the brain is significant, and the relationship between these neuro-fibers and his Bipolar I disorder, and these neuro-fibers and his powers of magnetic and electromagnetic manipulation, needs to be determined.

If his powers or ability to manipulate electromagnetic energy proves to be a part of his autonomic nervous system, or more than 50% controlled by his autonomic nervous system, then the prognosis for Magnus is poor. If Magnus' powers to channel electromagnetic energy and generate his own energy fields are largely involuntary, like the beating of his heart, then Magneto can never completely turn-off or control the use of his powers. Any negative effects these powers are having on his body tissues, or his central nervous system, will over time become worse. The only solution may be, the complete artificial supression of Magneto's powers, but this solution also might cause damage to Magnus' metabolism, due to the unknown relationship between his powers and his autonomic nervous system.

11/26/2021 02:29 PM 

I Found You Missing

Summary: 'They're asking us because these soldiers have absolutely no one left to write home to,' Sakura thought with a frown. So she signs up for the Shinobi Letter Exchange, not realizing how large the consequences would be. - AUish one-shot [KakaSaku]

 

 


 

A KakaSaku AUish one-shot where more is exchanged than just letters.

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"As you are all aware, proud men and women from our village are fighting in a war that's been going on for quite some time now," Iruka said to his classroom of students.

'Four years, three months and two days,' Sakura clarified in her head.

"Some of these brave shinobi have been there a long time and need reminders of home and what they're fighting for," Iruka continued on. "As such, the Hokage has implemented a new volunteer program. Anyone who wants to can sign up with me, and you'll be assigned a soldier. While there are a lot of regulations and you can't talk about everything in case the letters get intercepted, and you won't know his or her real name for their safety, it's a rare opportunity to directly help in the war."

'They're asking us because these soldiers have absolutely no one left to write home to,' Sakura thought with a frown. 'There're away from home fighting for their lives and they have no one.'

"For those of you interested, please come up to me after class. Now, for today I thought we'd work on…"

Usually the studious Sakura listened to Iruka-sensei with acute attention, always eager to learn more about the glamorous shinobi world. Yet today his special announcement had caught her off guard and Iruka's voice drifted into the background. Were there really lonely men and women out there who did not realize just how amazing they were? Just how heroic the sacrifice they were making was?

Coming from civilian parents, Sakura knew how hard it was to believe in something strongly and to not receive the reinforcement and praise she always desired. Her parents understood on a fundamental level why she wanted to become a shinobi, but did not sympathize when she got home dead tired. Why would she want to purposefully throw herself into something that would no doubt kill her?

But Sakura was stubborn, and she thought those soldiers who refused to leave or die at the front lines must be as well. They deserved to have someone to hear from, to know there was one individual out there that cared about if they lived or not.

Feeling full of self-righteousness, Sakura strutted up to Iruka's desk after being excused for the day.

"I had a feeling you would be interested, Sakura," he said with a kind smile that Sakura easily returned. "And I know just the person to assign you to. They're being a little stubborn, and a lot of people have quit since they didn't write back. But I think this person needs a pen pal the most out of anyone else, and you're just the equally-stubborn individual for the job."

"Is there anything you can tell me about him or her?"

"Well, like I said, everything is going to be strict and regulated. I'm sorry to say I can only give them the number they're assigned to. You'll have to wait to get their return letters to know anything about them."

Sakura looked at the slip of paper he gave her. It only had a four digit number: 2284. She frowned, thinking it odd that a person had been reduced to a number. Maybe it was for safety, or consistency. Or maybe it was easier to organize people if they were just numbers.

"Whenever you want to write a letter, put the number on the envelope with 'Shinobi Letter Exchange' underneath. Don't worry about the postage or address. Others will take care of that."

"Ok," Sakura said, suddenly feeling very small at the responsibility.

"And Sakura?" Iruka asked as he reached over and put a hand on her shoulder, "Thank you."

Sakura found herself grinning again from the sincerity in her teacher's voice.

.

Sakura sat at her desk, short legs swinging under her and toes wiggling. She pulled at her hair and nibbled on the end of her pen, wondering what she should write.

She had written a very select few letters in her life. She had grandparents that lived in the country and a few times a year she sent them a letter. And of course she signed her name on their christmas cards. But this letter was entirely different.

Not only was this to a stranger, but it was to someone who needed a little support in their life. And they were probably at least double her age. Yes, she felt proud for finally turning past ten into eleven last year, and Iruka said she was quite intelligent for her age, but they were more than likely way smarter than her. It was more than a little intimidating.

"Well, I bet their handwriting isn't nearly as good as mine," Sakura muttered to herself before she put the pen to the paper.

Dear 2284,

She crumpled up that piece right away and resisted the urge to tear it to shreds. If she did not like the idea of referencing people as numbers, she was sure her mystery person would hate it all the more. She started again and only got one word in.

Dear...

But then who did she address it to? Soldier? Fellow shinobi? Stranger? All these options sounded empty and weak in her head. She wanted to inspire happiness in this person, no matter now small.

She crumpled up that piece of paper as well. Sakura took a deep breath.

Yes, this was a war-aged shinobi, but they were just a person. Just a human like Sakura, with the same organs, bone structure and senses. And once she thought about it, it was almost comforting to imagine just writing without trying to actively impress this person. And writers had always said to start with what you know.

What did Sakura know best? Well, herself she supposed. And she thought that introductions would be a good place to start if any.

So Sakura took a deep breath, counted down from ten, and started writing.

.

Hello.

Unfortunately I'm not allowed to tell you my name or anything that might give me away. You may address me as anything you prefer, if you so desire and it makes you feel better. Although, it's probably best that you wait a little bit to get to know me more before choosing a nickname suddenly. I will do the same.

Honestly, I don't exactly know what to write to you. I cannot empathize with what you're going through. My daily life probably seems inconsequential to the amazing heroics you preform daily. And even if you're not fighting every minute of the day, you're still putting your life out there.

The person who assigned me to you told me that others have given up on you, and I am sorry that happened. I hope you don't hold it against them. I don't think they stopped writing because they disliked you, but people really like positive reinforcement and when they don't get it they probably get a little surly.

I'm mad that I can't ask you what it's like out there in the front (it's a strict rule on the regulations page given to gave me). I just hope that while you have no one back here in the village, that you have people you care about out there with you. Although, I'm sure that's very frustrating. Being thankful that there are people you can connect to out there, but that you don't want to get hurt.

What I'm trying to say: is I hope that you have friends out there. I hope you're not alone.

I really only have one friend, but she's been there my entire life and she's amazing. One time when I was younger some classmates were picking on me because of my unusual hair color and she stood up and defended me. I hope that nothing bad ever happens to her. Friends are very important, aren't they? I hope maybe one day you can think of me as a friend.

I wish I had more to say, but I think this is enough. I hope that you write back soon, so I can have more points to talk about with you. It will get awfully boring if it's just me talking all about myself.

Stay safe.

.

Hello again.

It's now been a week since I sent you your first letter. Maybe you never got it? I don't know if it's a lot quicker to send mail out there than to get things imported into the village. I was asking my school instructor about the process, and it seems really extensive.

I'm a little embarrassed that not only you will be reading these letters, but also the person who screens them. (Greetings to you, too, second mystery person.) Then they pass or send it back, or black out certain names or whatever, and send it on its way. I will try my hardest not to break any of the regulations so that my letters will be able to get to you as soon as possible without any omissions.

I don't know about you, but sometimes when I'm reading an old book, and a worm has eaten away a word and I'll never know what it is, I get really mad at everything. And then I wonder about exactly what those words could be for much too long. Usually I can do with the gaps, but just the fact of not knowing makes me very irritated. I would hate it if I made you go through that.

Anyways, not much has changed since my last letter. School has been going alright. I got the highest score on the test again, but still the boy who I think is the cutest won't bother looking at me. I'm sorry, that was probably really boring and sounded like I was bragging, but it's simply fact. I am definitely the smartest, and arguably the prettiest, girl in the class. Aren't you lucky you have me as a pen pal? You should really show your gratitude by writing back.

Have you ever been in love? I'm sorry again, that's very forward for only a second letter. I really should start over again, but I've already gone this far. I might as well keep going.

I only have one more year in the academy before I'm assigned a new teacher. That is, if I manage to pass. My teacher says that I have nothing to worry about, and that if I try really hard I'll be able to get a really good teacher. Also if I begin to think about what exactly I want to do I'll have a better match and won't end up good at something I'm not naturally proficient in. I do like genjutsu, but other than that, I don't know.

I wonder what it was like for you, who probably was taught in a group of three. Since so many shinobi are away, it's more beneficial just to have individual pupil-to-teacher ratios. While it's more intense, this way we get more time to study with our teachers, and we can become more specialized.

Dad says that it's just a quicker way to teach us so that we can be shipped out into the war faster. But he's just a civilian, like my mom, and while he is very smart, I don't think he really understands our world somedays. If anything, we're getting better training so we can better protect ourselves.

This is all just a very roundabout way of me saying I hope I get a good teacher so I can do well.

Unlike the last letter, this one has gotten quite long suddenly. I eagerly await your response.

Until next time.

.

Good morning.

Or, at least it's the morning here. I have no idea when the mail comes in for you.

Yesterday I went to the Cherry Blossom Festival with my best friend I mentioned earlier (let's call her Sunflower) and it was very fun. The flowers were very pretty. I could watch the petals fall all day and be perfectly content.

Are you happy that winter is so far behind now? I bet the winters out there are really bad, if it's so cold here in the village.

At the festival it was really nice to see our village come together, shinobi and civilians alike. But I wished people wouldn't get so publicly drunk. I bet if you're off duty you're allowed to drink. My parents say that it's relaxing after a long day, and I think you guys have the longest days without a doubt. I don't care what anyone else says, I hope that our taxes go to those sorts of comforts.

I bet you and all your friends at the front would've enjoyed the festival. Maybe you did your own thing? Probably not. I just hope that you didn't have to fight a lot of people yesterday. Everyone deserves some type of peace, no matter how brief.

On other news, I just finished reading this great book about the Sannin. Apparently one of them wrote it, so there's the problem of bias. But he didn't hold back on disgracing his friend for his betrayal. Some days I wonder if I'll even be able to stand in their shadows.

I know that I'm still young, but I feel that I want to do a lot. Did you feel like that when you were younger? It was the reason why I became a shinobi. Did you have a reason? Or are you part of a clan? Hah, that would be funny. Me, writing dribble to someone from one of the four honorary clans. Or even one of the lesser ones. It'd make me all the more embarrassed about this.

Anyways, I'm going to start reading more non-fiction. There have been so many famous shinobis from our village, and I know that I can learn at least one thing from each of their lives. I'm just having a hard time determining if I want to go back into the more obscure, older accounts or into the more contemporary ones. Maybe I'll switch back and forth until I meet in the middle.

Do you read a lot? Maybe sometime I'll send you a book. Right now not a lot of books are printed, since the materials go to scrolls and explosion tags and everything. War really does change everything.

I hope that you are still looking out for your health and safety.

Until next week.

.

At first Sakura had not been overly concerned by the lack of a return letter. Iruka had explicitly warned her when she volunteered that this person had been abandoned before because of his habitual lack of response. Still, after she had sent out her twelfth letter and she still had not gotten anything in return, she began to feel concerned.

After the sixteenth letter that went unanswered she just felt angry.

But surprisingly, even to herself, she sat down and wrote a letter to this person every week. It was therapeutic in how every Saturday morning she would sit at her desk and write. Sometimes Ino wanted to go out and play on those mornings, but Sakura held firm that she wanted to stay and write her letters. Ino's dad was out there as well and the blond girl wrote letters to him almost daily.

"He calls me his little piglet as my codename. I have no idea why, considering he could have just called me 'Blossom' or something actually flattering," Ino had complained about it to Sakura one day.

"I named you Sunflower for my code," Sakura shared.

Ino answered her with a wide, toothy smile and a tight hug that Sakura eagerly returned.

So even though she was writing to a complete stranger, Ino understood that Sakura just wanted to keep writing. And keep writing Sakura did.

She was fueled my a mixture of long standing annoyance that this person had not responded and that she would keep going until something finally came in her mailbox. Iruka called her one of the most stubborn people he had ever met, and also said she had probably been a little hardened by the war prematurely. But Sakura still found the time to coo after Sasuke between her studying.

Sakura still somewhat resented this person from never writing back, but soon she envisioned that maybe they just physically or mentally could not do it. Yet at this point, Sakura would be happy about getting an abstract splatter ink drawing.

But her annoyance became slowly eroded by the simple monotony of writing. It was relaxing and freeing in a way, knowing that the other person would not respond, no matter what she put in the letter. So she vented, shared and talked about anything that struck her fancy. Her days of intimidation by this mystery person were long gone.

Despite this, Sakura hoped that whoever this was read her letters. They probably were bored with them, but Sakura had started this and she was going to keep going with them.

.

Good morning to you on this fabulous day of personal accomplishment.

Remember how I wrote to you all that while back about getting a new teacher? Well, guess who I got?

TSUNADE.

(To the person screening this: it is very old information that Tsunade is Hokage. This is not new information in any way, so I request that you do not black out the name. There is no way, even if this letter is intercepted, that the enemy can glean any new information from it.)

You read that name correctly (because there really is no reason to black it out). I got the honored Hokage as my new teacher. Let me just write that again- the HOKAGE. I'll call her the Slug Queen in future letters.

Apparently she was there when we were screening us for abilities and she noticed my 'exceptional chakra control,' as she said so herself. I never thought that I was particularly good at that, but apparently I use the exact amount for my jutus.

My training starts this week and I'm so nervous I feel that I may throw up that morning. Or even now. Really, any moment lately.

While I know she's beautiful and really accomplished, she's very harsh on those around her. She demands that everyone around her live up to their full potential. I'm sure this war would have ended a long time ago in our disfavor if she wasn't our leader.

I wonder what it was like living under the past Hokage like you did. It's crazy to think that the assassination of him and his wife was the tipping factor for why we started planning for war. I've read all about him, but did everyone really love him as much as all the literature says?

Do you know about the myth that they had a child but hid it away because they knew war was coming and they didn't want him to be in danger? But that's just what the younger kids at the Academy whisper about, so it's obviously bogus.

Anyways, back to myself (since you never respond). It's kinda sad graduating and knowing everyone's going their own separate ways. I'm really going to miss the boy I like, and even that annoying blond kid. Even the kid with all those bugs. Especially my Sunflower friend, even though she's still mad and won't talk to me anymore because I like the same boy as her. I've already been missing her for a while now.

It just really feels like everyone is growing up. I just hope that we don't grow apart.

Please keep yourself hydrated through this warm summer and be careful.

.

Sakura's training was tough, but she pushed herself through it daily. She thought about Naruto and Sasuke and how well they were advancing, and how there were rumors that maybe they could finally end this war through their raw talent and power alone.

It made Sakura envious, which made her angry, which made her a little reckless.

"What were you thinking trying my taijutsu like that already?" Tsunade snapped as she wrapped up Sakura's left hand. The right one was already done, and Sakura was staring at it morosely. "You could have done much worse than breaking all those bones."

Sakura winced as Tsunade unnecessarily tightened the bandage; it hurt plenty enough already.

As if sensing just how down and useless Sakura was feeling, the pig-tailed woman sighed and sat down beside Sakura. Tsunade wrapped her hand around Sakura and pushed her comfortingly into her impressive bossom.

"I know you're seeing your friends Naruto and Sasuke succeed by leaps and bounds. But they're not learning what you are: which is how to save and protect everyone else. Without medics, and people like you who can think and make plans and then actually execute them on skill and not just raw luck alone, this war would have been long gone."

Sakura sniffled pathetically.

"I know it's hard, but you're doing great. I already know you're secretly doing my Strength of a Hundred Seal. And it seems unlike my ability to create valleys with my fist, you're getting that jutsu down just fine."

"Really?" Sakura asked with a hiccup.

"Sakura," Tsunade said with a sigh before pulling back and looking into her tearful green eyes. "Despite you being my only student I've ever had, you're also my best."

The girl frowned at that.

"But still, I'm not going to fully heal your hands or give you medicine to take away the pain. You need to learn your lesson about being impatient."

Sakura huffed before saying: "Fine."

.

It was not like Sakura was helpless with two broken hands, but it was still frustrating. It allowed her to focus on strategies if she ever did get her hands incapacitated, and working on taijutsu with her legs, but it was mostly just a pain.

Even little, simple tasks took four times longer than usual. She had to struggle to turn the page on her books. Sakura was forced to drink a lot of her food now. Most times she just lied around moping and storing up energy for her seal. She wondered what color it would be. If it would be the same shade as Tsunades or maybe something entirely different.

Sakura did not even realize she had not written her weekly letter until her mom told her she had gotten something in the mail.

"For me?" Sakura asked, a bandaged hand scratching her head confusedly.

"Well, it had our address and your name, so that's what I naturally assumed. It's up in your room."

She looked at it for a long time as it just innocently sat on her desk. It was a little battered, and it seemed that at one point it had gotten waterlogged, but she opened it with the excitement of a shiny, perfectly wrapped present on Christmas morning.

Because it had finally happened: her mystery soldier had written back!

Before she took out the piece of paper, she closed her eyes and dreamed about what she might read. Maybe there was even a clue about who they were? A fun, silly anecdote about when they'd been her age? Not being able to take the anticipation anymore, Sakura pulled it out.

Why did you stop writing?

She turned the page up and over, but that was it. The person had not even really signed it, and had only drawn the crude face of a scarecrow at the bottom corner on the sad. This almost entirely empty piece of paper with five scrawled words and a cartoon face did not constitute as a true letter in any way or form.

Well, if anything, at least she finally had a nickname to call this person by.

.

Dear Scarecrow,

Your first attempt at a letter was the antithesis of pathetic.

But I finally have something to make a nickname for you. I did not know I was corresponding with such an obviously skilled artist.

I want to thank you for finally responding back. I do not know if you have read my letters, and if so, why you have decided to remain silent for so long. First, I thought it might be because you were injured and recovering. I imagined that you had cut your hands while saving your friend from a katana, funneling chakra into your hands to stop the blow. But still you got your hands cut deep in the process, making it impossible for you to hold a pen or pencil.

Then I thought that maybe it was too wet where you were stationed, as it was typhoon season and apparently the front lines were heavily hit. Didn't people nearly drown from refusing to move from a strategic river spot? Don't respond to that, they may burn your letter. Or maybe it was the winter, and you were shivering too badly that your handwriting became illegible.

I imagined that you were just too busy with a war going on to write back to a silly little girl. And I realized that this was the most viable option.

There was recently the Cherry Blossom Festival here again. I wrote to you about it last year. I almost can't believe it's been over a year and a half since I started writing to you weekly. No wonder I'm still in shock of your lacking response. I forget to write one week and you call me out on it while you haven't done it this entire time? Hubris: look it up.

I've written you almost seventy letters and you can't even manage to give me seven words. Congratulations. Clearly you're a genius among us mortals.

To show just how frivolous I am, I have included a flower I pressed at the festival. I hope that some of the sweet scent manages to stick around when you receive this. Even if you don't deserve it because it was kinda rude to make me wait that long. Fun fact: the petals are nearly the same shade as my hair.

Please stay safe.

.

I have never had any family or friends to write back to. They are all either dead or here. Excuse my inability.

.

Dear Scarecrow,

I apologize for my lack of finesse in my last letter. I didn't even bother explaining why I didn't write for a week either, the sole point in your own letter.

I tried doing some secret, personal training of something I'd seen Slug Queen do, and ended up shattering the bones in my hands. Slug Queen healed some of the breakage, but only enough that it would heal correctly. So for the past few weeks I've been learning how to live without hands for the most part.

This was actually the main reason why my letter was so aggressive. It's very painful to move my hands, but I really wanted to write a letter to you. I could have just written a bereft thing like you have the clear skill of, but I was just very excited about finally getting a response from you.

Please don't feel guilty. I could have just asked someone else to write down what I said if I really needed them to. But I really don't want to do that since (even though those screeners read these before you) I feel that this a very personal endeavor for me to you.

As for your lack of experience, it's really not that hard. Obviously you're able to write, and that's the biggest hurdle. The second is being able to read, but that usually goes hand-in-hand with writing. Although I honestly have no idea if you read my letters, or just simply cast them aside for another time. Yet judging by how you immediately realized I'd missed a week, I think you're more than just aware of them.

Other than that, you write about anything you want. At first I was nervous, but eventually I didn't hold back.

I think since you're older, you should share some anecdotes about when you were a kid. Despite our age difference, maybe we grew up with similar fashions or sayings or favorite foods. What are your happiest memories?

Again, I'm sorry for my lack of sympathy in my last letter. I think I've almost fully healed my hands, so I should very soon be back to writing you novella length letters.

Until next time when you respond with that scratching you call handwriting.

.

When I was promoted to jōnin I took on a mission that got my teammate killed. My happiest memory was realizing, as he died, that he was my best friend. I had not realized how much I loved and appreciated him until that moment.

My second happiest memory was realizing I loved the girl who had made herself die at my hand. She was the girl my best friend loved and who I'd promised to protect right before he died.

Please don't ask about my parents.

I warned you I was bad at this.

.

Dear Scarecrow,

I do not know what to say. I have known pain (my hands are all healed now), but I cannot even begin to imagine what that must be like. But surely those aren't your happiest memories. If not, I hope that someday you'll be able to replace them. That's not to mean that you should forget about your friends.

And I don't mean to insult you by saying I don't think they want you to remember them like that. I'm supposing they were part of your three-genin group and I'm sure you went on better missions and had better days than their deaths. Apparently there was a cat that always got loose- did you and your friends ever have to chase it down? I heard the cat burned in the great fire. I had been very young during that fire, but I can still remember the heat.

I wish you could tell me their names so I could go put some flowers on their graves. Maybe I'll try and research it, but it would be impossible to know if instead their names are on the cenotaph. I'm guessing your best friend is. I should go and do that always. A lot of people visit there now and there's always flowers.

Maybe this will make you feel better: I saved my first life today. A boy had been training and had cut his leg clean off, and the Slug Queen let me try and reattach it all by myself before he bled out. The bone was a little tricky because the cells are more complicated, but I managed it all the same. He didn't even have a scar when I was done. Slug Queen said I did a really great job and soon I should be able to lead more surgeries so she can focus on other things.

It's now been almost a year since my training began. The Queen says it's a waste of my time since I'll obviously pass, but I need to sign up for the chūnin exam. I know the usual age of passing is thirteen now. Before it used to be fifteen, but the war speeds things up I suppose. I bet you were much younger than me when you made chūnin, if you were already a jōnin still in a three-man team.

I want to apologize if the beginning of my letter seemed preachy, or if I overstepped my boundaries. I have not lost any close friends to the war. I lost relatives in the great fire I previously mentioned, but I was too young to really remember them.

I wish I could think of something better to cheer you up with than my own accomplishments. But it probably helps to know that the next generation has not been weakened by the war. If anything, we've become stronger.

What do you do with your friends over there to kill time? Like I've said in past letters, I read a lot when I want to relax. Do you do the same? Maybe your short responses are hiding your literary prowess. They probably hide a lot.

You took two weeks to respond this time. Is everything alright? I hope it is and I will be able to hear from you promptly.

Farewell for now.

.

I can't write as fast as you, and there's not much I can tell about here other than the food is horrible. I do enjoy reading, but all my books are ruined by the rain and mold.

He'll like getting flowers from a girl. He also would have been the one needing his leg reattached like that boy. Congratulations on that.

.

Dear Scarecrow,

First, I want to thank you for responding so quickly. I asked the postman the other day how long it usually takes for a letter to get to the front lines, and it can be as quickly as two or as long as four. Sending back letters is usually quicker, only one or three days. Since your latest response arrived five days after I sent my letter, I can safely assume you dedicated yourself to a speedy response. And now you get to have a letter from me all the faster. Aren't you lucky?

I'm sending you a book with this letter, if they haven't confiscated it. I don't think they would, unless the saga of 'The Dragon King' is illegal. It's really just about love, so I can't see how it would be taken away. I hope that you'll enjoy it, as I've loved it ever since I was very small. I enjoy the simplicity of the story: that not all guys who are bad have to be, that anyone with a strong, sure heart can make it through anything.

The postman also said that if it fits in an envelope, he'll mail it for me. I plan to bribe him with fresh baked goods so he'll pass along larger envelopes. (Maybe even large enough envelopes that I can fit some cookies into it for those who screen it.) I will also try and find some yarn so I can knit you a scarf. It must be getting really cold out there, and it wouldn't do good to let your face get cold and for your senses to dull because of it. Do you have a color you'd prefer? I might not be able to get it, but Slug Queen does owe me a favor for attaining some more sake for her on the side.

Everything over here as been fine for me. Slug Queen has put me up for more hospital shifts. At first I was a little worried about working there because I still am fairly young, but everyone there is very friendly. Also, most nurses are my age and the doctors are very old. Anyone in between is already out there with you guys, or out at neighboring villages offering aid.

Also, I've started working on identifying poisons and learning how to remedy them. Apparently Slug Queen is second to none in making them, and that she says I'm fairly good at them. Not as good as my natural affinity for chakra control (I can now create an earthquake with a punch- how cool is THAT?) but if I practice and work enough I can learn how to be better.

I hope that you're still trying hard out there as well. Again, I hope you enjoy the book. I know it's small and a fast read, but please enjoy. Also please be careful with it and keep it safe. It was the copy from when I was a girl. I know you're not allowed to send anything back but letters, so you'll have to keep it safe until the war ends and I can pick it back up. (Yes, this is me giving you another reason to make it through if you didn't already have enough.)

Maybe you'll start responding faster and we can correspond every five days instead of seven now. Wouldn't that be nice.

Goodbye for now.

.

It's really dreary around here (the mushrooms love it) so something bright and soft. Yellow if you can manage it?

I enjoyed the book.

.

Dear Scarecrow,

I hope you like the yellow I picked out. While I like this goldenrod shade, I think it's a little darker than what you were imagining. All the same, it is the color you requested so I'll count it as a victory. Don't you dare get blood on it! Just kidding, I can just make you another one now that I have finally gotten the hang of it. The stitches are still a little bulbous, but I like the way it looks still. I made an infinity scarf so you don't have to worry about an enemy grabbing hold onto one end to pull you down. This way it can sit quite snuggly around your neck and shoulders. I hope it's not too bulky.

Last winter I tried making you a scarf, but I was not confident enough in my ability. It's a sad excuse of a thing, bright red with way too many holes and misaligned lines. You and no other will ever see just how badly I failed at my first attempt. I pride myself in being a fast learner, but this took a lot of patience.

I have leftover yarn from the scarf and I tried to make you matching gloves, but like the first scarf, it did not turn out well. Although, I don't think you would cut a very intimidating sight to the enemy dressed in matching, obviously homemade knit articles.

Yes, I can see through you fishing for more books. Try working on your stealth more. I'll send you another one from my collection next time, since the scarf took up all the space in this envelope.

I hope that you're doing alright out there. I know that the weather is soon going to change for the worst. In my haste to finish the scarf I had to omit taking time to write up a nice long letter to go with it, so I'll try and sum up what's been happening quickly.

It's flu season, so of course the hospital is in total disarray.

I assisted Slug Queen in some complicated, experimental surgeries I wish I could tell you more about, but it seems I have some secrets to keep on my side as well now.

I moved out of my parent's and into a quaint, old apartment closer to the hospital. I really like it so far.

I got a plant. I still do not have a name for him. Any suggestions?

I think that's it. Please stay warm and hydrated, remember to wear layers. During seasons like this, more soldiers die from exposure than enemies.

And remember most of all: don't get sloppy or careless and get yourself killed.

.

Sakura's warm breath crystalized as she waiting at her mailbox, large envelope held tightly against her chest. It was snowing, but the snow simply brushed off the clear tape she had wrapped the envelope in to avoid just this occurrence. It would not do good to have her newly made scarf get soaked and then freeze. She was sure her scarecrow would not appreciate a gift to warm him coming in a block of ice.

She eyed the postman coming around the bend and jumped to grab the thurmous. She poured a cup of hot chocolate and offered it to him as he approached.

"Ah, good afternoon yet again, Sakura. I see you have quite a large letter for me there," he said, gratefully taking the offered cup with a smile.

"If it wouldn't be too much trouble," she said hopefully.

"Maybe… if you give me the rest of this delicious hot chocolate," he said with a chuckle, smile widening behind the curling steam.

Sakura felt her shoulders straighten in pride before passing over the envelop and beverage container to him wordlessly.

"Thank you," she said as she watched him put the package in his satchel.

His smile turned a little sad for a moment before he reached forward and ruffled her hair, causing the snow that had accumulated there to drift down onto her jacket.

.

The scarf is perfect and all my comrades are envious. I suggest Mr. Ukki.

.

Dear Scarecrow,

I thought about knitting you a hat, but stopped. For one, because of my inability to do so, and two, because just like the mittens, I think it would clash horribly with your cool-guy reputation and that you wouldn't wear it. Although, if you're so tickled-pink about showing up your friends, you probably would wear it just to spite them.

The book I included are some old histories of the four noble clans of Konoha. I thought it was a little dated, and obviously biased in some aspects, but interesting none-the-less. I just wish it had better information on some of the newer clans and bloodlines.

Slug Queen is making me do research on bloodlines and such, so I can better understand all types of patients. I'm a little fearful that all this extra assignments outside of training and the hospital is her preparing me for her position, or at least for the next Hokage's assistant. While it would be amazing to be so high-up, I mostly enjoy the hospital.

I wonder what it was like to do missions outside of our boarders. I've done a few missions, but they were all safely in the village. Slug Queen says I shouldn't bother myself with such stuff when other younger, less specialized kids can do it. But I like them, and some days I dream of begin able to leave the village to travel. I cannot believe that in a few years the war will be over a decade long. Yet I believe it will not go on that long, and soon I will be able to travel.

Did you travel a lot before the war? I feel that you have a lot of fun stories to tell, and probably a few are from abroad.

Speaking of stories, you have never commented during the entirely of our correspondence about the war before. Maybe you think a higher-up will see your lack-luster opinion and criticize you? Although, you must have one dumb general if he thinks this war is still glorious. More likely, no information about the war can be given. Or you're thinking about it so constantly you don't want to have to write it down.

Regardless, I still hope you're doing alright out there after being gone for so long: both mentally and physically. I cannot even imagine the homesickness you must go through. Although maybe it's been so long you're just numb to it all. In case you're wondering, the village has barely changed at all. Yes, people are growing up, but the buildings and businesses are nearly all still here. And they'll stay here waiting until you return.

I'm sorry for feeling so nostalgic today, and if it's painful for you to think about, but I realized the other day that it's now been about three years since that first letter to you. It's hard to believe, but the drawer full of your sparse responses is evident of it. And if I have such a collection, I can scarcely imagine the horde of my letters you have. Or maybe you don't have room to keep them. I won't blame you if you didn't.

I really can't wait to meet you after the war. It's happening, don't argue. We'll figure it out somehow.

Also, I appreciate how your responses have become speedier. Thank you.

Until my next letter.

Oh, and before I forget: I told Mr. Ukki all about you and the name you gave him. He seems very happy, and similarly cannot wait to meet you. He seems a little lonely all by himself though, so I think I need to go get a Mrs. Ukki now.

.

I have never written about the war because there is nothing to say about it. I grew up into the beginnings of it and I'm just living through it. I will be fine. I always have been.

.

Dear Scarecrow,

Alright there, man with a heart of immovable ice. I thought I told you to stay warm during this winter. And it's pretty obvious to nearly anyone that only those who say they're fine really aren't. But I can tell that you don't want to talk about it (or for me to try and talk about it and you just ignore the heavy hints).

I did get another plant, and she is quite lovely. I think that Mr. Ukki is very happy with his pretty, young new wife. It helps him get through this cold winter, since I don't want to waste money on heating my one-room apartment. Maybe I'm being thrifty, but I'm trying to save money for when I can travel, or really just for a better time to spend it at. I have so much to do at the hospital that but the time I get back I'm dead on my feet.

Recently Slug Queen started this charity program for the hospital. It takes possessions from dead shinobi, stuff their families don't want or need, and then sells it off. The money generated goes to funds for more medicine and supplies for soldiers still fighting.

Anyway, there's was this fairly large section of books and I bought about eight boxes, nearly all of it. Slug Queen though it both odd and hilarious that I spent nearly an entire paycheck on dusty old books, but then she spends hers on illegal sake so whatever. She can mentor me on some things, but others I don't trust her on. What this all means is that I can now send you a book with every letter for a bit now! I know, it's exciting, calm down. Cool guy reputation right? Heart of ice that you can't allow to crack?

I realize you probably won't be able to keep so many books, so you should just hand them over to your friends once you're done. I can't knit them all their own scarves, but at least this way you can help share. Although maybe they get much more than you. My Sunflower friend sends her father stuff nearly daily. It must be nice to be that loved. I wish I could send you more things.

I expected to be more lonely living by myself, but it's actually not too bad. Friends come and go, and I can always just write to you if I get lonely or bored. And now the lovely Mr. and Mrs. Ukki are here to keep me company. I hope that your friends take up a ridiculous amount of time to distract you from everything. My opinion all those years ago about taxes being used to get you all properly drunk sometimes still stands unmoved.

This is somewhat embarrassing, and I wasn't thinking of adding this, but I can't help it. Sometimes when I'm bored at work, or I just need to relax, I draw really bad renditions of what your face may look like. I know it's ridiculous, but I'm stupidly envious of everyone who knows you. I admit, I have always been curious. The fact that I can write to you about anything except who know who you are is infuriating to me.

Anyways, I'm never including one of those doodles. Ever. No argument.

For your response I eagerly await.

.

I wouldn't dare to share the books with the others.

It's good that you can't send more than you do. I'm already indebted to you as it is. To be honest, I enjoy your words just as much as these published verses. Yes, that even includes the one time you wrote about that new flavor of yogurt you loved for two (very lengthy) paragraphs in vivid detail.

You must realize you don't need to see my face to know me.

.

Dear Scarecrow,

So I think maybe you're just acting like a petulant child unwilling to share rather than actually worrying about how your friends treat literature. You must have been an only child. It's so obvious.

Onto more important matters: a seal I've been working on for the past three years has finally shown up. It's on my face, and I can't tell if I like it or not. It's a little disconcerting to suddenly have something new and obvious on your face, directly in the middle of your forehead. I didn't get to see it manifest, but when it did Slug Queen suddenly stopped and gaped at me when she was lecturing me, so it probably looked at least a little cool.

And the Queen says it doesn't matter if I like how it looks or not, because it will probably save me and all my comrades lives one day. In classic mentor fashion, she told me not to get full of myself and to put even more chakra into it daily.

I agree with her like almost always, but it's hard not to care about your appearance when one of your best friends is the town beauty queen. Yes, the Sunflower friend. By the way, did I ever tell you we've made up?

It's extremely rewarding to see such long term investments finally begin to pan out. Sorta like your letters. I think you beat your record in that last letter. Four paragraphs, twenty sentences in total? Don't strain your hand too much now.

Maybe this is as boring as when I used to droned on about my Moon friend, but boys are starting to notice me. I know that I'm older now, and my body shows just that, but it's still a little odd to feel that sensation of being watched to turn around and see guys staring at your behind.

Tsunade says not to worry about it, and that if they really annoy me I can just break their ribs. There's a lot of valuable organs around there that would be a shame to get ruptured. In a way, sometimes it's fun to flirt with them and get them flustered, only to leave them just as they finally remember where their tongues are. Maybe it's cruel, but it's still entertaining. Oh god, I'm such a jerk, aren't I?

This brings me back to that letter I wrote that was all about my hair routine. Maybe initially my letters had a serious tone and a vocabulary that made me seem like a stiff grandma. I don't know whether to be happy or sad that I've loosened up my writing style.

Like always, stay safe mighty guard.

.

I admit: I thought you were a forty year old mother from your first letter. Imagine my shock finding you were an Academy student.

Don't be too cruel to those poor boys. I'm sure many are falling over themselves, and they just don't know how to spot danger and and run from it just yet. Good thing they aren't out here, else they would have been gone within hours.

Forget about breaking their ribs, those heal quickly enough. Break their hearts if they really bother you. That pain will last much longer.

.

And so the letters continued on for months and then years more.

Sakura realized in utter dread that her scarecrow's letters became increasingly depressed and clipped. Sometimes she could get him to write more than a few sentences, but it kept getting harder and harder as time wore on.

Yet he still made every effort to write back, and Sakura continued to gather his letters carefully in a drawer. Before she had just put them in randomly, but one day she took time away to organize them into a photo album. The responses were usually just slips of paper and easily fit into the plastic squares. Some days when she felt down, like when a patient could not be saved, or a young widow came in from malnutrition caused by heartache, Sakura flipped through them.

She had not yet gone through them all individually. She was saving that for a special day. Maybe they could go over them together?

Sakura had thought that she loved Sasuke, and her feelings she felt for this mystery person was akin to that, but not identical. Was it even possible to feel so strongly for a person she had never met? Not to mention she did not even know who this person even remotely was. She had only decided this stranger was a man because of his messy handwriting and clipped tone. It was a little biased based on gender, but Sakura had seen enough handwritings from doctors for some semblance of reference.

Their correspondence still covered everything and anything, and always nothing about the war even if Sakura burned to know about it. To know her scarecrow faired in it, and if those enemy creatures were as horrible as soldiers said they were. But the rules were strict, and he never offered anything.

Then something seemed to have recently switched for the man. Because in the past few weeks her scarecrow was channeling all that anger and aggression towards the war into his writing for her. While before Sakura had been lucky to get a few sentences, now he wrote pages. Just the other day Sakura had gotten a three-page long letter from him. True, nearly all of it was describing his ninnken and how each one was special (although all equally amazing). She had enjoyed the attached sketches of the dogs the most, which were a lot better than any of the doodles Sakrua had ever made of his imaginary face. It was a clear bribe to get one of those, but she was not giving in.

He also demanded that if anything happen to him, she would have to take care of them. Right now they were still out on the field with him, but because he had no one else to fall back on, she would have to take custody of them. He even made her sign a contract in blood, which she sent back with mixed feelings of honor and worry. He assured her that his dogs already adored her on her lingering scent on the letters alone.

Sakura wrote back about her life as well. Some days she could barely put a pen in her hand, when her fingers were stiff and shaking from half-day long surgeries, or had just done hours of taijutsu training with Tsunade. But she just mercilessly cracked her knuckles, bit down the grunt of pain, and filled up at least a page with her neat handwriting to send off.

Her scarecrow was the same in his resilience to write no matter what. Apparently one time he got his entire right hand severed, and barely an hour after the reattachment surgery he had written her a letter. It had threatened the delicate restitching and his medic had yelled at him for a five minutes. Sakura would have yelled at him for a good hour. She stomped around her apartment yelling for that long, until a neighbor came and asked her politely to please stop making it sound like the village was being invaded.

Sakura worried that her scarecrow was writing so much and so frequently because he was worried he would not be around much longer. That he had to get things out, to tell her silly things and stories, before he physically could not anymore from passing on.

Still, the war carried on and his letters gave her an equal amount of hope as well as trepidation. Lately there had been a lot of soldiers brought in from the front who were too severely injured to be treated adequately there. Apparently the creatures were getting more active; Madara seemed ready to unleash himself on the world. Infiltration attempts to find his lair failed each time, only resulting in losses. Sakura watched as Tsunade became increasingly stressed; she was sure if not for that jutsu her Slug Queen would look much older than her actual age.

Sakura had mixed feelings about the soldiers coming in. Half of her wanted her scarecrow to come, but the other half wanted him to remain strong and steady as he had all these days, months and years. Eventually she realized it silly to think that he would come back to get healed; he would die out there trying before abandoning it.

So every time Sakura got a letter, reaffirming that he was not dead and very much alive and fighting, she felt not just a wave, but a tsunami of relief pass over her.

.

Dear Scarecrow,

I turned sixteen today. Apparently I'm a full fledged adult in the shinobi world now. I don't feel like it. It's just all very surreal.

My blond friend (or my Sun friend) gave me a gag gift of some porny literature that his mentor apparently writes. I read it, and it doesn't seem too bad despite the gratuitous descriptions at the sex scenes. I've never heard so many inaccurate nouns for 'penis.' Sun's mentor gets points for creativity at least.

I thought that you might like it, so I've included it for you.

Not to say that you're a pervert, but I feel that you're a romantic in some ways. And while there are sad parts in the book, overall it's uplifting. I know you'll appreciate that. And not to get sexist, but in my experience a lot of guys like porn.

Anyway, it's small but I bet it'll really pack a punch for your overgrown love of romance. I hope you enjoy it.

As always, please be safe.

.

The book was amazing. The best by far. Send more if at all possible.

.

My Scarecrow,

I know it's impossible to miss the presence of someone you've never met, but I still cannot help but feel that with you. I wish you could have been here today for me to see just how far I've come.

Anyways, I made jōnin today, and so did my Sun and Moon friends. My Sunflower friend only got a partial advancement, but she's ecstatic all the same.

For entertainment to the public, they had us compete against others and the person I went against made fun of my hair to try and break my moral. I kicked him out of the stadium, and he had such grievous injuries that Slug Queen had to personally heal him. I thought she would be mad, but when I explained what he'd said about me, she laughed so hard she cried. Then she gave me a whole bottle of sake and we drank it in celebration. I don't think she should help foster my temper that has gotten a bit drastic lately.

Maybe that's why I said that convoluted sentence as a start. It's kinda weird and funny being drunk. I like it. I approve.

Is my handwriting different? Am I not using as many big words as usual? I wonder if you thought it weird when I was beginning to write and already knew so many. I really pride myself over my vocabulary. And I was really trying to impress you because I was so scared that you wouldn't respond or would think me stupid and hate me.

But I know that you don't hate me. Maybe you even like me in some sort of way. I like you quite a lot, when I think about it.

I'm getting pretty sleepy suddenly. I should metaphorically sign off before I embarrass myself even more.

I really wish you were here. And again, I miss you.

Until next time when I'll be sober again. Maybe. I really do like this feeling. Why aren't people drunk ALL the time?

Goodnight.

.

They'll try sending you out here now. Promise me you won't go.

Hope the headache wasn't too bad.

.

Dear Scarecrow,

The headache wasn't the best, but it also wasn't the worst. After you've dealt with woman in labor screaming for hours, you get used to a ringing in your ears and an inability to feel like yourself for a bit.

I don't know why you're so worried. I'm just a medic so even if I am involved in the war, I would just heal people in the back lines. Not that I can't take care of myself. Didn't I say I explain how I punted a guy out of an arena just for making fun of my hair? I can take care of myself.

I see that you're back to your small responses. Do you not have a lot of time anymore? I enjoyed those times when you sent me long letters. Did I ever tell you I keep all your old slips of responses in a photo album? Some of your letters were too long to fit in the small plastic squares, so I keep them in their original envelopes. I'll hopefully find some larger plastic sheets soon enough. I also want to frame those sketches of your lovely ninken. Say hello and give them a nice long belly-rub for me.

I'm sorry I similarly can't write as much lately. The hospital has been overrun, and Slug Queen has been stepping up the training. I feel that something is really starting to form.

Until another day and letter.

.

You need to promise me.

.

Dear Scarecrow,

Since you're clearly ignoring everything else I'm saying, I promise that I won't volunteer to go into the war. The Hokage says I have way too much to learn anyway before I'm remotely ready to head out there. I could make a difference if I went now, but I can change the war if I stay and continue working. But, again, you must know I'm strong and able to protect myself.

I think she's planning something with my Sun and Moon friends, though. But there is no use in worrying, and I'll just have to wait. I just wish she would include me more on her plans.

Did you know, I've been calling you by the same nickname this entire time because of your funny little signatures, but you have never given me one? I would be a little disheartened that you did not care if not for your speedy responses.

Can you believe it's already almost winter again? I wonder if your scarf has kept up over all these years. I bet it's pretty dismal despite how well you might've taken care of it.

Also, Mr. and Mrs. Ukki now have five lovely children! They were getting a little big, so I cut them back, and then thought I might try to propagate some of the clippings All the cuttings took, and now there are small little bits of themselves growing. You will obviously get one when you get back, as it is your right as their godfather. Don't argue, it was decided the moment you named him.

Just think: after this war is finally done all you'll have to worry about guarding is a small plant. You can finally live up to the full potential of your nickname from me! Hopefully you can think of another winning name to give to the little tike.

Me and the lovely Ukki family await for your response.

.

The scarf is still well, as am I since you finally agreed.

I apologize, as I cannot write much but this today. Even though I know you will, do not worry.

.

Sakura hummed as she arranged paperwork on Tsunade's desk. She could feel the older woman's eyes on her. The full sake cup in her hand sat forgotten. Finally giving in, as she felt she may instantaneously combust any moment now by Tsunade's intense gaze, Sakura turned to her with her eyebrows furrowed in silent question.

"Sakura, I need to talk to you about something," her blond sensei said with a sigh, suddenly not looking like the pillar of strength and ability she was known to be. This must be really serious if she was looking older than she liked her jutsu to show.

Taking a seat in one of the chairs in front of the desk, Sakura crossed her hands atop her lap and waited patiently for her mentor to speak.

"As you're aware, Madara is nearing an end to his hibernation. Soon he'll stop with his defensive warfare and start wiping out all the villages, picking them off when they are weakened by physical separation."

At the idea of her entire world disappearing, Sakura shivered.

"In that vein, I have decided that we're going to do one last, final push. Naruto and Sasuke are ready to face him. I recognize it's a risk allowing Sasuke to get close to the other Uchiha, that he may be converted. But it is a risk we have to take."

Sakura looked down at her lap and counted her breaths up to ten before she trusted herself with speaking.

"Naruto is going to be estatic about being a hero," she said as she stood with a start, willing her tears to not fall. "No matter how much I tell him that war isn't glamorous, he is set on the idea of becoming a hero."

"He's going to be alright, Sakura. You, and everyone else now, need to trust that he's ready to do this."

"I'm coming, obviously," Sakura said with a huff, green eyes flashing with more than just unshed tears.

"I would never leave my favorite apprentice behind when I need her the most."

 

11/24/2021 03:36 PM 

The Festive Season (or a Horror of Holmes)

Summary:

"Besides," Mycroft says, "you've met Sherlock. The rest of my family is no better."

"A horror of Holmes?" Greg asks, undeniably curious about what a Holmes Christmas would be like.

"Precisely."

***

“So, Christmas Day?”

“You're truly under no obligation," Mycroft says smoothly. "I'd only wish my family upon my enemies.”

Greg remembers Mycroft's description of the day. But he also knows that as much as Mycroft rolls his eyes or scowls at Sherlock, he loves his little brother dearly. For all the condescension and the hyperbole, he suspects Mycroft loves his parents too. “I'd be happy to come.”

“You're curious,” Mycroft surmises.

“You're the one dating a copper. Curious and suspicious come with the territory.”

 

 

 

 

It's Thursday night, and Greg has an invitation to Walker's for drinks. It's nice to be included, even if he's not exactly one of the club anymore. He's still divorced, but he's not single, and he's far from being the sad bastard he was a few years ago.

Not that he's gone out of his way to tell the guys -- this crowd happily avoids talking about relationships, the ex, or any intersection of the two.

Anderson and Sanders are already there when he arrives, but there's a few others expected later.

Anderson eyes Greg nervously, cradling his almost empty glass like a security blanket. “Is the other Holmes coming?”

Greg rolls his eyes. “Not this time.” He'd asked Mycroft, but Mycroft would generally prefer to work late than be forced to socialise with the masses. As long as he doesn't have to come, Mycroft's all for Greg attending these get-togethers. He even offered a ride home when the night's over.

Greg gets a round, and they complain about the weather and the cricket. They grumble about their jobs or the latest round of efficiency targets (same outcomes with less resources, basically) and if the Rolling Stones will ever stop touring. Someone complains about the latest horror movie on Netflix and they somehow end up talking about bad Godzilla movies and how much they loved them as kids.

It's nothing important. It won't cure cancer or deliver world peace, but it's nice to have a few drinks and a few laughs.

He's definitely merry and a little too enthusiastic when he answers Mycroft's call. “Hey, what are you up to?” he says, walking to the back of the room to hear the call better.

“Some last-minute arrangements,” Mycroft says, tone too flat to show any regret. “I may need to stay in the office for a few more hours.”

“I can get a cab if you're busy.” He doesn't bother asking if Mycroft can get out of it. If Mycroft could avoid it, he wouldn't bother telling Greg about it. “Will I see you tonight?”

“Unlikely, but not impossible.”

“That's me,” Greg says brightly, “bringing the impossible into your life.” It's only after he's said it that he realises it's not as clever as it sounded in his head. He might want to have a glass of water before the next beer. “Don't mind me. I've had a few already.”

There's a pause on the line and then Mycroft cautiously says, “You do, you know.”

“Do what?”

“Bring the impossible to life.” Mycroft clears his throat. “To my life, at least.”

Greg doesn't need a mirror to know he's grinning like a fool. He can feel it on his face. “I'll text you when I'm leaving. See if you're still stuck in the office.”

“Enjoy,” Mycroft says, hanging up.

***

It's dark when Greg wakes up, dark and quiet. For a moment, he lies there with his eyes closed, trying to avoid the day for a little longer. It's been a long week of internal audits and late nights, and Greg desperately wants to hide from it for a few more minutes.

Then he hears snatches of birdsong and groans in relief. It's Saturday. Saturday: a karmic reward for a horrible week.

Warm and comfortable, Greg drifts between awake and asleep. There's a high pitched trill of birdsong outside the window, the odd stretch of silence around it. Greg's lived in London his entire adult life: he's used to waking up to traffic and noisy neighbours and the shuffle of people outside. But he's getting used to this: the warm, blanketing silence of Mycroft's house, the way birdsong seems so loud here.

Rolling over, Greg reaches out a hand. He’s hoping to find Mycroft in bed beside him, but he isn't surprised to find the bed empty. Mycroft hates exercise but hates being observed doing it even more. His solution is to rise early and get straight on the treadmill. Get it done before Greg's really awake.

That self-control is admirable. And very sexy, if you ask Greg. Greg also likes how Mycroft looks in Lycra, his long, lean legs on display, so sometimes he sneaks down to watch Mycroft anyway.

Not on a day like today, when the bags under Greg's eyes have taken over his whole face. Greg would rather have a lie-in than catch Mycroft sweaty and flushed. No matter how appealing the sight would be.

***

He doesn't emerge from bed until almost lunchtime. And that's only because Mycroft stands in the bedroom doorway, backlit with sunshine falling across the hallway carpet, holding a cup of coffee that smells fantastic.

“I've made coffee,” Mycroft says from the doorway. “You'll have to come downstairs if you want some.”

Greg groans and grumbles, but he drags himself out of bed. He pulls on a sweater and socks, does his best to navigate the stairs without opening both eyes at the same time.

He gets to the kitchen and leans both elbows on the tall wooden island in the centre of the square room. He closes his eyes and lets his forehead drop to the counter. “I was promised coffee.”

Mycroft hands over a plain, solid mug of the best coffee Greg's ever smelled. Greg takes a sip and it's the right temperature, the right amount of milk, just enough sweetness. Mycroft always makes his coffee exactly the way he likes it.

Mycroft is kind enough not to say anything until Greg empties the mug. “Much longer and you wouldn't have slept tonight.” It's not an apology because Mycroft doesn't really do those. It's an explanation.

“Thanks,” Greg says because he does appreciate it. “It's been a big week.”

“Internal audits are never pleasant,” Mycroft says, more aware of Greg's workload than his immediate supervisor. “You'll feel better after a walk. We'll have a late lunch afterwards.”

Mycroft can't help organising things, scheduling and arranging, like a cross between a super efficient robot and the world's biggest mother hen. It took a little getting used to, but once Greg recognized it for what it was -- Mycroft caring enough to pay attention, Mycroft using part of that enormous brain to anticipate what might make Greg happy -- he could accept the micromanaging. Most of it. “Sandwich first?”

“I'll make it if you want to shower.”

Greg goes to the shower, pretending it was his own idea rather than the bribery of a roast chicken sandwich.

***

Once lunch is finished, they set off across the fields. Over the rolling green hills to the left, Greg can see the white stone houses of the village, the pointed spire of the church rising above. It's a twenty-minute brisk walk through well-worn tracks, but that's not where they're headed.

Mycroft prefers wandering through pastures. He likes picking a different direction each time, leisurely rambling for hours. Like Heathcliff and his moors, Greg thinks, although Heathcliff never had the best fleece-lined wellies money could buy.

The first time Mycroft suggested a walk, there was a second pair of wellies already sitting at the back door, plain black in Greg's size. He'd put them on, amused by the unnecessary amount of thought behind them, but he'd appreciated it by the time they got back. He'd been ankle-deep in mud.

But this is the Mycroft he gets to see on weekends. The Mycroft who has two pairs of wellies, brown and green, to coordinate with his jackets when he goes walking. The Mycroft who still wears jackets and waistcoats, but they're warm, woollen checks, worn with thicker, softer shirts and corduroy trousers. Mycroft suits the quiet here, the endless green curves divided by old stone walls, the horizon as limitless as Mycroft's vast knowledge. It's old and settled and isolated, but Mycroft is so content here that Greg thinks this is what retirement might look like. Green fields and country quiet, just the two of them and days spent doing whatever they like.

Greg's getting ahead of himself. He knows it. Early days, horse before the cart, and all that.

Two years ago, he never would have imagined living outside of London. If you'd asked him where he'd be at eighty, he always figured he'd be one of those poor souls shuffling across the road as the lights changed, ignored by seas of students and business suits around him.

A year ago, he was only starting to imagine Mycroft, to think about how Mycroft would kiss and wondering what Mycroft saw in him. He wasn't imagining how easily they'd fit together. How midweek pub lunches and fancy restaurants could become as much of a staple as short phone calls and good morning texts.

They haven't moved in together, but these days, they spend more nights together than apart. Mycroft's London flat is only used for extremely late work nights or recovering from jetlag. The rest of the time, it's Greg's flat or weekends in the country. Hell, he's even updated his emergency contact details at work.

Now, he knows that Mycroft is pitifully miserable when he catches the flu. He knows that Mycroft has cold feet in winter but his fingers are delightfully cool in summer, especially when they slide over Greg's flushed skin. He knows that Mycroft likes apples and pears but not stone fruit; that he's not fussed on cheeses but can still identify the type and origin within the first bite. He knows that Mycroft has always worn his wedding ring on the wrong hand and tells people it was his grandfather's; he knows that there's a shoebox of photos of the ex at the back of Mycroft's wardrobe, dust proving it hadn't been opened in years.

(Well, until Greg found it. He couldn't resist looking inside, finding pictures of a younger Mycroft he'll never know. Happy and in love with someone else. Sometimes carefree and clearly on holiday, sometimes surrounded by someone else's friends. There were only two family photos of Christmas, clearly taken in different years, but the pose is the same. The Holmes parents in the middle, Sherlock to one side, Mycroft and his husband on the other. Greg couldn't help looking at it like a copper, seeing the stilted body language and obvious dislike. Then he put the photos back.)

He knows that Mycroft has the same ringtone set for John and Sherlock, a light waterfall of violin notes. He knows that Mycroft will watch TV with him if asked, that he's capable of reading an inch thick book of computer science or economic theory and still follow who's who in Games of Thrones.

Still, they should probably spend Christmas together before Greg thinks about retirement and happily ever after. “Do you have plans for Christmas?”

“I may have to go to my parents’ for Christmas day.” Mycroft raises a graceful hand, an uncertain gesture. “They were talking about a doing a ‘Boot Scootin Cruise’ instead but it hasn't been finalised.”

“Yeah?”

“Our parents used to prefer travelling. The family Christmases were only enforced after Sherlock returned from the dead.”

“Well, that makes sense,” Greg says, thinking if his parents had suddenly returned from the dead, he'd make every effort to stay in touch too.

“Yes. Extended punishment for our ruse.” Mycroft continues stepping across the pasture, still graceful even as his wellies suck at the mud with each step. “Eventually, we'll be forgiven and released from the obligation.”

Mycroft sounds serious, but he’s betrayed by the quirk of his left eyebrow. He enjoys playing the misanthrope, but he deeply cares about his family. He may complain about them, but he is devoted in his own wry way.

“You’re a terror,” Greg says, nudging Mycroft’s elbow in retaliation.

“Many would agree with you,” Mycroft declares imperiously.

The wind picks up, and Greg crosses his arms against the chill. It's one of those rare days of weak winter sunshine, just enough to pretend it's still autumn. Mycroft is wrapped up in a dark burgundy scarf and soft leather gloves, but he hasn't worn his coat.

“And your Christmas plans? Did your friends decide on Dublin?”

Greg hasn't mentioned the discussion doing the rounds, but trust Mycroft to have noticed it anyway. Last year was a success, and everyone's talking about doing it again. Jules wants to go back to Scotland this year, Dave wants Ireland and Greg… well, Greg's not sure he wants to miss Mycroft's next birthday. “Nothing's decided yet. They're still finalising the leave roster so I don't know if I've got the days off yet.”

***

It's Sherlock who confirms Christmas plans. Pausing at the edge of the crime scene, holding the tape up for John to walk under, Sherlock's justifiably smug at solving the case in under twenty minutes. “Bring something sweet for Christmas.”

“What?”

“If you bring a savoury dish, Mummy will take it as a criticism of her cooking.”

Greg frowns, thinking. It takes him an embarrassingly long time to connect the dots. “What happened to the cruise?”

“It's been postponed a month,” Sherlock replies, dropping the tape and spinning on his heel after John. “Bring enough cake for Mycroft and the rest of us.”

Greg rolls his eyes at the petty jibe. It's sadly familiar but also something Sherlock says less often to Mycroft's face, and Greg hopes that's a sign of improvement. When it comes to the Holmes brothers, it's hard to tell the difference between personal growth and a new passive-aggressive tactic.

Fishing out his phone, he calls Mycroft. “Hey,” he says when it connects.

“Go ahead.” There's a quiet murmur in the background, the chink of glasses and faded sound of a string quartet. One of those fancy nights out that Mycroft endures mostly for the sake of dressing up. The man owns three tuxedos.

“When were you going to tell me I'm invited for Christmas?”

“Last minute change,” Mycroft says and then murmurs, “You'll need to excuse me.” The background noise grows quieter and quieter.

“Sherlock told me this evening,” Greg says as Mycroft finds a little slice of privacy at his fancy dinner.

“It was only confirmed today.” There's a creak of an old door and then the noise around Mycroft disappears. “He didn't need to rush to tell you.”

“What's the fun in Sherlock knowing something if he can't tell everyone else?” Sometimes Greg loves Sherlock's compulsion to share everything he knows and how he knows it; sometimes he has to remind himself that good DIs do not punch civilians. “So, Christmas Day?”

“I spoke to Mummy this afternoon. She did extend you an invitation but I told her that you might have already made plans with friends.”

“Nothing's decided yet.” Greg takes a breath, leaning on the side of the police car. “I could come with you.”

“You're truly under no obligation. I'd only wish my family upon my enemies.”

Greg remembers Mycroft's description of the day: a horror of Holmes. But he also knows that as much as Mycroft rolls his eyes or scowls at Sherlock, he loves his little brother dearly. For all the condescension and the hyperbole, he suspects Mycroft loves his parents too.

“Think about it. I mean it, I'd be happy to come.”

“You're curious,” Mycroft surmises.

“You're the one dating a copper. Curious and suspicious come with the territory.”

“If you insist,” Mycroft says graciously.

***

Despite Greg's best efforts, he catches a murder on the nineteenth and ends up working late the whole week. Right through the dinner reservations he'd made for their anniversary. He realises as he's interviewing a suspect, but it takes another hour before he steals a few minutes to call Mycroft.

“I'm sorry,” he says before Mycroft can say anything. “I know we had reservations, first anniversary, I know. I'm sorry. I'm still at the Yard but--”

“Gregory,” Mycroft interrupts firmly. “Breathe.”

Greg pulls in a slow breath and makes himself push all the air out before he talks again. He knows he has a tendency to apologise too much for his job -- he loves it, inconvenient hours and all, but there's always this guilt when it takes priority. When he follows a lead and forgets other people are relying on him. And he starts apologising, trying to avoid the fight… Not that he could ever placate Jenn by saying sorry. If it wasn't a screaming fight, it was quiet and weary, Jenn telling him not to even bother, that she hadn't expected him to show anyway.

He panics and acts out a fight he's never had with Mycroft, and that's not fair to either of them.

“I'm just calling to say I can't make it,” he tries again, calmer this time. “I wanted to, but I can't.”

“The Harrogate murders,” Mycroft says.

Greg doesn't confirm or deny. In theory, that should be confidential within the Met but Mycroft knows far more than anyone should. Greg would be concerned if it was anyone other than Mycroft. “I really did have a reservation.”

“I know,” Mycroft says lightly. “I'm at the restaurant now.”

“You are?”

“Seemed a waste to leave the table empty. I'll bring you dessert.”

“I don't know when we'll be done tonight. If we play it right, we might get a confession.”

“Then I'll leave it in your fridge.”

“Yeah?” Greg grins. This part is new: knowing Mycroft has a key to his place, that he could leave food in the fridge and might even be waiting in Greg's bed when he gets this tied up. “Any chance you'll be there too?”

“Not in your fridge,” Mycroft says primly.

***

It's after midnight when Greg gets home, cold and wishing for his gloves. He shucks off his coat and leaves it over the sofa, navigating through the living room by the hall light. Inside the fridge, he finds a carefully cling-wrapped plate on the top shelf -- the sour cherry tart, a dark pool of chocolate to one side. It looks so good he nearly pulls it out to taste, but then thinks better of it. He'll enjoy it more when he's not gritty-eyed and desperate to lie down.

He opens the bedroom door quietly, but Mycroft stirs as the light falls across the bed. He blinks sleepily at the light, hair fluffed up from the pillow. Covering his eyes with one hand, Mycroft says, “Turn the light on and get undressed.”

Greg does, pulling his clothes off as quickly as he can, and hanging his suit up before it wrinkles any further. In T-shirt and boxers, he flicks the light back off and then turns the hall light off too.

In the sudden darkness, he carefully makes his way to his side of the bed.

“One step forward, then left,” Mycroft says from the darkness. Greg follows the instructions and finds the covers pulled back for him.

He gets into bed and leans over, finding Mycroft's cheek by touch. “Happy anniversary,” he says, and kisses Mycroft's smooth cheek. “I'm sorry I couldn't make it.”

Mycroft turns his head, pressing a warm kiss to the side of Greg's jaw. He slides his lips to the edge of Greg's mouth, pausing for a kiss. “Don't be silly.”

Greg could argue it or apologise, or he could pay attention to the way Mycroft rolls towards him, to the parted lips breathing warm air against his. He can smell the champagne on Mycroft, can taste it when he licks his way past Mycroft's lips.

In the dark, in the quiet, he can hear them kissing. Can hear the sheets rustle as Mycroft moves closer, hooking a long thigh over Greg's hip. There's a hand at the back of Greg's head, holding him close as they kiss and Greg has to retaliate, sliding chilled fingers under skin-warm cotton, feeling Mycroft's stomach hitch as he jerks away.

“Your hands are freezing.”

“Says the human icicle,” Greg replies, tugging Mycroft closer and undoing the buttons on his pyjamas. “I know how cold your feet get.”

“Not as cold as that,” Mycroft says, which is an absolute lie. “And you don't mind them.”

That is true. Greg pulls his hands back, breathes on his fingers to warm them up. “There we go. Warmer already.”

This time, Mycroft doesn't flinch. Greg slides a hand up Mycroft's chest, smoothing his fingertips over chest hair and lightly dragging fingernails back down.

Mycroft's breath stutters delightfully. He still manages to say, “It's possibly too late for anything--”

Greg kisses him before he can finish that ridiculous sentence. It is late, yes, but it's their anniversary. And he knows champagne makes Mycroft randy. All good reasons to continue.

He cheats a little. Scrapes his nails down the back of Mycroft's neck, following the line of vertebrae. Mycroft groans around the kiss, thigh tightening on Greg's hip.

It's easy to roll Mycroft over, to press him into the mattress and settle between his legs.

“Gregory,” Mycroft says, wonderfully breathless as Greg lowers his mouth to Mycroft's collarbone, dragging his lips over old marks. He's discovered that Mycroft's pale skin marks easily. Mycroft loves it, squirms if Greg nips at his neck, digs fingers into Greg's shoulder and groans at the slightest scrape of teeth, but those dark red marks tend to bruise by the morning. So Greg sticks to the collarbone and lower, and tries not to suck too hard, no matter how urgently Mycroft clings to him, breathing heavily and rutting against his hip.

He can't help but feel a little bit invincible, a little bulletproof. It's a heady rush to be the one person that gets to see Mycroft like this. To know all the power and terrifying intellect at Mycroft's disposal, and know just how to touch him to make him groan. To know that he can kiss the curve of Mycroft's collarbone and make him clench at Greg's back. To slide his hand under the loose waistband of his pyjamas and know he'll find Mycroft's hard c*ck waiting for him. To know Mycroft by heat and taste and smell, by the smothered gasp Mycroft makes, by the twist of his hips as Greg starts stroking him.

Even in the dark, Greg feels like he'd know Mycroft by touch alone.

Hand working Mycroft's cock, Greg starts to shuffle down the bed, slow and a little clumsy.

Mycroft tugs on his elbow. “Where are you going?”

It shouldn't be awkward to say -- I want to suck you off, I want my mouth around your cock, I want to taste you -- but it is. It's embarrassing and the words don't come out. Greg still freezes about this stuff. Not doing it, because that's surprisingly easy, but finding the right words always leaves him second-guessing himself.

“Less clean up,” Greg says, which is not exactly what he means but Mycroft's clever. He can usually work this stuff out.

“I'd rather have you near,” Mycroft says, shimmying out of his pyjama bottoms, pushing them down to his knees, pulling up one leg and then the other to get them off. Greg follows suit, pulling off his underwear and then tugging off his T-shirt for the sake of it.

Mycroft still has his arms covered, his pyjama shirt lying open across his chest. He doesn't bother undressing completely, just pulls Greg down on top of him. It's nice, skin to skin, chest to chest, Mycroft's legs bracketing his. Mycroft fumbles in the bedside drawer and retrieves tissues and lube. One gets placed beside the bed, the other is opened and squeezed onto his fingers.

The first touch to Greg's c*ck is smooth and cool, certain. Mycroft slicks his own cock, then wraps long fingers around both of them. A light squeeze and Greg's hips thrust forwards, c*ck sliding against Mycroft's.

“Yes,” Mycroft mutters against Greg's shoulder. “Again.”

Greg rocks his hips back and then thrusts again. Shallow movements, like f***ing on an easy Sunday, slow and gentle. Trapped between the soft, hot skin of Mycroft's c*ck and firm, graceful fingers. Weight held on his elbows, head held up to breathe. Mycroft's legs wrapped around him, and Mycroft panting open-mouthed against his shoulder, mumbling “Gregory,” and “Yes,” and “Please,” so f***ing polite as he screws his hips up, trying for more.

It's perfect. Even with the sweat gathering between his shoulder blades, even with Mycroft's hard, plastic buttons digging into his chest, it's perfect. It's close and it's real. Greg shifts his weight to one elbow, reaches down to tangle his hand around Mycroft's, fingers sliding over and between Mycroft's as he feels the pressure building in the base of his spine, in his balls, as he tightens his fingers and rides it out.

He comes with his hand still around both their cocks, with Mycroft panting against his shoulder, still hard, still rocking up and searching for more. Greg takes an unsteady breath and rolls off. Heart still pounding, he reaches down and gets his hand around Mycroft's cock. Hard, fast strokes to finish. Mycroft's head pressed back into the pillow, back arching up as he spills through Greg's fingers.

Afterwards, they lie there, breathing heavily in the dark. He thinks Mycroft uses Greg's T-shirt to clean them both up. Greg makes a mental note to remember to put a wash on tomorrow.

***

They make an arrest the next day and Greg spends the next two days avidly completing reports and trying to avoid active cases. Unfortunately, the Met doesn't think ‘wanting to make sure my holiday leave isn't impacted by work’ is a valid excuse when there's an open case.

Greg gets the call and attends the crime scene, waits hours for SOCO to show up, and then he gives in and calls Sherlock. Who doesn't answer, so he calls John instead.

“Hi Greg,” John says warmly, and then there's a high pitched giggle in the background, a squeal of amusement from someone very small. “Rosie says hi.”

Greg grins. “Tell her hi from me. Do you know if Sherlock's busy right now?” It's Christmas Eve. Normal people are busy but Sherlock has never been normal. “Any cases on?”

“Not right now. Why?”

“I wanted his help. Probably not interesting by his arbitrary scale, but I'd like to get this wrapped up today. If it's possible.”

“Mrs Hudson's out so I'll need to look after Rosie. I'll send him 'round on his own.”

There's a low rumble of disagreement in the background, and John hisses, “Otherwise he might not make Christmas,” and then Greg hears, “Fine, but only to make Mycroft bearable for the day.”

“Text the address,” John says cheerily. “He'll be there soon.”

That's how Greg ends up spending Christmas Eve chasing a cheating brother-in-law down a row of terraced houses in Knightsbridge. Sherlock's beside him, yelling at the suspect -- Jimmy Knowles -- about a red tie as they duck around crowds of last-minute shoppers and too keen carolers.

He keeps up with Sherlock but he's panting by the time they get Knowles cornered. (Greg suddenly appreciates spending those dull hours in the gym. He's not as rigorous about it as Mycroft but it's been motivating knowing there's someone who enjoys seeing him naked.) By the time Greg's caught his breath, the suspect is cuffed and arrested, and they're waiting for backup to come get them.

It's Christmas Eve and London is full of last-minute shoppers, traffic slowed to a frustrating crawl. Greg's advised it could be up to two hours, so he marches Knowles into the nearest pub and sits him in the corner.

“Say one thing,” he warns the guy, “and we'll spend the next two hours waiting outside.”

There's a shifty, narrow-eyed look from Sherlock to Greg, and for a minute, Greg thinks they might have to do this the hard way: freezing on a London street. Then the suspect gives a sigh and all the fight goes out of his hunched shoulders. Knowles gives the nod of a man who knows he's hit a low point and life is going to get even worse from here.

“Want a drink?” Greg asks, taking pity on him. “You'll have to drink through a straw but orange juice, water, coke?”

Knowles shakes his head and sinks further into the seat. At the other end of the table, Sherlock is typing into his phone with a sharp smile.

“Are you texting?” Greg really hopes he's texting. Lord save them from another round of twitter gloating.

“John,” Sherlock replies. “Rosie was asking for her favourite toy.”

It's so strange to see Sherlock talk about Rosie. It's even weirder to see him around her. He dotes on her. Sarcastic, unfeeling Sherlock Holmes, who has made qualified Met staff cry or threaten physical violence, and Greg's never seen him happier than trying to explain the scientific method to a toddler.

“Thanks,” Greg says. Sherlock frowns at him like he's an idiot. “For helping. I appreciate getting this sorted.”

“I wouldn't want you to miss Christmas,” Sherlock says with the kind of glee usually reserved for dead bodies.

“Is there something I should know?”

“Mycroft hasn't dated since the divorce.”

Greg hadn't known for certain but he's not surprised. Mycroft's interest in other people is amazingly limited. He can sum most people up in a glance and very few even get a second look. Greg feels a warm glow of smugness at knowing he’s an exception to that rule. “So?”

Sherlock's eyes narrow like an amused cat. “So Mummy is going to spend a lot of time asking you questions. While Mycroft spends the day attempting to run interference.”

“It won't be that bad,” Greg says, pretending he can't see the sympathetic look Knowles gives him. Suspects aren't supposed to pity the arresting officer. “It's just Christmas.”

***

Greg offers to drive on Christmas day. Mycroft had suggested taking a car but the idea of their driver sitting around all Christmas Day, alone and away from his family just for convenience, it didn't sit right with Greg. Mycroft had promised the driver would be compensated accordingly, but Greg insisted.

“It's a few hours driving country roads. I'm happy to do it.”

Mycroft had responded by hiring -- please, Lord, let it be hired, thinking Mycroft owns it is too much for Greg -- a Bentley Continental in racing green. Greg falls in love at first sight of the big silver grille. The interior is all tan leather and inlaid wood, and the motor purrs like a tiger. Greg spends the first half hour trying to keep to the speed limit, resisting the urge to floor the accelerator to see how fast this beast can go.

From the passenger seat, Mycroft spends the drive working on his phone. He occasionally glances over at Greg with the world's smarmiest smirk.

“Yes, fine, I'm loving this,” Greg says after the third time Mycroft's glanced his way. “Great Christmas present.”

“If you insist on driving,” Mycroft replies, “we should at least be comfortable.”

Comfortable, he says, like Greg’s even noticed the leather seats. He's having far too much fun shifting up a gear and increasing speed as the roads clear. He lets himself break the speed limit for a few minutes and then slows down again. The car responds like it's telepathic -- no lag in acceleration, no sudden jerk of too-sensitive brakes. It's the driving dream shown on car commercials, all smooth turns and easy handling.

Greg's enjoying every minute behind the wheel, so it's not until they're twenty minutes away that he notices Mycroft's tension. No jiggling foot or tapping fingers for Mycroft. No, his tension is all in the very straight posture, the shoulders peeled back and down, the unforgiving line of his mouth. “You okay?” Greg asks, not really expecting an honest answer.

“Of course,” Mycroft replies, forcing a smile that's almost convincing. “Take the next left.”

“Are you really okay?” Greg asks again, flicking the indicator on. Even the click of the indicator is muted and tasteful: nothing cheap or crass allowed in this car. Well, other than the driver. “Nervous?”

“It's Christmas with my family.” Mycroft turns to look out the window. “Believe me, my expectations for the day are not high.”

“Doesn't matter. Doesn't matter if they don't like me. I'm dating you, not them, and I know you like me.”

Mycroft turns away from the window with a hint of a smile. “Quite a lot.”

“See? It'll be fine, whatever happens.”

***

Mycroft's parents are reasonably ordinary. His mum is blonde and pale, heavy but still pretty. His dad is tall and lean-faced, clearly where Sherlock gets his bone structure. They're both frightfully posh, but Greg's dealt with the rich and incandescently angry; he can deal with posh and polite easily.

Mycroft introduces everyone. His parents are Siger Holmes -- “Call me Cigs, everyone does,” he says -- and Doctor Violet Holmes. (“Like the flower,” she says and Greg wonders if it’s a joke, or if she genuinely thought he needed that clarification.) Mycroft introduces him as Detective Inspector Gregory Lestrade, so Greg grins and adds, “Call me Greg. Everyone does.”

Mycroft’s dad finds it funny. His mum… is less impressed.

Mycroft had described their home as a small cottage in the Cotswolds, but it's still bigger than the terraced house in Essex where Greg grew up. Probably costs four times as much.

Greg says, “You have a lovely home,” as he's ushered inside and does his best to mean it. It's homey like Mycroft's house, lots of wood and rugs, comfortable old furniture in deep reds with embroidered cushions. Every surface is cluttered with decorations or knick-knacks, lived in and messy like Sherlock's flat.

John and Sherlock are seated on the sofa, Rosie on Sherlock's lap. She's nearly four now and has John's cranky squint when she's puzzled by something new. Right now, she's squinting at a jigsaw puzzle laid out on the coffee table.

“Hi Rosie,” Greg says, squatting down to be closer to her level. “What have you got there?”

“Puzzle,” she says, holding up the piece in her chubby little fingers. She's a bright girl but doesn't talk much around strangers or in new places. Greg only sees her rarely, so she's usually quiet for the first twenty minutes whenever he visits Baker Street.

Greg smiles, asking, “Trying to work out where it fits?”

Mycroft claims he doesn't especially like children. That he didn't particularly like them as a child and hasn't changed his mind. Yet he gives a serious nod of the head and says, “Good morning, Rosamund,” as he casually picks up a puzzle piece and slots it into the half-finished puzzle.

Rosie squints at it, then at the piece in her hand, turning it until it fits next to the piece Mycroft laid down.

“What do we say?” John prompts her gently.

Rosie looks up, all big brown eyes and dirty blonde pigtails tied with bright red baubles. “Thank you,” she says carefully, reciting her good manners, “for your conda-sending help.”

Over Rosie's head, Sherlock grins like the Grinch, gleefully spiteful. John tries to look disapproving but there's a twitch to the corner of his mouth that says he wants to laugh at Sherlock's antics.

Mycroft smiles his most smug and least warm smile. “You're most welcome, Rosamund. Do let me know if you need any further assistance.”

It's some sort of jibe because it makes Sherlock straighten, eyes narrowed. “We'll keep that generous offer in mind,” he replies sharply.

After Mycroft’s dad sinks into an old armchair with the paper and Mycroft's mum has gone back to puttering in the kitchen, Mycroft offers to give him a tour of the house. Reception rooms downstairs and bedrooms upstairs: master bedroom, Sherlock's room and guest room. “My room when I stayed here,” Mycroft adds, opening the door to a room that's bland and country-pretty, white quilted bedspread and small roses climbing the wallpaper. The bedside tables have a lamp each side and nothing else.

It's a nice guest room but it's hard to imagine a teenage boy living here. “Changed a lot since you were a kid?”

“The curtains,” Mycroft says. “That bedspread is almost as old as me.”

Mycroft likes bright, colourful flowers but he's not a pastels and florals guy. The room doesn't suit his tastes at all. “Really?”

Mycroft blinks at Greg, considering. “I left for school two months after we moved here. I only stayed here on school holidays.”

Mycroft continues, “It would have been a waste to keep a bedroom I'd barely use,” but Greg's thinking of Mycroft's house, his London flat, his club and his offices -- all of these spaces carved out and possessively claimed. He's thinking of a teenager coming home and knowing he was only a guest, knowing that home and family didn't include a space that was his.

It must show on Greg's face because Mycroft gives him a look of fond indulgence. “I was not an unhappy child. Give me quiet and a few good books and I would have felt at home anywhere.”

“Still…” Greg shrugs. “No posters? No toys stacked on shelves?”

“And no desire for them, either.”

***

While Violet cooks, Mycroft and Sherlock play a rather unique version of charades. Apparently, it's a Christmas tradition. Not celebrities or films but London locations. Not spelt out by number of words and syllables and ‘sounds like’ clues. Just the brothers taking turns to pull out a slip of paper and then stand there for a few seconds as the other says, “Piccadilly Circus,” or “Euston Station.”

For one turn, Sherlock does nothing more than put the used clue in his pocket and Mycroft says, “Queen Anne's Gate,” with bored superiority that betrays he's secretly having fun.

Sherlock pulls himself straighter, rising to the challenge, and pulls the next clue.

Mycroft looks, then blinks once, and raises a questioning eyebrow. “Really, Sherlock? Buckingham Palace?”

John, sitting on the floor with Rosie, stifles a laugh.

“Your turn,” Sherlock says, walking over to the sofa with the small bowl of folded pieces of paper. It's an odd game but they're both enjoying it. Certainly enjoying it more than Hungry Hippos, where Sherlock won and gloated, and Mycroft attempted to glare a hole right through him. Greg's glad no-one’s suggested Monopoly yet. He can't imagine that would end without squabbling.

“Have they always been like that?” Greg quietly asks Cigs.

Cigs looks up from his crossword puzzle, forehead lined in confusion. “Beg pardon,” he says. “Have who been like what?”

Greg nods over at the brothers. “Those two. Playing games no one else can understand?”

“Oh, no. My wife can usually follow them. That's where they get the brains from, you know.”

“Yeah?”

“Published mathematician,” he says with a strong note of pride. Greg likes that. “PhD and everything.”

“What about you?”

“Me?” Cigs asks. He tucks a strand of white hair behind an ear, fingers almost nervous with the gesture. “I’m not really anything.”

“I meant what did you used to do,” Greg clarifies.

“Nothing, thankfully. Family money, you know.”

Greg nods, but he doesn't know. He has no idea what's it like to only work out of choice, to have the option of doing nothing at all -- without that meaning council flats and struggling below the breadline. It's not surprising because look at Sherlock. Lives in central London, dresses in clothes so fitted they might as well be bespoke, and only takes a case if he thinks it's interesting. There's no concept of the necessity of work, of needing successive paydays to avoid poverty.

And yet there's Mycroft. Mycroft who works more hours than Greg, which is saying something, and clearly doesn't need the money. He's so brilliant that he could sit back like Sherlock, only working when the desire struck him, but instead he attends frustrating committees and works late nights when required. He puts everything he has into doing his job as well as he can.

Greg only realises he's smiling like a sap, staring at Mycroft, when Mycroft gives him a quick frown.

He turns back to Mycroft's dad. “So, Cigs, there must be a story behind that nickname.”

“An obvious one, I'm afraid.”

“Caught smoking?”

Cigs raises one white eyebrow and for a moment, Greg sees Mycroft in the gesture and the pale blue eyes. Then Cigs smiles and turns back into a friendly old man, with Sherlock's narrow face and high cheekbones. “My father was the smoker but I used to smuggle a few packs into my case at the start of every term. Hence the nickname.”

“What about Mycroft and Sherlock?” Greg asks. “Any nicknames from school?”

“Holmes,” the brothers reply in perfect, disdainful unison.

From the floor by the fireplace, John looks over Rosie's head. “That uni mate of yours, didn't he say--”

“Nicknames are used to one's face,” Sherlock says sharply.

“And they are quite unnecessary when one is already known and easily recognised,” Mycroft adds coolly.

One. Greg rubs a hand over his mouth to cover the smile. He'd heard it last year, the poshness creeping into Mycroft's voice by the end of the day. He hadn't expected to hear it so quickly.

***

In the back of his mind, Greg can almost hear Richard Attenborough narrating the day: Here we have a Holmes in his natural habitat. Notice how calmly he studies the cards in his hands before asking for a King.

They've moved to Go Fish, and Greg offered to look after Rosie so John can play as well. Cigs wandered outside for something and hasn't returned.

Greg's been to Sherlock's place for Christmas drinks and seen Sherlock enjoy himself around the people he trusts. He's seen Mycroft at home in the country, quiet but far from his chilly reserve. He's seen the brothers squabble over any excuse, taking turns to pick and unravel the other. This is a strange overlap of all of that. The brothers are still competing but the barbs are far less sharp; the teasing is almost friendly. Sherlock is having fun, grinning when he slaps a pair of cards down on the coffee table. Even Mycroft allows the occasional smile, a small pleased quirk of his lips as Sherlock relinquishes a three of clubs.

Honestly, it's fascinating. Not quite the Mycroft Greg sees when it's just the two of them -- considerate, content, amused by the absurd -- but it's far from the cold, harsh Mycroft usually shown to other people.

Greg's quite happy to keep watching but Violet wanders past and says, “If you're not doing anything, perhaps you could help me with the potatoes?”

Mycroft looks up immediately, eyes narrowed. “I'll do them,” he says, as if he's ever stepped willingly into a kitchen to help.

“But you're playing,” Greg says, stating the obvious. As soon as he hears it, he cringes, waiting for Sherlock to say something cutting and undeniable. Shrugging off Sherlock’s insults would be easier if Greg thought before he spoke.

But Sherlock doesn't say anything mean. Sherlock's too busy watching Mycroft with a smug air of schadenfreude, too satisfied by Mycroft's discomfort.

And he is uncomfortable. It's in the sudden tension in his shoulders, the stiffness to his neck, the tight grip on his cards. “Gregory is a guest,” Mycroft says firmly. “I should help.”

“Don't be silly, Mikey,” Violet says and Mycroft's chin tilts dangerously. Political coups and terrorist cells are no match for that expression, but his mother doesn't waver. “Finish your game with Sherlock. I'm sure Greg's capable of peeling a potato.”

Greg stands up, smiling reassuringly at Mycroft. He's been a copper for twenty-five years; he knows when he's being led to an interrogation. But he also knows trying to avoid it never works long-term. Best to get it done now and appear cooperative.

“I've even been known to cook them,” Greg says and there's a concerned twitch to Mycroft's eyebrow. “We'll be in the kitchen when you lot are done. Oh, and Mycroft?”

“Yes?” Mycroft asks carefully, still looking uneasy.

“Ask for sevens,” Greg says, nodding at Sherlock's hand.

***

It's the easy questions first: how long have you known Mycroft (years), how did you meet (Sherlock) and how long have you been seeing each other (about a year now). Simple intelligence gathering and things she probably already knew.

But if it's an interrogation, at least he's not stuck in an uncomfortable plastic chair, leaning on a Formica table. No, he's standing by the sink, peeling a large bowl of potatoes while Christmas carols play quietly in the background. Greg can smell the turkey roasting in the oven and the earthy spices of a Christmas pudding steaming away. It’s warm and homey, like something out of a kids’ Christmas movie.

On the other end of the bench, Violet chops a pumpkin with a cleaver. A cleaver the length of Greg's forearm. She says her wrists are weak these days and it's easier to use a bigger knife. Greg can't help seeing it as unspoken intimidation, something that works all the better for being unacknowledged.

Pity there’s no acceptable way for Greg to use that tactic in an interview room. Professionalism and Standards might have something to say about that.

“So you were seeing each other last Christmas?” Violet asks, tone light as she forces the cleaver through half a pumpkin. There’s a clunk as she hits the chopping board.

Greg keeps his eyes on the potato peeler in his hand. He knows this game: give them just a hint of information and wait for the suspect to incriminate themselves. The correct response is to be friendly and open, and only confirm what’s already known. “Just started, yeah.”

“And you enjoyed your Christmas,” she asks, “with your friends?”

“Yeah, it was great. Hired a house on Airbnb and spent a week up in Scotland.” Greg turns and smiles, and Violet gives him a friendly smile in return. “It was good to catch up. You know what it's like. You mean to see people, but months slip by and suddenly you haven't seen friends in years.”

“I suppose you wouldn't have much time,” Violet says, “given your job. Sherlock makes it sound very...”

“Busy?”

“Dangerous,” Violet says with a hard thunk on the chopping board. “Joining the police seems like a very dangerous profession.”

Greg's first thought is that Sherlock is in no position to call other people's choices dangerous. His second is remembering John telling him how he met Mycroft, how Sherlock called him the most dangerous man he'd ever met. And that said to a man who'd seen active combat. Right now, Greg is Violet's least dangerous guest, not counting Rosie.

But to someone's mum, working for the police probably sounds more dangerous than a doctor or a bureaucrat. “It's not as dangerous as it seems. There's a lot of paperwork and interviewing people. Honestly, most of the job is talking to people and recording what's said, and watching hours of CCTV footage. Not as exciting as it looks on the telly.”

“Hmm,” Violet says and falls into the scheming silence that makes Greg worry when Sherlock goes quiet at crime scenes. It's usually only a matter of minutes before he spins off, running after a lead he won't tell anyone else.

If she's anything like Sherlock, there's only a small window to keep control of the situation. Greg lays down the peeler and she mirrors him, setting the cleaver down as well.

“Look,” Greg says, “we don't know each other well and I'm sure you're curious about me. But I'm curious too, so how about we trade questions? Ask me anything, and we'll trade answers.”

Everything about Violet Holmes is soft and rounded. Pale blonde hair pulled up into a gentle chignon, pretty face and round blue eyes, the fat under her chin and the curving of her shoulders. But her nod is sharp and certain. “You have a deal.”

Greg picks up the peeler -- the potatoes won't peel themselves -- and says, “Ladies first.”

Violet doesn't pull any punches. “Why did you get divorced?”

“Short story: she cheated.”

“And the long story?”

“That's a second question,” Greg says, “but I worked too much, couldn't be what she wanted, and eventually she found that with someone else. There were a lot of years where we kept trying to make it work, and it didn't but it took a long time to let go of what we once had.”

It sounds easy, summed up like that. Sounds a lot less confusing than it felt to live through, heartbreak condensed into a simple story. In the end, it hadn't been the betrayal or the humiliation that ended it; he'd just been tired. Bone deep tired of trying and failing and hearing the effort it took both of them to be civil. Tired of how hard it was and how miserable and uncomfortable they both were. He didn't think getting divorced would make him happy, but at least he'd be able to relax.

When he looks over at Violet, she's watching him closely. He remembers Cigs saying the brothers got their brains from her. For a moment, Greg hopes that's not true. “My turn?”

“That's the deal,” Violet says carefully.

Greg wants to ask about Mycroft. He wants to ask how the divorce happened, and why. He wants to ask how many times the ex came to a Holmes Christmas and why the photos were so awkward and what excuse did he use to avoid the other years. He wants to lever this opportunity into usable information, force his way into understanding Mycroft's personal history. But this isn't a case. This isn't background for an open file. If Mycroft wanted him to know, he'd tell Greg.

Finding it out like this… That's how you ruin good things.

So instead, Greg asks, “Did Mycroft really play Lady Bracknell in high school? John swears he did, but Mycroft won't confirm or deny it.”

For the first time, Violet smiles at him and looks like she actually means it. “He certainly did. He was very good, although a little too tall to be convincing. Lady Bracknell should not be three inches taller than everyone else on stage.”

***

All in all, it's going well by the time the vegetables are roasting. Greg's been quizzed on his career prospects (the honest truth: he doesn't play politics well enough to rise any higher but he's happy where he is) and financial situation (“I rent in London,” he says because he's not discussing retirement funds with a virtual stranger). He's kept his own questions fairly benign: Mycroft's favourite childhood toy (“An old stuffed bear with mismatched eyes,” Violet says. “He insisted on sewing a new matching pair before he gave it to Sherlock.”) and favourite food as a kid (anything with sugar, apparently).

Then Violet asks, “How did you fall in love with my son?”

Greg blurts out the first answer that comes to mind. “Slowly.” It was slow and steady, like Mycroft himself. He's not a personality built for sudden declarations and changes of heart -- Mycroft is considered and dependable, and even changing his mind is a slow shift by degrees. “We were spending time together and then… He's fascinating. Different from anyone, from everyone else. Once you spend some time alone with him, once you see that, it's…”

Greg shrugs but Violet doesn't make it easy. She doesn't fill in the gap. She leaves the silence until Greg shrugs again and tries to explain.

“We spent more time together and there was a spark, and I don't know. I don't know how. I'm just glad it happened.”

Greg finds some peace peeling a carrot, trying to phrase a question that Mycroft couldn't answer. That Mycroft wouldn’t consider worth knowing. “How did you know Mycroft was gay? Did he tell you?”

“He didn't need to. It was quite obvious,” Violet says fondly. “He never had any interest in girls. Barely any interest in people, but certainly no interest in girls. There was a local girl, lived ten minutes walk from here, had a hopeless crush on him. In summer holidays, she'd walk past every few days, trying to get Mikey's attention and he never noticed her. Too busy reading or running after Sherlock.”

“So it wasn't a surprise when he brought a boy home?”

“That's a second question,” Violet says as Mycroft walks into the kitchen. “Have you considered living with a man? How different it will be after being married to a woman?”

“Mummy!” Mycroft says, horrified eyes wide. “You can't ask that.”

“Yes, I can,” Violet replies cheerily, ignoring Mycroft's glare. “Greg's agreed to answer.”

“Ignore my mother,” Mycroft tells Greg, stepping between the two of them as if Greg needs to be sheltered. It's simultaneously rude and chivalrous, which is Mycroft all over. “She's clearly forgotten the basic etiquette of hosting.”

“Not everything has to be done by rules,” Sherlock says, stopping at the table and picking at the plate of gingerbread snowmen and reindeer. He breaks a top hat off one and a leg off another.

Mycroft keeps his back to Sherlock and Violet, watching Greg's face closely.

“I agreed,” Greg says gently because Mycroft's worried and if they were alone, he'd reach out and squeeze Mycroft's hand. Remind him that he's fine. But Mycroft dislikes public displays of affection. In his childhood home, surrounded by family members who keep calling him ‘Mikey' and ignoring the way it makes him scowl, it seems like a bad idea to touch.

“Perhaps I should show you the garden,” Mycroft says. “Sherlock could take over helping.”

“Sounds good. Thanks, Sherlock,” Greg calls out, stepping away from the bench before Sherlock can complain too loudly.

***

There's a small stretch of lawn, enough that they can stand on the other side and not fear being overheard. “I really did agree,” Greg says, “but I still appreciate the rescue. Your mum is a force to be reckoned with.”

“We drove,” Mycroft says. It's a strange non sequitur.

“I remember. I did the driving.”

Mycroft shakes his head. “We can leave whenever you wish. Since we drove here and aren't dependant on train times back to London.”

“I'm fine.” There's no one around them, so Greg reaches out and wraps his fingers around Mycroft's wrist. Just a light brush but enough to remind Mycroft that he's here. “A few nosey questions for your kid's new boyfriend, that's par for the course. What family gatherings are all about.”

Mycroft doesn't look convinced. He walks quietly, shoulders back, spine straight and a resigned discomfort in his expression. It's not a big enough garden to justify being out too long, but they wander up to the far end and spend a few minutes staring at neat lines of broccoli and cabbages.

“If it makes a difference,” Greg says, “I think she really is just worried about you. She wants you to be happy.”

“While the sentiment is admirable, it's so steeped in ignorance as to be worthless,” Mycroft says, voice dripping with condescension.

Greg pulls a face at the tone. He gets it: if he was as clever as Sherlock, let alone Mycroft, he'd probably be arrogant and impatient with the rest of the world. But it's not an attractive trait and he doesn't like hearing it directed at Mycroft's own family. “Her heart's in the right place.”

“Good intentions have never weighed much.”

“Yeah, but--”

“They don't know me,” Mycroft says, talking over Greg in a way he never does. Mycroft is a man of reserved patience; he rarely sees the need to directly interrupt. Greg stops walking and looks at him, waits for Mycroft to find the words he wants. Mycroft adjusts the lengths of his cuffs, long fingers sly and graceful. “While they care, they don’t know me well enough to understand what makes me happy. Their opinions on the matter are unimportant.”

Greg nods. Thinks about it for a moment. He said something similar on the drive over here, but he suspects Mycroft means something else. “So you don’t care if they don’t like me?” Greg asks, feeling for the truth.

“You are very likeable,” Mycroft says with a comforting certainty. “Trust me, they already like you.”

Greg doesn’t want to be the guy who worries about that, but he’s still relieved to hear it. He also knows that expression on Mycroft’s face: calm on the surface, the slightly narrowed eyes betraying the calculations going on inside that skull, the look that gives away nothing while Mycroft decides how much truth should be told. Left alone, Mycroft will probably err on the side of discretion rather than honesty.

“So what is it?” Greg asks. “If you’re not worried about them liking me, what are you worried about?”

“Nothing significant.” It’s an answer that’s only reassuring if Greg ignores that scale of Mycroft’s job. Insignificant covers everything that doesn’t require an armed response or end in a financial collapse.

“Try again.”

There’s a quick quirk to Mycroft’s mouth, there and gone again. “They were predisposed to like you. Mummy has always been of the opinion that I didn’t make enough effort to maintain my marriage. She never particularly liked my choice of husband, but she dislikes my single status even more. You are easily the best option of the three.”

“Because I’m so likeable?”

“Because you like Sherlock.”

Greg frowns and plays that back. “What does Sherlock have to do with… any of it?” He can’t help thinking of those few Christmas photos, Sherlock and Mycroft’s ex at each extreme, standing as far apart as they could. Must have been some bad blood there. Easy to imagine, given it’s Sherlock. “God, what did Sherlock say to him?”

“A few too many personal deductions,” Mycroft says wryly. “A few too many calls in the middle of the night.”

Greg chuckles at the thought of how relentless Sherlock can be; it's why ‘try not to punch him’ is the advice he gives to new DIs. But back in the day, when Sherlock was all skin and bones and manic twitching, Greg made a few of those midnight calls himself and Mycroft always showed up alone. Stalked down hospital corridors, umbrella in hand, and sat in those uncomfortable chairs at Sherlock’s bedside, and there was never anyone with him.

“Jeremy had valid points,” Mycroft says slowly, carefully, tone too measured to be as unfeeling as it sounds. “I was ineffective. I couldn’t stop Sherlock from using or seeking out danger, and every time I would run to A&E, tame as a trained poodle.”

11/24/2021 03:17 PM 

Footsteps in the Dark

Summary: The more he is with her, the closer he comes to falling for death.

Note: This passage is pretty heavy on the gore side, and maybe a bit intense for those who are not good with that type of stuff. 

 

He steps through the front door of his new home and scrutinizes the place with a bored gaze. Instantly, he is displeased.


When Sasuke’s mother had first told him about the house, she practically gushed about how timelessly elegant it is. “It has history, and the character really gives the place a charming atmosphere,” she had said while animatedly moving her hands around as if taking part in an interpretive dance.

He should have realized that all the adjectives she ended up using had been code for “old” and “musty.”

Looking around the expansive entryway that feeds into the living room, kitchen, and library, he notices that it appears as if darkness lingers in every corner. The only light filters through the small paned windows situated around the front door and illuminates the particles of dust that drift through the air. Peering into the living room, he can see maroon, damask wallpaper that peels at the edges as well as antique couches that look as if his great-grandmother might have owned them.

“Character, huh?”

Sasuke looks up at his older brother who had just entered on scene, a large duffle bag tossed over his shoulder.

“Next time, we should have a say in the place,” Sasuke grumbles in response.

“If mother sees you complaining about her ‘dream home’, she might smack you,” Itachi chuckles as he inspects some of the aged furniture. “She fell in love with it and apparently the ‘bargain was too good to be true’.” He imitates their mothers excited voice, causing Sasuke to roll his eyes once again.

“I just wish we didn’t have to use furniture that probably has fifty years worth of dust mites in it.”

“Apparently it was all reupholstered a decade ago and is worth a lot now.” Itachi tries flipping a switch to turn on the large chandelier dangling above them, but with no luck. “I’ll let you have first pick of bedrooms,” he tells Sasuke while gesturing towards the upper floor.

Sasuke nods in response and watches as his brother heads towards the very modern looking kitchen, before making his way up the staircase. It is grand, with wide steps that curve around the circular foyer, each creaking and groaning under his weight.

Just like his mother to pick some place so obnoxiously over the top.

Once arriving on the second floor, and seeing six doors on each side of the hallway, he officially thinks his mother has lost it. After all, who could possibly need this much space?

Reaching the first door on the right, he twists the knob and swings it open, prompting the hinges to moan at the action. Peering in, he finds a bathroom that seems fairly modern with a minimalist design, much like the kitchen, complete with an open shower and a stainless steel sink.

He shuts the door and crosses the corridor to open the one across from it. A mirror image of the bathroom he just exits greets him.

He continues his self-tour, opening each of the twelve doors. He finds that the next two doors past the bathroom lead into the same bedroom.

He enters the third to last door and finds that it also shares a room with the last two doors, except from within the room, the center door is blocked with a large bookcase.

Deciding that this is as good as room as any, he sets his book bag on the ground. The room is furnished with the same antique looking furniture. A large bed with black sheets sits directly in the middle, a bedside table next to it and an old writing desk adjacent.

He walks through the room and exits out of the last door in the hallway.

I’ll probably just keep this one locked, he thinks before moving to inspect the window at the end of the corridor.

He looks out the dusty panes and notices a grove of trees as well as the corner of the neighbor’s house, but something about the window frame catches his eye. The same old wallpaper decorates the wall around it except for the areas directly above and below the window. He runs his hand over the bare area and feels grooves in the plaster as if something had been bolted into it.

He decides to ignore the little peculiarity and reenters his room.

“Hey!”

His head snaps up at the voice as he realizes that he is no longer alone. There, sitting on the edge of his bed is a girl about his age. She appears to be wearing a thin cotton dress with white ribbons tied around the front, similar to nightgowns that women wear in old movies. Her hair is cut short, just barely coming past her chin and her eyes are wide and green.

“Who are you? How did you get in here?”  Sasuke questions. Wouldn’t he have seen her in the hallway… unless, she has been in here the whole time.

“I’m Sakura,” she chirps happily, swinging her legs back and forth.

“What are you doing here?” Sasuke asks, more confused than anything.

“I just wanted to pop in and say hi,” she smiles and makes a hand gesture that references to his whole room. “Did you know that this place used to be an orphanage?” she whispers, as if sharing a secret.

Sasuke shakes his head, but thinks that it explains all the doors. When they converted it into a house, they must have knocked down some walls to create larger rooms.

“Well, it was.” She begins messing with the ribbons on the front of her shirt, untying and retying them. “Run by the esteemed Dr. Orochimaru and his medical assistant, Kabuto. They mainly kept teenagers, but there were some younger kids here as well.” She cups a hand by her mouth and goes back to whispering. “They say you can still hear-“ 

“Seriously,” Sasuke cuts her off, not sure what to think of this nonsense. “How did you get in here?”

She leaps off the bed, and Sasuke notices how petite the girl is, her limbs are skinny and almost appeared malnourished. She can’t be much taller than five foot, and he guesses that she just barely reaches the hundred pound mark.

“Well, be seeing you,” she says with a wink before walking past Sasuke.

He turns his head to stop her, not exactly sure what to do about a girl that possibly broke into his house in nothing but her pajamas, but she’s gone and all that is left in her place are bloody footprints that lead out, into the hallway.

Panicked, Sasuke rushes into the hallway and glances down it, only to find complete emptiness, no sign of the strange girl.


He turns to go back into his room, and finds the crimson colored footprints gone along with a piece of his sanity.

Xxxxxxxx

Knock-knock. Knock

Knock-knock. Knock.

Sasuke awakens, his body jolting with a start.

Knock-knock. Knock.

He spins around, trying to pinpoint where the sound is coming from.

Knock-knock. Knock.

Climbing out of the bed, a flash of blonde catches his eye. There, in front of his bed, sits a hunched over figure with blonde spikey hair, his fist repeatedly hitting the air as if there is an invisible barrier.

Knock-knock. Knock.

Each time his fists halts, a steady knock echoes through the room.

“Who are you?” Sasuke questions while reaching for the metal baseball bat that he stowed under his bed when he unpacked earlier that day.

Knock-knock. Knock.

The boy continues on, as if Sasuke had never spoken.

“Hey! I’m talking to you,” he yells louder, the repetitive appearance of unwelcome guests getting on his nerves.

“He can’t hear you,” a familiar feminine voice says sadly.

Sasuke looks up to see Sakura standing by the far door, the same white nightgown billowing around her.

“What are you two doing in my room?” Sasuke yells at her.

Her head bows silently and tears begin running down her cheeks. “It’s not by choice.”

“What do you mean?” Sasuke asks.

“I tried to tell you before,” she whispers before beginning to back out the door. “He’s coming.” Then she disappears in the hallway once again. 

Sasuke is about to chase after her, determined to catch her this time, but a strangled cough from the blonde boy causes him to spin around.

His stomach drops at the sight. The boy lies on his back, a bloody hole torn through his stomach. His eyes stare up at the ceiling, blue and blank, blood dribbling down his chin. He coughs again and the crimson liquid spurts from his mouth.

“Sa-aku-ra,” he gasps out before the ragged moving of his chest stops and his head falls to the side. 

Xxxxxxxxxx

“Sasuke?” Onyx eyes open to be met with a matching set. “Why are you sleeping on the floor?”

“I-tachi?” Sasuke as he sits up, already feeling the stiffness from falling asleep on the wooden floor. “Itachi! There was this kid and he died on my floor and the blood. There was so much of it.” He looks around on the floor, finding no traces of what happened the night before.


“Sounds like a bad dream,” Itachi says as he pokes Sasuke in the forehead a habit that Sasuke despises. “Anyways, breakfast is ready.”

He lets out a “hn” in response before standing up and following his brother downstairs.

In the kitchen, he watches as his mother bustles between moving boxes and cabinets, trying to get everything unpacked in the large space.

The room is a huge contrast from the rest of the house. Granite counter tops, stainless steal appliances, and cream-colored cabinets line the actual kitchen area while a large, round table establishes a dining area.  The biggest contrast is the large windows that take up much of the wall space, each one open and blowing the wispy drapes around.

Sasuke thinks he catches a glimpse of pink behind one of the sheer curtains, but when he blinks, it’s gone.

“Here ya go, honey,” Mikoto Uchiha, Sasuke’s mother, says as she hands him a large plate topped with eggs, bacon, and some fresh tomatoes. 

He sits at the table across from his father, who is reading the newspaper and sipping a cup of coffee.

“Did you know that this place used to an orphanage?” Sasuke asks, prompting his brother to pause from drowning his pancakes in syrup, while his father peers over the edge of his paper.

“Really?” Mikoto asks, “That’s funny, the realtor didn’t say anything about that, did she tell you, Fugaku dear?”

“No,” Sasuke’s father replies, “where did you hear about that?”

“One of the neighbor girls told me,” Sasuke replies quickly, the lie rolling right off his tongue. But then again, who’s to say it isn’t actually the truth?

“Which neighbor is that?” Fugaku says, an eyebrow quirked in curiosity, at the same time Mikoto says, “You met a girl? What does she look like?”

“I don’t know,” Sasuke tells his father, while rolling his eyes at his mother’s questions.

“Hm,” Mikoto hums in contemplation as she searches for the perfect cabinet for the nice dinner plates. “I guess it adds to the charm of this place.”

Xxxxxxxxx

Sasuke stares at the blinking cursor in the search bar of his computer screen. Where should he even start?

Konoha Orphanage

Multiple results pop up, none having to do with his new home.

Konoha Orphanage Murder

No results, but it was worth a shot.

“Try ‘Sound’s Home for Children and Young Adults.’”

Sasuke jumps at her voice and almost sends his laptop flying across the room. From his place at the old writing desk, he turns to find Sakura jumping up and down on his bed.

He wants to ask her what she thinks she’s doing, but at this point has realized that he might was well be talking to a wall. So instead, he types in what she said and hits the Search button.

The first result is of an article “The Tragedy of Sound: The Unexplained Mystery.”

Already feeling uneasy about this, Sasuke clicks on the link. A large, black and white image of the house pops up. For the most part, it looks exactly the same except for a sign out front with the name of the orphanage written on it.

Scanning the article, he feels all color drain from his face.

“The esteemed Doctor Orochimaru, known for his opening of Sound’s Home for Children and Young Adults, was found dead along with all ten child residents.”


Sakura reads from over his shoulder.

“All the articles will tell you the same thing, that his apprentice Kabuto is suspected because he was never found afterwards.”  She pauses, straightening her nightdress. “But none of them know the truth.”

“What is the truth?” Sasuke asks as he watches a piece of her pink hair come untucked from behind her ear.

She smiles sadly, “I don’t think you’re ready for it.” 

Then she turns to walk away, and for the first time, Sasuke sees her back.

A large gash replaces most of the back of her neck, marred flesh and torn muscle visible inside of it. The entire back of her nightgown is soaked with blood to the point that it drips down her legs all the way to her heels.

She pads out of the room, leaving her usual footprints and humming quietly.

Xxxxxxxxxxx

It is a week later when Sasuke sees her again. He had spent all day researching the bloody past of the orphanage.

80 years ago.

11 murders.

10 children ages 12-17 and the famed Doctor Orochimaru.

The majority of the deaths were caused by blood-loss from ghastly wounds, but there were a few that were especially gruesome: electrocution, drowning, there was even a decapitation.

According to all of the articles, all the blame was pinned on Doctor Orochimaru’s apprentice and assistant, Kabuto, who was never seen again after the incident. While the children all suffered horrible deaths, the doctor himself was killed by poison, most likely slipped into his food.

Sasuke leans back on his desk chair, anxiously running his fingers through his messy hair. It is a lot to absorb, his house being a place where so many murders took place.

He’s about the call it a day, when a link at the bottom of the webpage catches his eye.

Photo Gallery

Hesitantly he clicks on it, not knowing what to expect.

The first picture is of the house, similar to the one he saw earlier, except in sepia with a group of people stand in front of it. They are standing pretty far away, so it’s difficult to make out faces. However, he can immediately point out the doctor and Kabuto. Doctor Orochimaru stands tall and proud, his hair long and dark, and an unsettling smile on his face. Kabuto wears a pair of spectacles and his arm rests over the shoulders of a girl.

Sasuke does a double take, though he can’t make out her facial features, her height and build resemble Sakura’s. The only real difference that he can pick out is that her hair is long, coming to rest to just above the waistband of the skirt she wears. She frowns as if unhappy with Kabuto’s touch.

Another arm is intertwined with hers, and Sasuke realizes that it belongs to the light-haired boy next to her. He could be the one that was making the knocking noise, Sasuke realizes, though it’s hard to tell without the gaping hole in his stomach.

Sasuke clicks on the arrow that takes him to the next picture.

It’s of Doctor Orochimaru, but he’s lying on floor of what appears to be his office.

Father’s office, Sasuke realizes, recognizing the shape of the room.

The doctor’s eyes are shut, but his mouth is still twisted into that creepy smirk, it gives him the creeps, so he clicks to the next picture.

His blood runs cold and his heart skips a beat. The picture is of a body, and Sasuke immediately knows that it belongs to Sakura. She’s face down, a large wound covering her neck and blood blooming over the familiar nightgown. Bloody hand and footprints surround her body, along with a black-handled axe that seems to be what caused the gash in her neck.

The caption under the picture reads, “Sakura Haruno, the oldest female resident at 17. Cause of death is multiple blows to the back of the neck with the axe seen next to her. She was found near the upstairs window, presumably trying to escape.”


 

“I knew the windows were barred.”

Sasuke turns to find Sakura in her usual place on his bed.

“They had been since Kabuto first brought me here, but in those last moments, I was foolish enough to hope that they would somehow come unbolted.”

“Sakura,” Sasuke says her name for the first time. “What really happened?”

She shakes her head back and forth. “I’ll show you sometime soon, but not now.”

He brings his laptop over to the bed and sits down next to Sakura, glancing at her neck wound quickly before clicking to the next picture. He doesn’t get a chance to look at it however, because then the knocking starts.

Knock-knock. Knock.

He glances at the clock and realizes how late it has gotten. Every night, consistently, the knocking starts at 2:30am.

He looks up to find the boy, in his usual hunched over spot next to the invisible wall.


“Why does he do that?” Sasuke asks Sakura, his eyes never leaving the blonde’s hunched over form.

“It was our code,” she replies with a sad smile on her face. “One knock means ‘Are you there?’ Two slow ones mean ‘Goodnight,’ and two slow plus two fast mean ‘All’s clear’.”

“What do two fast and one slow knock mean?” Sasuke asks.

“Danger,” she says beneath her breath. “It means that the Doctor is performing his experiments.”

Sasuke takes a moment to digest what she’s really saying. Experiments? What kind of messed up orphanage was this place?

“Why can’t he hear me like you do?”

“Because he’s trapped.” Sasuke watches a lone tear run down her cheek. “He doesn’t realize he’s dead, yet he knows he’s not alive.” Her voice breaks. “I know that I’m dead and have accepted that I’m stuck here.”


They watch silently as the boy continues knocking, his labored breathing the only other noise.

“I have to go,” Sakura says as she rises from her spot on the bed and heads towards the door. “You know enough now that it’ll only get worse. Stay out of the hallways at night.”

A couple minutes later, Sasuke watches as the boy falls to his back, his chest just barely moving. A piercing feminine scream cuts through the silence and Sasuke finds himself glued to his spot on the bed.

Then like all the times before, the boy gasps out “Sa-aku-ra,” before his head falls to the side.

Glancing down at the computer to screen, Sasuke finds an exact replica of the sight before him, except in the picture a solid wall with bloody knuckle prints sits next to the boy’s body.

“Naruto Uzumaki: Oldest male resident at 17. Cause of the gapping wound in his stomach is unknown, but investigators believe that Uzumaki dragged himself up the stairs only to die in his room. Investigators are puzzled as to why Uzumaki would do this when he was much closer to front door before his very tedious climb; they suspect that the trauma of the wound drove Uzumaki to insanity in his final moments.”

Xxxxxxxxx

“Sasuke, you’ve been cooped up in your room for the past week,” Mikoto says one night at dinnertime. “Maybe you should go explore the neighborhood or something.”

“How much do you know about the history of this house?” Sasuke counters as he pushes the pasta around his plate absentmindedly.

“What is with all your questions?” she asks getting annoyed at her son’s strange behavior. “That’s the fifth time you’ve said something about it since we moved. Why won’t you eat your dinner? It’s your favorite.”

“Mikoto, stop pestering him,” Fugaku says quietly.

“Oh honey,” Mikoto says as if realizing something. “Is it because you’re missing Suna? You’ll make new friends once school starts, I’m sure of it. In the mean time, you should make the best of it. Konoha is a beautiful place with lots of kids your age.” She glances at the clock on the wall and exhales in annoyance. “Where is your brother?”

“That boy hasn’t been acting like himself for the past couple of days,” Fugaku says before taking a bite of pasta.

“I know,” Mikoto says sadly, “It’s not like him to act so moody and distant, maybe we should start having family movie nights again or something.”

Just then, the front door slams and the heavy footfalls are heard from the foyer.

“You’re family’s sweet.”

Sasuke glances up to see Sakura sitting on the kitchen counter.

“Don’t worry, they can’t see me.”

Sasuke gives her a questioning look as a silent way of asking why that is.

“I’m not sure exactly,” she replies, apparently understanding the message. “I think you might just be better attuned to the spirit world than them.”

Just then, Itachi enters the kitchen and glares at the table.

“Pasta again?” he mumbles before turning to leave.

“Itachi, wait!” Mikoto calls out, standing from her seat.

“We need to talk, son,” Fugaku adds as he sets his eating utensils down.

“You’ve been acting strangely,” Mikoto walks around the table towards Itachi. “Is something wrong? You can always tell us anything, we’re your family.”

She moves as if to hug him, but Itachi slaps her hand away. She stands back, shocked that her son would treat her that way; Itachi has always been a kind and caring child, he would have never dreamed of hurting her before.

“Itachi!” Fugaku yells. “How dare you treat your mother that way!”

Itachi stares at his hand for a moment before looking around the room at the stunned faces of his family before turning to leave once again.

“I-I’m sorry,” he stutters. “I’ve been feeling restless lately. I will retire to my room for the night.” Then he rushes out of the room, the creaking of the steps signaling his course upstairs.

“Itachi, I’m not done with you!” Fugaku calls after, before following him.

“Sasuke,” Mikoto says, before bringing a hand to her temple. “Will you do the washing up tonight? I’m suddenly not feeling well.”

Sasuke nods as she walks away, pretending to not see the tears running down her face.

He turns to find Sakura staring at the doorway, a curious expression on her face.

“Your brother’s never acted like this before?” she asks, eyes still vacant.

“Never,” Sasuke replies as he gathers the dishes from the table.

Her gaze turns to the vase of roses that his mother had cut from the bush in the garden. “I have a bad feeling.” With that said, she leaps off the counter and walks out of the kitchen.

Xxxxxxxxxx

“When does your school start?” Sakura asks one sunny afternoon as she lies across his bed.

Sasuke has gotten used to her sudden appearances and doesn’t jump at the sound of her voice anymore… very much at least.

“Not for two more months,” he responds as he puts the finishing touches on a certain drawing he’s been working on. “Why?”

“Will you tell me about your days?” she says while making a frame with her fingers and peers at Sasuke through it. “Like all the drama and gossip.”

“What do you mean?”

“You know,” she smiles as she rolls over onto her stomach, and Sasuke thinks that her perfect teeth and upturned, petal lips are such a pretty contrast from the gaping wound in her neck. “The family that was here before you had a daughter that would always be on the phone talking about ‘who’s dating who’ and ‘what so-and-so did at the party.’ She was in the room right next to yours.”

“What happened to that family? Did you talk to any of them?” Sasuke asks, instantly curious.

“They were gone within a month. They had a young son who found the false wall that led to the basement.”

“What basement?” There was no basement in the house, that he knew of at least.

“That’s where Kabuto and Orochimaru would run their little ‘experiments,’ nobody knew about it until that boy found it. I tried to keep him away, but he couldn’t see or hear me like you can and ended up stumbling across some nasty things.”

She sighs and her emerald eyes pin Sasuke where he is. “The realtor freaked and had somebody come and fill it in with cement. They didn’t try to sell the house until ten years later. You’re the first family since then.”

“What about families before them? Could anybody else see you?” He couldn’t be the only one, right?”

“There was only one other person, about thirty years ago. A fortune teller or something.” Sakura makes a motion with her finger indicating that she thought the lady was crazy, which is rich coming from a ghost. “She lived here peacefully for about a year before she tried to contact all of us spirits with some sort of thingamajig. I don’t know what she saw, but she hung herself that night.”

“Oh my god,” Sasuke says in shock. How many people died horribly in this f***ing house?

“Anyways,” Sakura begins, seemingly unfazed by the conversation, as she peers over his shoulder. “Whatcha drawin?”

“Uh,” a blush burns on Sasuke’s cheeks as he turns the sketchpad towards her. “You.”

The picture is a rough pencil sketch of her looking backwards towards him. She wears a pair of jeans and a sweater with sleeves that reach down to her palms. No gash tarnishes her slender neck and her hair hangs down to the small of her back.

She smiles as she looks at the picture. “I always thought I looked better with long hair.”

“Then why’d you cut it?” Sasuke asks. He had given her long hair on a whim, inspired by the picture of her standing in front of the orphanage.

“It wasn’t a choice.”

Another one of her sad smiles. Sasuke doesn’t know what possesses him, but he has the urge to kiss her, to touch her, to do something. So he reaches forward, and she pulls back.

“Soon,” she whispers, before jumping up and walking out the door.

Xxxxxxxxxx

“Is today your birthday?”

Sasuke turns around to find Sakura standing behind him in the bathroom. He never actually sees her appear or disappear, simply one second she would be somewhere and the next she would not, or vise versa. He’s not sure whether some glowing light engulfs her, or if she simply evaporates in the air, but he figures that he prefers it this way. It makes her seem more real.

He takes the toothbrush out of his mouth and spits in the sink.

“How come you don’t have a reflection?”

She jokingly pouts. “I asked you first.”

“Fine,” he sighs, “Yes, I turn eighteen today. How’d you know?”

“Wow, you’re an adult.” She giggles and Sasuke feels his stomach flutter. “I’m not a tangible thing, so there’s nothing for the mirror to reflect.” She takes her hand and sticks it through the sink, passing right through to the other side. “See? And to answer your second question, I was downstairs this morning and overheard your parents talking in their bedroom.”

“You spy in my parents bedroom? Pervert,” he mutters under his breath with a teasing grin.

“Not in their bedroom, just outside of it. I can’t go into anywhere I never went when I was alive, and I can’t leave the premises of where I died. That’s why I can go through the sink, but not the furniture in your room.”

“Really?” Sasuke asks, receiving a nod in return. He always figured that she ghosted around outside when she wasn’t with him.

“Anyways, I think your mother said something about a special breakfast for you, so I’d head downstairs.”

With that, she exits the bathroom.

Xxxxxxxxx

In the entire month he’s been living in the “Haunted House,” Sasuke has been picking up on more and more of the “spirit world” as Sakura calls it. Instead of hearing the knocking and then seeing Naruto, the blonde boy appears first crawling through the bookcase, where his bedroom door used to be. A trail of blood always follows behind him from where his injured stomach drags on the rough floorboards.

If he walks down to the kitchen for a late night snack, the sink will be filled with water and the sound of somebody choking can be heard. If he goes to the bathroom, crying resounds off the walls. If he looks out the window, he’ll notice the porch lights flickering.

By far, the worse thing is the sound of Sakura’s scream being cut short at the same time every night.

One time he asked about why she screams and she shrugged him off once again, but when he asked about the disappearing bloodstains, she answered him simply.

“Just like the screams, flickering lights, and water, the blood doesn’t belong to your world. You’re just seeing and hearing echoes of what used to be here. Though the rest of your family isn’t, which is a bit odd.”

He has tried approaching his parents about the strange occurrences, but each time they send them away with a “Give the place a chance.”

However, he’s grown closer to Sakura. Though she’s dead, she makes pleasant company.

Today, he leans back against his headboard, doing nothing in particular on his laptop while Sakura is draped over the foot of the bed. 

“Kabuto cut it,” Sakura says after a long period of silence.

“Wh-what?” Sasuke asks, taken off guard by her words. He shuts his laptop and sets it on the nightstand, looking at the strange, dead girl lying on his bed.

“My hair.” She runs her fingers through the short ends. “He always talked about how peculiar and interesting it was, and one night he called me to the lab and chopped it all off with a pair of scissors.”

Sasuke remains silent, taken aback by her sudden openness.

“It was two nights later when Doctor Orochimaru went on his rampage. He was the one that murdered everyone, even Kabuto; that bastard’s buried under the rose bushes outside. Naruto was one of the first; having been called to the basement, then it was little Moegi who had gone to get a glass of water. Everybody else was a sleep, completely unaware of what was happening until it was too late.”

“Sakura…” Sasuke trails off, not knowing what to say. An apology didn’t seem fitting and he is not quite sure how to deal with her when she acts so serious. “You don’t have to tell me this,” he ends up saying.

“No,” she sits up to stare him straight in the eyes. “I can show you.”

Then she leans forward and Sasuke thinks that she’s going to kiss him. But when her face gets close to his, she goes right through. Her whole “body” enters his, and his eyes forcibly shut.

“Relax, Sasuke,” her voice echoes in his mind.

Then he opens his eyes to the sound of knocking.

Knock-knock. Knock.

“Naruto?” the voice comes from his throat, raspy from sleep but distinctly belonging to Sakura. Feet swing over the side of the bed and land gracefully and soundlessly onto the wood floor below, pale, feminine feet with little scratches on them.

It is then that Sasuke realizes he’s a passenger in Sakura’s body.

Knock-knock. Knock.

Sakura looks up and in the small mirror hanging on the back of the door, Sasuke watches as her eyes widen. Then, the little, white nightgown she dons becomes all too familiar.

Knock-knock. Knock.

Sakura glances over to the wall, which was not there before Sasuke shut his eyes. A scream echoes out in the hall and Sakura moves to her door, opening it.

Glancing down the darkened corridor, Sasuke sees the house as she did in her last few moments. A thick blood trail leading down the hall, into Naruto’s room. She begins moving towards it, and Sasuke thinks she’ll peer in the room and see her dying friend, but she doesn’t get a chance.

A tall figure, masked in the shadows of the hallway emerges from the door across from Naruto’s. Water and blood drip down the front of his shirt, and the moonlight illuminates his pale hands wrapped around the black handle of an axe dragging behind him.

“Come here, little blossom,” a voice sings out as the man moves towards her.

Sakura gasps and falls backwards to the ground, scampering away from the man. He steps into the light, and Sasuke sees the gold eyes, the creepy smile.

It was two nights later when Doctor Orochimaru went on his rampage.

Sakura is able to scramble to her feet and instantly runs to the window. She pulls on the large iron bars frantically, hoping beyond hope that they’ll break free.

The footsteps behind her stop, and slowly, she turns her head to peer over her shoulder.

He raises the axe, and a familiar scream rips from her throat before it is cut short with the heavy blow. She falls to the ground, unable to move, barely able to feel. An enormous pressure hits her again, and then everything goes dark.

Xxxxxxx

Sasuke’s eyelids fly open and he pants heavily, trying to gulp down all the oxygen in his vicinity.

Sakura leans over him, her green eyes seeming to search him for something.

“Now you know,” she whispers, “now you know what I and all the other ghosts in this place, have to relive every single night.”

Sasuke sits up and Sakura leans backwards to give him room. It’s then that he notices the tears running down her cheeks. He brings a hand up to wipe them away, but it goes right through her.

“Why now?” he asks while pulling his hand back in frustration. “Why show me all of this now?”

“I’ve been feeling odd lately,” she replies as her palms wipe away the moisture from beneath her eyes. “I feel like I’m fading, I don’t even know what day it is anymore.”

“Sakura?” Sasuke says hesitantly as he watches the petite girl close her eyes.

“I’ll be alright,” she whispers before curling up on the side of his bed, seemingly asleep.

Xxxxxxxxx

When he wakes up, she’s gone and the morning light filters through the curtains. Groaning, he throws an arm over his eyes to block out the sun.

“Good morning, sleepy head!”

He moves his arm to find Sakura leaning over his bed, her eyes shining much more green than usual.

He groans again turns his head to the side, that’s when he notices it. In the mirror on the far wall, he can see her back. No blood stains the little nightgown, and smooth, flawless skin covers the back of her neck.

Wait… reflection?

Sasuke sits up so quickly that his forehead bumps into Sakura’s, and the slight pain causes him to wince.

Sakura lets out an “ouch!” and Sasuke stares up at her.

“I touched you!” he says before slowly bringing a hand up to cup her cheek. Surprisingly, it comes into contact with the soft surface of her skin. His other hand touches her pink hair, like he has wanted to do since first seeing her, and thinks that the feeling resembles that of goose down.

Wispy… soft… real.

“Am I dreaming?” Sasuke asks as he pulls her down on top of him, feeling the warmth of her body over his.

She giggles and shakes her head.

“Are you alive?” he asks hesitantly, and her smile dims.

Another head shake.

“It must be today then,” she mumbles to herself.

Sasuke looks up at her curiously, not sure what to make of the situation.

“On the anniversary of our death, those of us who are aware of our situation get to materialize. I don’t know why exactly.”


She nibbles on her lip and Sasuke can’t help but pull her closer.

He knows it’s stupid and impossible, but he can’t help himself from leaning closer and touching his lips to hers.

She seems shocked at first, but responds, moving slowly against him.


Even though it is slow, hesitant, and over far too soon, it is easily the best kiss that Sasuke has ever had… also the weirdest. Maybe she’s dead and maybe it can never be, but Sasuke has fallen head over heals for Sakura Haruno, the dead girl haunting his house.

A pretty blush colors her cheeks, and Sasuke can’t help but smirk up at her.

“Wow,” she says quietly, “that was my first kiss.”

She lies down next to him on the bed and runs her hand over his face. She traces his messy hairline, running her fingers through the silky locks, her fingertips outlining his sharp cheekbones, softly following the bridge of his aristocratic nose. His arms wrap around her hips, securely her to him, and Sasuke thinks that he can get used to this feeling.

She tucks into him perfectly, her thin body molding against his, and they just lay there in silence, feeling each other.

“Why couldn’t we have been born in the same time period,” Sakura whispers as she tucks her face into his chest, memorizing Sasuke’s scent.

He doesn’t respond, thinking the same thing himself, instead he brushes his lips over her forehead and watches as her face turns the same color as her hair.

Embarrassed, she buries her face in his neck, trying to hide. Chuckling causes his chest to rumble, sending Sakura into her own fits of giggles. Sasuke just watches the joy in her eyes as he smoothes her hair, loving the feel of the strands.

Her smile falters slightly as she pushes her body up so that she is eyelevel with him. As if unsure, she slowly moves towards him, and kisses him. She begins to pull away, but Sasuke secures her in place and deepens the action. His tongue prods against her lips, and she opens her mouth as invitation.

Tasting her, touching her, loving her. It’s almost too much.

She hums happily against his lips, and Sasuke makes a mental agreement with himself that he will not be leaving her side today.

Xxxxxx

“Can I meet your family?” Sakura asks as she runs her foot up and down his. “You know, for real?”

“Hn,” Sasuke says, neither accepting nor rejecting her request. He settles for ghosting a kiss on her upturned nose.

“I’ll be a girl from the neighborhood who comes down to stay with her grandmother during the summers,” she nuzzles his cheek with her nose.

Then, rising from the sheets, he nods towards the door. Sakura looks at him as if confused, her hair mussed from his constant attention.

“If you’re going to come to dinner, then I’ll need to get you some clothes.” He heads towards the door. “Stay here.”

Quietly shutting the door behind him, Sasuke heads down the hallway intent on making his way downstairs to his parents’ room. However, a loud noise from his brother’s room causes him to stop.

“Tomorrow,” a voice hisses from behind the closed door, but the rest of the sentence is muffled, so Sasuke finds himself leaning his ear against the aged wood.

“-starting to notice,” the voice continues and Sasuke recognizes it as a man’s, definitely not Itachi’s. Still muffled, he can only catch bits and pieces. “…can’t escape… anger… do it.”

The door opens and Sasuke jumps back from it in shock. 

“Sasuke?” his brother inquires, looking down at him. Lately, Itachi has had deep circles under his eyes, as if he hasn’t been getting much sleep. At first, Sasuke assumed that he had been hearing the deaths as well, but when he asked about it, Itachi responded with a look that made him feel crazy.

“Is there somebody in there with you?” Sasuke asks as he tries to look around the tall form of his brother.

“No,” Itachi replies curtly before shutting the door in Sasuke’s face.

Xxxxxxx

When he reenters the room, Sakura is no longer on the bed.

“Sakura?” he calls, panicked that she turned back into a spirit. He jumps slightly when his wardrobe door opens and the girl peaks her head out. “What are you doing in there?” he asks as she steps out.

“Your brother came in, so I hid,” she says before launching herself in his arms.

Sasuke catches her, surprised at how light she is and sets her back on the bed.

“I cleared told my mom that you were coming to dinner and I grabbed you a pair of leggings and some boots.” He picks the items up from the floor, having dropped them when she leaped and shows them to her. “My mom’s pretty tall and I figured your dress would pass as normal clothes. You’ll probably have to roll the leggings up, but my mom has so many clothes and shoes that she shouldn’t notice the boots.”

She pulls the items on and examines herself in the mirror.

“How do I look?” she asks teasingly.

“Beautiful.”

Xxxxxxxx

They sit around the dinner table, except Itachi who left shortly after sitting down, and the room is filled with Sakura and Mikoto’s chatter. The Uchiha woman had instantly took a liking to the dead girl, even hinting at Sasuke needing a girlfriend like her. Fugaku remained his passive self as always.

“So, you’re only here during the summers?” Mikoto asks.

“Yeah, I live in Ame, I just come down here to help out with my grandmother.”

“That’s too bad,” Mikoto replies. “It would have been nice if you and Sasuke went to the same school.”

“Yeah, it would be fun to go to school with each other.” Sakura sends a wink at Sasuke before excusing herself.

“She’s very charming,” Mikoto says after directing Sakura to the bathroom. “Though she doesn’t seem to like my cooking.”

“Yeah,” Sasuke says quietly.

“You know, long distance relationships don’t typically work out well unless you are both very committed to each other.”

Sasuke shoots his mother a withering glare.

“Don’t you look at me like that, Sasuke Uchiha.” She points her fork at him threateningly.  “Never, have you ever brought a girl home, not even that one girl that you dated for almost a year.”

Sasuke shakes his head as his mother continues giving him unwanted – and frankly, unnecessary – relationship advice.

Xxxxxxxx

Being a ghost, Sakura doesn’t really have to use the restroom, but feels the need to wash her face.

Mikoto is such a beautiful woman and very motherly as well, accepting Sakura even though she knows so little about her, not even saying anything as she pushed the food that she can’t eat around the plate.

This was a mistake.

Sakura thinks as tears burn in her eyes. She should have never asked Sasuke for this, she should have stayed away from the family that she can never be a part of and remained the orphaned, dead girl that she is.

But she is selfish and couldn’t pass up the opportunity of feeling normal.

Turning off the water and drying off her face, Sakura stares at her reflection. Gaps in her memory have started forming.

Have her eyes always been green?

Has she always been this short?

How old was she when she died?

She doesn’t know what the lapses mean, but she figures that it cannot be anything good.

Make it worth it. She tells herself before exiting the bathroom, only to run into a strong chest.

“I’m sorry,” she says, quickly moving out of Itachi’s way, but his hand shoots out and grabs her arm before pinning her to the wall.

“What are you doing?” he spits out and Sakura could have sworn that she saw his eyes flash red.


“I was just washing my face,” she replies trying to remain calm.

“That’s not what I mean, little blossom.” The change in his eyes is distinctly visible now. They remain bright red and the tone of voice shifts to one that sounds all too familiar for Sakura. “What are you doing in this world?”

“Orochimaru,” she realizes as she watches Itachi’s tongue come out of his mouth and flick across his lips in a way all too familiar. “I won’t let you harm this family too.”

She tries to make her voice sound strong, but her yelp of pain as Itachi’s grip tightens around her wrist ruins the effect.

“Learn your place, girl,” Itachi snarls.

He blinks rapidly and his eyes fade back to the dark color that resembles his brother’s. He looks at his hand and in shock pushes away from Sakura.

“Please forgive me,” he states, pinching the bridge of his nose. “I have not been myself lately.” 

Sakura watches him as he rushes away, her eyes swimming in sympathy.

It seems as if she is not the only one losing herself.

xxxxxxxxx

“My mother is quite taken with you,” Sasuke murmurs as he strokes her hair. After dinner, when his parents had retired elsewhere, he and Sakura had snuck upstairs and resumed their position on his bed.

He lays on his back, with Sakura curled up in his arms, half lying on him, drawing geometric symbols over his shirt with her finger.

“I’m fading, Sasuke,” she whispers.

His hands come down to cup her face, and turn it so that she looks in his eyes. “What do you mean?”

“I’m drifting away, I’m forgetting my past, who I am, what happened. It’s all leaving me.”

Her eyes close and she begins humming a sad, haunting tune. “Soon enough, I’ll be just like Naruto and the others.”

Sasuke allows that to sink in. He knows that their relationship is dysfunctional, but he never imagined something like this. Having to hear her die every night, calling out to her, but his voice never reaching. Her humming stops and he thinks she fell asleep, so he runs his fingers up her back, tracing all of her vertebrae and her soft skin.

“Sakura?” he begins, there is still a way that they can be together, forever. “Sakura?” he asks again, shaking her lightly.

Slowly her head rises up, and her eyes are filled with confusion. “Is that my name?” she asks.

“Yes,” Sasuke breathes out his reply, not believing this. “Yes, you’re Sakura.”

Her eyes widen and she jumps up. “Sasuke, you need to get out of this house!”

“Whoa, wait a minute,” he rests his hands on her shoulders.

“No, you need to get out, you need to move somewhere else,” she starts breathing quickly as if hyperventilating. “He’s coming back, he’s coming back.”

She begins looking around as if in a panic.

“Sakura, calm down.” Sasuke’s at a loss, he doesn’t know what she is talking about or why she is suddenly hysterical.

“I love you, Sasuke, and you need to leave.” 

He pauses and stares at her, shocked, then he decides to voice the thought he had just a moment ago.

“What if I never leave?” he whispers.

“What do you mean?” she asks slowly, in a way that makes him think she already knows.

“I could d-“

“Stop, stop right there,” she says sternly, frowning at him. “You are not killing yourself. You are not going to be trapped in this house, reliving your death everyday for me. Don’t you dare ever suggest anything like that ever again!” She yells the last part, tears streaming down her face.

She leans her head on his chest, clutching her shirt in her hands. Her shoulders shake as she begins crying, and he instantly embraces her.


“You need to leave,” she whispers between sobs. “He’ll kill you too.” She slides to the floor, and Sasuke comes with her, until they are on their knees.

“I’ll speak with my family soon, okay?” he tells her, burying his nose in her hair and breathing the light scent that he discovered this morning.

She nods and he picks her up before setting her gently on the bed.

“It’s time,” she whispers softly, and her voice sounds distant.

“What do you mean?” Sasuke asks and Sakura holds up a hand in response. It does not appear translucent, but it is not quite solid. Testing it, he tries to interlock their fingers, only to go right through. “No,” he says quietly.

He stares at her and watches as the rest of her body begins to lose its solid outline.

He grasps her around the waist and begins kissing her. He puts everything he has into the kiss since he knows it will be the last.

Then, she is gone and he’s left alone in the expansive bedroom, crying out for her to come back, as her scream echoes in the distance.

xxxxxxxxx

She did not come back the next morning.

She did not come back the in the afternoon.

She did not come back at night.

xxxxxxxxx

 

“Sasuke!”

Dark eyes fly open at the sound of Sakura’s voice. He glances around and finds her leaning over him, her hands resting on the bed.

“Sakura! You’re still here!” he exclaims reaching to touch her face, but his hand passes right through and he is left with the gut clenching reminder that she is dead.

“You need to run. You need to run now!” she shouts as she points to the open door. “Get out! He’s awakened, Itachi is possessed! You need to leave!”

He takes a moment to figure out what she is saying.

“Run!” she screams, “the window!”

Sasuke slowly tumbles out of his bed and enters the hallway. There, standing at the foot of the stairs is a dark silhouette, and Sasuke is hit with an awful sense of déjà vu.

This scene is too familiar.

Moon light streams through the window, a tall from shuffling towards him, with dark hair hanging down, an axe dragging along the ground, leaving a trail of blood in its wake.

It is almost exactly like the vision Sakura showed him or her own death.

He begins trying to open the window, only to realize that there is no way to do so. There are no hinges or handles. It’s just a solid pane of glass.

Itachi steps into the moonlight, and Sasuke notices that his eyes are glowing red, even more shocking, the handle of the axe is black. An evil smirk splits his face in half and blood splatters across his forehead and cheeks.

Is that the same one that killed Sakura?

He breaks out of his shocked state in an instant, forcing his mind not to linger on whose blood might be coating Itachi’s body.

“Come her, brother,” Itachi calls, but his voice is not his own.


“Itachi, why?” Sasuke asks, pounding against the window, begging it to break.

“We must join them,” he lets out an inhuman chuckle and continues down the hall.

Sasuke dashes back into his room and grabs his baseball bat. He barely acknowledges Naruto, who his executing his usual knocking routine.

Spinning around to enter the hallway once again, Sasuke finds his brother blocking the doorway. He instantly runs to the other door, only to find that it’s been locked from the outside.

Then, a hand grabs the ends of his hair and pulls him back.

“Your turn, Sasuke,” Itachi smiles as he raises the axe over his head.

This is it. Sasuke thinks, bracing himself for the blow, but it never comes.

Looking up, he notices Sakura standing in front of him.

“No!” she yells at Itachi, “You can’t have him too.” Then, she steps into the elder Uchiha’s body.

Itachi lets out a blood-curdling scream and grasps at his head.

His voice comes out, morphed as if multiple are using it to argue with each other.

Then, in a voice that clearly belongs to Sakura, he shouts.

“Run! Use the window! He sabotaged all the other exits!”

He glances at Itachi one last time before running to the window. Swinging the bat he shatters the glass, creating an opening big enough for him to slip through.

Before jumping to safety, however, he glances in his room and watches as Sakura is pushed out of Itachi’s body, her spirit glowing brightly.


She turns to him, a large smile on her face as her spirit begins to evaporate. First goes her fingers and toes, then her whole body becomes streams of light. “Thank you,” she whispers before disappearing.

Xxxxxxxxx

Two years later, Sasuke opens his eyes, finding himself in a strange white room. He looks around him and almost has to shut his eyes again due to the hazy, bright light. It is then that he notices a familiar pink-haired girl hovering over him.

“Sasuke,” she chokes out. “Do you know what happened?”

He’s in a shock. He hasn’t seen Sakura since the night Itachi was possessed by Orochimaru.


After she had disappeared, he was able to jump out the window and get help from the neighbors. When the cops had arrived at the house, they found his parents dead and Itachi missing. Since then, he had been living on his own off of his inheritance. He is in college now, studying law.

People have passed through his life, their faces blurring together. Though he survived that night, he felt more dead than alive. His family was gone, the one girl he fell in love with was gone, all the light in the world… gone.

The last thing he remembers is driving to a lecture and then, nothing.

But with Sakura here, looking down at him, it is as if somebody has resuscitated him, breathed oxygen into his body and shocked his heart into beating once again.

“Am I…” he hesitates to say it. “Am I dead?”

Sakura smiles sadly, a tear running down her face. He reaches up and wipes it away, and at there touch, instantly knows the answer.

“Yes,” she whispers, covering his hand with her own. He notices her usual white nightgown is long gone, along with any traces of blood. Instead, she wears a wispy dress that seems to float around her, even from her seated position.

He rises from his spot on the ground, and Sakura comes up with him. She points in the distance, and all he can see is ever expanding white.

“Your family is that way,” she explains before slipping her hand in his and guiding him forwards. As she giggles and leads him towards a golden light in the distance, a new warmth spreads through him, calming him for the first time since the incident. 

11/24/2021 02:56 PM 

An Ordeal of Patience

Summary:

Mycroft Holmes has found a home aboard the Lydia. He's happy sailing the Caribbean seas with his younger brother, Sherlock, and his spouse, the dashing pirate captain Gregory. But their happiness may be lost forever when some of the crew, including Gregory, are exposed to the plague. Sherlock wants to take action; Mycroft knows how that could cost them all. Knowing there is nothing he can do, can he sit and wait while his entire life may already be destroyed?

 

 

 

The afternoon sun is hot on Mycroft's back. The grey sea around them rolls in slow, gentle swells and the light breeze catches in the sails. They're close enough to shore to hear the squawks of seagulls.

Mycroft has his sketchbook open on his lap, but the page is empty. At the moment, he's quite content to watch over the deck and enjoy the lazy heat of the day.

Active as ever, Sherlock is up in the rigging, stepping lightly along the yardarms, ignoring the wind catching at his dark hair. John Watson's beside him, constant as a shadow.

Mycroft finds his attention wandering back to the stern railing, where Gregory has paused in his inspection to talk to the men. There's a handful of the crew gathered around, drawn to Gregory's easy manners. The wind brings a snatch of laughter, but Mycroft can't make out the conversation.

Mycroft is content to sit back and observe, unnoticed, but Gregory glances over at the quarterdeck and smiles when he catches Mycroft watching. Such a bright joyous smile, for something as small as Mycroft's attention.

Mycroft nods in return, pleased and bashful, before turning his attention back to the pastels in his fingers.

***

Shipboard life is a reassuring pattern of routines, large and small. They sail the shipping routes, stopping merchant vessels when the opportunity arises and seizing goods without injury if they can. They go ashore every month or so for provisions, visiting different island ports as they go. Twice a year they leave the ship in dry dock and clean her down, scraping her hull and fixing anything else that needs it.

Under the wide, blue skies of the Caribbean, there's no such thing as an icy winter. The year swings between endless summer days and the storm season, lashing rain and furious winds that they wait out in port. It's an interesting sight to come into those tiny island towns and find another five pirate ships in the harbour, everyone waiting out the bad weather and sharing tales.

Most of the year, there’s only the Lydia and the endless blue horizon surrounding them. It's slow, easy days of activity, men going about their jobs with friendly chatter and nights of sea shanties with the sound of Sherlock's violin dancing in the air.

Mycroft's own days have a comfortable pattern. He sleeps late, enjoys a solitary breakfast without the need for conversation, then goes above deck to check their speed and direction. And if Gregory leans in close, murmurs, “Good morning, Fancy,” with a warm hand on Mycroft's wrist or lower back, that's another part of the comforting routine.

After charting their location, Mycroft usually spends the rest of the morning in the navigation room. He'll work with ink and rulers, carefully copying maps until the day grows swelteringly warm. Then he'll collect his sketchbook and pastels, and spend afternoons on the quarterdeck.

He will draw if he fancies it, but just as often, he'll sit and observe. Use it as an excuse to watch Gregory perform his duties. The natural way he accepts command, the canny way he takes care of his ship and crew, the satisfied glint in his eyes as he looks out at the clear skies. Mycroft has an embarrassing number of sketches of Gregory standing on deck, collar loose and hat tilted against the sun, looking every inch the dashing pirate captain.

He has other sketches as well. Quick drawings of Gregory's strong hands, the calluses along his fingers and the fine white scar across the back of his right hand. Hands that Mycroft knows intimately, hands that have held him safe, that have petted his hair as he fell asleep, that have skimmed over his hips or gripped tightly as Gregory guided them into the same rhythm.

He has sketches of Gregory sleeping, drawn from memory, and one detailed drawing of Gregory spread across their bed, modesty barely maintained by a sheet. It had been something of a joke, that if Mycroft was going to stare he might as well draw it, but it had ended with Gregory lying there by candlelight, letting Mycroft memorize every detail, every stretch of muscle and bone. The expression on Gregory's face had been so fond and indulgent, worth memorising and immortalising; Mycroft had done his best to capture it.

***

It is a life of comfortable routines, so Mycroft thinks nothing of the ship stopping for provisions. It's a small town on a small island, and the harbour contains nothing but fishing boats. They're stopping for fresh water and flour, but if there are other fresh provisions available, Gregory may negotiate a price and come back for extra gold. Those kind of negotiations can take hours.

Mycroft spends the morning inside the cabin, reading a French book on geometry, a rare find in the last town they visited. He's been aboard the Lydia for close to two years now, but the only obvious change is inside this cabin.

Where Gregory's quarters used to contain simple necessities, there are now muslin tablecloths and narrow shelves of books. Fine cotton sheets on the bed and embroidered cushions to sit comfortably when reading. Velvet curtains over the window to soften the early morning light and a delicately carved box holding the few heirlooms Mycroft owns.

It makes for a strange mix of practicality and indulgence, but Gregory has never objected when Mycroft returns from selling one his copied maps with a new purchase bundled under his arm. He doesn't spend all of his profits -- two-thirds of them are set aside for the day Sherlock chooses to leave -- but he has always enjoyed his comforts.

It's early afternoon before Mycroft rouses himself from his book and heads above deck. There are a few men working the sails and a small circle at the far end of the deck, checking over ropes and cackling over ribald tales. Williams is standing on the quarterdeck, squinting in the sunshine. There's a tension across his shoulders that catches Mycroft's attention.

“Good afternoon, Mr Williams,” Mycroft says, nodding as he climbs the steps.

Williams gives a tight nod in reply. “Mr Holmes.”

“Is all well?”

“Captain should have been back by now,” he says, voice low enough that it won't carry to the crew.

Williams isn't one to worry without reason, and a small delay is hardly a concern. Mycroft doesn't let himself frown where the men could see. “There's something more. What else?”

“The fishing boats haven't moved. Not since this morning,” Williams says, carefully looking over at the town roofs hiding amongst the trees, “and I doubt they all fish at night.”

Mycroft takes a deep breath. His eyesight might not be as sharp as Watson's but he can't see any proof of the boats being moved in the last few days. There could be a celebration, there could be a perfectly benign explanation but his first thought is most likely.

He's heard the rumours of entire towns lost to the plague, but nothing this far east. Nothing on this island. Very, very quietly he asks, “Quarantine?”

Williams keeps his gaze on the shoreline. His face doesn't give anything away. “Could be.”

If it is, if their landing party stumbled into the midst of illness, anyone they send to investigate will be infected too. All they can do is wait.

***

Mycroft may have to wait, but he doesn't have to be idle. After scanning the rigging and realising Watson and Sherlock aren't up there, he heads to the infirmary. Plague and influenza have similar symptoms; what eases one may assist with the other.

He knocks at the door, but there's no answer. Pushing the door open quietly, he finds Sherlock bent over a magnifying glass, using tweezers to separate fibres.

“I'm busy,” Sherlock says, not even looking up.

“So I see,” Mycroft replies, rolling his eyes at Sherlock's typical lack of manners. “I'm here to enlist Mr Watson's help.”

“Then you'll have to wait.”

“Unacceptable.”

Now, Sherlock turns away from his distraction. There's sunkissed colour to his cheeks and a bright gleam to his grey eyes: a life of piracy doesn't just agree with him, it positively favours him. Sherlock's dark hair is pulled back with a slender ribbon at the nape of his neck, a dark blue ribbon adorned with Watson's precise needlework, Mycroft notices. The silver scrolls and red blossoms match the work on Sherlock's coat.

“Whether or not it suits you, Mycroft, you'll have to wait. John's gone ashore to purchase fresh bandages.”

“He accompanied the captain?” Mycroft asks voice cool and even despite the sudden turmoil of his thoughts. Now that Doctor White has left them, Watson is their only physician. If he's taken ill, it reduces everyone else's chance at survival.

Mycroft should ask Sherlock to help, to prepare something to assist with the symptoms, but he's loathe to tell Sherlock bad news before it's certain. If it's untrue, he'll upset Sherlock for no reason; if it's true, knowing now won't make it any easier to bear.

***

Now that he's looking for it, Mycroft can't help but notice the lack of activity on the dock. The boats are all trapped in their moorings and the only noise comes from the waves around them and the gulls overhead.

He wants to believe that something unfortunate but manageable happened -- perhaps a member of the crew broke his leg and they're having trouble carrying him back to the rowboat -- but that hope dwindles with every minute that passes by. The dock remains empty, and it seems inevitable that the worst has happened.

Mycroft can't help wondering if he could have avoided this situation. Would he have noticed the pattern sooner if he'd woken earlier? If he'd made the effort to see Gregory off this morning, would he have spotted the suspicious lack of activity and stopped Gregory leaving the ship?

He'll never know.

The next hour passes slowly. Watching the still and silent dock achieves nothing, so Mycroft goes to the navigation room, evaluating the courses open to them and charting the one that will make it easiest to return to this island. They need fresh water, irrespective of when the captain returns.

He busies himself in the storeroom, checking over Williams’ hastily scrawled figures and confirming their remaining provisions. They have enough fresh water to sail to the next island, enough to even allow them to stay here for a few extra days.

There's a rap on the door. Mycroft opens it to find Sampson, an older sailor with a strong grip, a weakness for playing cards and blond hair so sun-bleached it might as well be white.

“Yes?” Mycroft asks and Sampson shifts his weight awkwardly.

“Mr Williams asked that you come on deck, sir.” He doesn't meet Mycroft's eyes as he says it, keeps his gaze averted as he tries not to share the bad news.

One of the landing party has returned. It must be as they feared. If it had been any other delay, Williams would have got the men on board the Lydia and sent for Mycroft later. “Thank you,” Mycroft says and follows the man above decks.

He steps out into the sunshine and takes a deep breath of fresh air, and then makes himself look towards the stern railing. There are men gathered there, including Williams and Sherlock, but Mycroft's height allows him to see over most of their heads, to see the small fishing boat floating midway between the Lydia and the dock.

Mycroft wishes they were closer, but he accepts the logic: too close might be too tempting. One of the men might panic and try to swim to the ship.

He can make out Gregory's hat and coat, but his face is in shadow. Beside him, Watson squints up at the sun, making him look angry.

Above them, on the single mast of the boat, there are naval flags flying. The message is simple. Plague ship. Quarantine.

Mycroft presses his fingers to his lips before he can free the shocked gasp that wants to escape. It wouldn't do any good. He could yell, but it's unlikely they'd hear him.

He can't say what makes him reach out, but he grabs the back of Sherlock's coat just as Sherlock lurches forward, gripping at the railing as if he'd dive overboard. It unbalances them both, making Sherlock stumble while Mycroft topples backwards, landing heavily on the wooden deck. Mycroft sits there in shock for a moment, his mortification outweighing the dull ache of his backside.

For once, Sherlock looks equally stunned. He stares at Mycroft, and then slowly offers Mycroft a helping hand to get back on his feet. The momentary madness seems to have passed.

Gregory will find this hilarious when Mycroft tells him; he can almost hear Gregory laughing at the tale. The thought flits across Mycroft's mind, quickly followed by the realisation that it's optimistic to believe he'll ever talk to Gregory again. Not every exposure leads to death, but the balance of probability is not in Gregory's favour.

“The flags,” Sherlock says. “We can use the flags to communicate. Must be why they took that boat.”

It makes sense. The rowboats they use don't have masts. They certainly don't have the collection of naval flags required for basic communication. Gregory has probably spent the last few hours searching for a way to tell them without risking the rest of the crew being infected.

For a moment, Mycroft wishes he had married a cowardly man rather than such a clever one. Right now, he'd prefer a spouse who sent his men into danger and stayed safely behind.

Sherlock's already halfway up the rigging, climbing to the first yardarm to make changing flags faster. He flies the quarantine flag in return and then time and days.

The answer is two followed by one, but Mycroft could have told him that. Standard naval procedure is three weeks since the last sign of infection. There were nine men in the landing party; they could be gone for months.

Gregory yells at his men, and the flags are brought down. The next ones raised are provisions fully stocked so they must have found food and lodgings ashore.

Medicine, Sherlock messages, and the reply is low. Not that they have any safe way to transport anything. Sherlock's next question -- number of men sick -- has a reassuring reply of none.

Mycroft knows the coded meaning of every naval flag, but they are unfortunately practical. There is no combination that can beg Gregory to be careful, to return safely to him. There is no combination to tell Gregory that he is Mycroft's true north, that if he falls Mycroft will be left directionless and lost.

None of that can be said in Sherlock's final combination: message understood. Mycroft doubts there's any value to saying it anyway. Gregory will do his best and Mycroft's feelings on the matter won't have any impact on the outcome.

***

There's a worried hush as they watch the small boat sail back to the dock. It's safely moored and then there's one last change made to the flags.

Quarantine. Two. One.

A visual countdown. A sign that the men can all see. They stand around the Lydia staring at it, no one quite daring to hope. No one willing to give voice to doubts. They stand watching those nine men walk along the docks’ wooden boards and then out of sight towards the town.

“Mr Holmes, Sherlock, Travers, Dougherty, Spate,” Williams says, loud enough to carry. “In the navigation room, if you please.”

Sherlock shoots Mycroft a questioning glance, but Mycroft shakes his head. He doesn't know what this discussion will entail.

The first thing Williams says once the door is closed behind them is: “We'll need to have the men vote for a new captain.”

“I beg your pardon,” Mycroft says, sharp enough that even Sherlock gives him a disapproving glance.

“The ship needs a captain.”

“The ship has a captain,” Mycroft says coldly.

“Not on board,” Williams replies. “We don't sail without a captain.”

“A temporary measure.” Travers rubs a hand over his short-cropped black curls. “Until the Captain's back.”

Mycroft looks from one man to another, realising he is being told this information. They are not asking his opinion or his permission; they are informing him of what will happen. “If you have already settled on the action, why am I here?”

“Because a new captain deserves all the rights and responsibilities of the role,” Williams says.

For a terribly long moment, Mycroft doesn't understand. And then he sees it too clearly. “Including the captain's cabin,” he says slowly, stomach roiling at the idea that anyone could replace Gregory, could stand in his place on the quarterdeck and sleep in his bed, that the Lydia would go on sailing without even missing him. The possibility that it could be true is horrifying.

“As sailing master, you'll have your own cabin,” Williams assures him quickly, misreading Mycroft's discomfort entirely. “But that's the captain's quarters.”

He may hate the idea of moving from that comfortable cabin, but this is the way it's done. Privileges such as private rooms are allocated by responsibility. As much as Mycroft would prefer to stay, he knows Gregory would follow the spirit of the charter.

He remembers Gregory saying, “You can't apply rules to everyone if you pick and choose when they apply.” Gregory believes in equality for all.

So Mycroft agrees and allows himself to be shown to his new quarters.

***

Mycroft understands the logic of the situation. A ship is as much her crew as her sails. Her sails need every mast, rope and pulley to work as they should. In the same way, individual men may be replaceable but a crew needs specific roles filled. The men need to know what their jobs are and who has the right to give them orders.

Mycroft understands it. He doesn't like the necessity of gathering his things and moving to one of the smaller berths, but he understands it. The room, such as it is, is barely two steps wide and three long. There is no window in the wooden wall and even worse, there is no bed, just a hammock hanging to one side and a set of drawers on the other. It smells musty from disuse.

The Lydia is not a large ship. There are private quarters for the captain, the quartermaster, the doctor and the carpenter. The rest of the men sleep in the shared space below deck. Mycroft had wondered where an extra room would be found.

“Ah,” Sherlock says, over Mycroft's shoulder. “They used to store the ropes and canvas in here.”

Mycroft glances over at Sherlock. He's a month shy of eighteen now, only an inch or so from Mycroft's height with a slender strength from spending equal hours hauling ropes and standing over journals, noting the results of his experiments. He knows his way around the ship and is welcome among the crew, and even Mycroft can't pretend he is still a child. Still immature in some ways, still prone to wild flights of heedless enthusiasm, but Sherlock is a young man.

If the worst should happen, if the Lydia sails under a new captain, Mycroft will not have to sleep in a hammock forever. A few months to be sure Sherlock is settled, and then Mycroft could find somewhere else.

Somewhere more comfortable and civilized. Somewhere steady and uneventful. Somewhere he will not be reminded of Gregory at every turn.

But that is only a possibility. For now, he will deal with the immediate problem: the manic gleam in Sherlock's eyes, the twitchiness he's let show since Watson rowed back to dock with the rest of the quarantined men. He's kept Sherlock by his side since the meeting, unsure of what Sherlock will do if left alone. Luckily, moving Mycroft's books and belongings -- and Gregory's -- has been a good way to keep them occupied and together.

Mycroft could be wrong. He can't always gauge his brother's reactions, and part of him wonders if worrying about Sherlock is simply a way to manage his own fears. It is strangely familiar to keep a weather eye over Sherlock and arrange the practicalities, ignoring his own future as much as possible.

He feels as if he's sixteen again, his parents not yet buried. It's that same numb hollow weight, that suspicion that everything will change, that life will never be as joyful as it once was. That the only useful thing he can do is be practical, so he shall be. He shall move his belongings, and watch over Sherlock, and do whatever he must. He will go up on deck to vote for a new captain and he will try not to dwell on things he has no power to change.

***

Mycroft doesn't care who gets elected captain. His feelings on the matter are simple: not one of them is Gregory, therefore none of them should be captain. The next morning, he votes for Spate because it's easy to see how the men look to him for a guiding word, and Mycroft would rather be seen as one of the majority in this instance.

Sherlock raises his hand for Travers but mutters under his breath that not one of them could read a map. “I'd be a better captain,” he mutters, low enough for only Mycroft to hear.

“Do you want to be?”

Sherlock's face brightens in interest and then his expression falls as he glances towards shore. That yes, being a pirate captain appeals to him but no, not without his closest friend at his side. Mycroft understands the sentiment all too well.

Over at the dock, the flags on the fishing boat have been changed to quarantine and two nil. They're counting down the quarantine for all to see: twenty days remaining.

Sherlock notices the direction of his gaze and repeats the same words he's been telling both of them since last night. “John would have noticed the illness. He wouldn't let them touch anything. This quarantine is a preventative measure, nothing more.”

Mycroft finds it less reassuring every time Sherlock says it.

***

Mycroft attempts to climb into the hammock that night but it's an awkward affair. Every rise and fall of the ship makes the hammock swing, makes Mycroft's fingers claw tightly into the material's edge to make sure he doesn't fall out.

It doesn't encourage a good night's rest. After the first bell, Mycroft climbs out and lights his lantern. He studies the hammock for a few long minutes, tracing the knots and ropes that keep it steady.

His knots may not be up to Sherlock's standards, but he understands the theory well enough. He unties the hammock and then ties each corner to the railing, pulling it into a firm rectangle of canvas a foot above the floor.

When he lies on it, there's far less give to the fabric. It's firm beneath him and low enough that he doesn't fear falling. As long as he lies carefully, it doesn't dip enough for him to feel the unforgiving floorboards beneath him.

His sleep is restless.

He's used to Gregory's bed. He's used to Gregory's warm arms around him and the low, rumbling breaths as he sleeps. He's used to the smell of Gregory on his sheets and the warmth of him. When Mycroft has restless nights, Gregory will pull him close and press a kiss to his shoulder or his forehead, wherever he can reach. There will be a quiet whisper, “Hush, Fancy, back to sleep,” and arms holding him tight and safe.

Mycroft feels his throat close up at the memory. At the thought...

There is a chance it might never happen again. And there is nothing he can do to change it.

To stop himself stewing in that miserable thought, he gets dressed and goes above deck. The crew is quiet at night, only a few men keeping watch while she's anchored outside port. It's still dark, dawn a few hours off, and Mycroft carefully picks his way to the starboard railing.

There's a light on the dock. A lantern and the dark silhouette of a man sitting beside it. Mycroft pulls out a spyglass -- tries not to think of Gregory giving it to him on his last birthday, laughing at the strangeness of a sailing master without his own spyglass -- and focuses it on the dock.

He wants the figure to be Gregory. He wants to know Gregory is restless and missing him in equal measure. But it's Smythe sitting there, staring at the hands crossed in his lap.

Mycroft slides the spyglass closed and puts it away. He allows three deep breaths and then returns to his cabin, determined to take what sleep he can manage.

***

A sharp rap on the door drags him out of vague, anxious dreams. It comes again, this time with a voice calling, “Mr Holmes?”

“Yes?” Mycroft calls back, rubbing at gritty eyes.

“Captain said to tell you breakfast is being served in the captain's cabin.”

Mycroft remembers his manners enough to thank the messenger. He dresses calmly and reminds himself that Spate was elected captain. The cabin is his to with as he wishes. Mycroft has no right to be annoyed if it becomes a thoroughfare for the entire crew.

Mycroft is the last to breakfast. Williams and Spate are sitting down, plates half empty. The carpenter is picking at his ship's biscuit, crumbling it between his fingers. Sherlock's plate is untouched.

Mycroft raises an eyebrow at his younger brother, and Sherlock frowns. “I'm here in John's stead,” Sherlock says, clearly not pleased about it. “Closest we have to a doctor right now.”

It's an officer's mess, Mycroft realises. A place for the men with private rooms to eat and share company. Williams is relaxed, at ease as he reaches across the table to pour more tea into his cup. The kind of heedless familiarity that says he's eaten breakfast here before. He used to eat here frequently.

Not while Mycroft's been on board. For as long as Mycroft's slept in this cabin, it's been a quiet oasis from the ever-present company on the ship. When they meet other pirates at sea, Gregory may have their captains and quartermasters here for dinner, but otherwise, it's a sanctum. A quiet shared space, where only he and Gregory were allowed.

Mycroft's taken it for granted. He never realised that Gregory had changed customs on the Lydia to give him that privacy. Gregory could have ordered that he rise early, that he dress every morning for breakfast with select members of his crew, and Mycroft would have had no choice but to agree.

Instead, Gregory forced the compromises upon his crew. For a moment, Mycroft misses Gregory with a sharp ache.

Mycroft cuts his breakfast into small, manageable bites and then chews thoroughly. He's barely hungry but it gives him something solid to focus on. Until Williams breaks the silence.

“We've got a week's worth of fresh water on board.”

It's not a surprise. It's the reason they stopped at this island.

Neither is it a surprise when Spate adds, “Mr Holmes, we'll need a chart plotted to the next island.”

Before Mycroft can reply, Sherlock says, “We can't leave them.”

“We need fresh water,” Williams says.

“I won't leave them,” Sherlock insists and Mycroft can see it too easily: Sherlock staying behind, refusing to go. How long would it be before Sherlock rowed over to Watson and Gregory? It's unacceptable.

“They have provisions,” Mycroft says, “including fresh water. We will perish before they return if we do not restock our water supplies.”

***

Sherlock's far from happy with the decision but he doesn't argue it further. Not in front of the others, at least. “You can't honestly believe that--”

“Close the door,” Mycroft says as Sherlock follows him into the navigation room. “Have some discretion.”

Sherlock glares at him, and then stalks over to the door and shuts it firmly. “We can't leave them. You can't think that's the right thing to do.”

When Mycroft finishes unrolling the map and weighing it down to the table, he looks up. His brother is the very image of an impassioned lover: hair unkempt, colour high on his cheeks, eyes bright and determined. Sherlock has always had a passionate nature and thought nothing of showing every extreme of feeling.

Mycroft is too tired to deal with Sherlock's extremes. “We'll return before their quarantine is over.”

“And if something should happen while we're gone?”

“What difference will it make?” Mycroft asks wearily. “If we're three days away or floating out of port, either way, there is nothing we can do but wait for news.”

“What will your dear captain think when he sees the Lydia leave port?” Sherlock's tone is snide and it's meant to cut, but it's a badly aimed attack. Gregory is an essentially practical man: he wouldn’t expect the ship to stay and run out of provisions.

“He'll think we're getting water. He won't thank us if his crew die of thirst waiting for him. Watson won't thank you for that, either.”

Sherlock flinches. Mycroft hadn't intended the words to hurt. He'd only wanted to remind Sherlock that there are responsibilities to the ship's crew, things that need to be done and will make more of a difference than standing around worrying. “You signed the charter, brother mine. You can't abandon the ship when it suits you.”

Sherlock trails a finger along the map, his nail scraping along the coastline of this island. He doesn't look up. “How can you be so cold? You married him. How can you talk as if this is a simple inconvenience?”

There are too many answers to that question. Because it has always been Mycroft's nature to hold his emotions tightly guarded. Because high strung feelings and melodrama have never actually solved a problem. Because if he allows himself to discuss how this feels, there is a mortifying possibility that he will cry in front of his younger brother.

But none of those would help in any way, so he forces his own annoyance down and says, “I would prefer there was water waiting for Gregory when he returns.”

***

Mycroft finds himself remembering last May when Gregory caught ship's fever. He'd been restricted to bed rest for days and spent most of it sleeping, so Mycroft charted courses for Williams and sat on deck sketching, constantly aware of Gregory's absence.

This journey feels the same, but Mycroft can't excuse himself to go knock on the cabin door, to ensure Gregory drinks enough tea and doesn't kick the blankets off. To run his fingers through the silver strands at Gregory’s temples, to open the window and tidy the room until Gregory rolls his eyes, begging him to get some fresh air and stop fussing.

They take the most direct route possible, with Mycroft meticulously checking their headings every half hour, insisting they correct every time they start to veer off course. It still takes days to arrive at their destination: an unpopulated island with a river close to shore. Easy access to water and no chance of further infection.

The next day is swallowed by simple logistics. Taking smaller barrels to the river, filling them, rowing them back to the ship to fill the large casks of water, returning and repeating until the casks are full. Sherlock is on every team of men sent out, hurrying everyone and keeping their pace swift. Mycroft stays on the Lydia, ensuring the storeroom remains organised.

As soon as that last full cask is hoisted in the storeroom, Mycroft would raise anchor and return, but the new captain orders them to stay and wait out the coming storm.

There's a miserable day of rain thundering against the deck, every man lurking below decks to avoid the downpour. Mycroft stays in his cabin, back to the wall and knees drawn up, reading books by a flickering candle. The unsteady light gives him a headache halfway through the day, so Mycroft blows out the candle and closes his eyes, lets his mind drift with the steady noise of pouring rain.

The last time it rained like this… The last time they were in harbour, anchored for the storm season. Most of the men were on shore, the majority in the inns and brothels near the docks, and Gregory had made sure everything was lashed down before retiring for the night.

He'd stepped into their cabin dripping wet, and it had been a combined effort to peel the sodden clothes from his skin, to hang the heavy coat and breeches around the cabin to dry.

Admittedly, by the time they got to Gregory's cotton shirt, he probably could have done it without help. But Gregory stood there -- the white fabric translucent and clinging to the firm lines of his chest, showing the dark shadow of chest hair beneath -- Gregory stood there and grinned at him, holding out his wrists for Mycroft to free.

Mycroft can remember pulling apart the laces at the cuffs and then sliding his hands down Gregory's hips and the outside of his thighs, the cold, wet cotton and the chill of the skin underneath. He'd taken his time catching the end of the shirt and dragging it up, past Gregory's chest and shoulders, over his head.

“I should fetch a towel,” Mycroft said as Gregory stepped closer, as Gregory's cold hand wrapped around the back of his neck.

“You should warm me up.” Words whispered right against his lips, their meaning obvious.

“I should do both,” Mycroft replied, taking a few quick steps away and returning with a towel as quickly as he was able. He wrapped it around Gregory, rubbing his hands along the plane of Gregory's back, quick firm movements to warm the skin.

Shaking his head, Gregory wrapped his arms around Mycroft's shoulders, dragging him in for a kiss. “Not what I meant, Fancy,” he murmured gently. Another kiss, and then he said, “Take me to bed, dear husband,” exploiting the warmth that bloomed in Mycroft's chest every time he used that phrase.

Really, Mycroft had no choice but to climb beneath the covers and warm every inch of skin he could reach.

***

Mycroft is not a religious man. He's never seen any proof of a great creator and he's never seen the sense in believing something unsupported by logic and fact. Yet when he wakes in the middle of the night with the ship creaking as she sails, as he lies in that uncomfortable hammock and misses Gregory -- the heat of his body, the scent of his skin, the weight of an arm across Mycroft's chest -- he finds himself reciting the prayers of his childhood. The words echo with an instinctive pattern, familiar and known, even if he doesn't believe.

It distracts him from his fears. The constant worry that when they return to the island, that the flags will still show twenty-one days. The naval rule is three weeks after the last infection. Gregory was a midshipman; he knows those rules are too important to risk breaking. If a man falls sick, he will restart the count and wait out the days.

Mycroft doubts Sherlock will bear it. He's seen the supply of herbs Sherlock gathered at their last stop. He's seen the deepening shadows beneath Sherlock's eyes as he spends days working on decks and nights extracting oils and powders to fill Watson's infirmary stocks.

Since Watson became the ship's doctor and gained his own room with its own small bed, Sherlock's hammock moved there as well. As far as Mycroft can see, there's no sign that Sherlock has gone back to that shared room for any longer than it takes to change clothes.

He worries that Sherlock's tiredness will make him misstep in the rigging, that he'll fall, that it will be a disaster without a doctor on board. He worries that they'll return to the port to find the flags have changed, to find they must wait another three weeks. He worries the flags could say something worse, could say that Watson is infected. He knows that all the logic in the world would not sway Sherlock. If there is any immunity from exposure, from years spent in these environs, he and Sherlock would be the least protected, but Sherlock won't care. If Watson is ill, nothing short of incarceration will stop Sherlock from going to his friend.

If Watson is dead, Mycroft has no idea how Sherlock will respond. The idea fills him with dread. A shapeless fog of worry that he will be incapable of comforting Sherlock, that he will be useless in the face of such deeply felt grief.

It is his greatest fear. It feels disloyal. His greatest fear should be Gregory's death, but the consequences of that are easier to foresee. The crew would mourn him but elect a new captain; Sherlock would miss him as a captain and shipmate, but the men around him would share that grief and let it show. Mycroft knows himself well enough to know that he would be practical. That he would be hollow and sad, lesser without Gregory's warmth and bright smiles, but he could continue as necessary. He could teach another man to read the charts. Could ask Sherlock to review the work and check for errors. Could find somewhere small and quiet, a cottage on the edge of some island town, and live a small, quiet life. Given enough time and solitude, even a shattered heart must eventually mend.

It's far from ideal, but it's a workable plan, a ready contingency. He could bear it and might be able to keep his composure. But to see Sherlock distraught and be unable to help? Or even worse, to stay on the ship and wait as Sherlock succumbed to illness, to wait for news that Sherlock, Gregory and Watson had all been buried? He doesn't know where he'd start if something so terrible were to happen.

So he recites prayers. He lies awake at night and translates them into Greek, French and Latin. He makes himself focus on each and every word until the swaying of the ship rocks him back to sleep.

***

There's a worried silence on deck as they come around the coast. The Lydia is usually alive with the sound of chatter and laughter, men yelling to each other across the rigging or talking as they haul ropes or scrub the decks. This quiet is uneasy as if the entire crew are tiptoeing about their duties, waiting for the spotter's call from the mast. Of course, Sherlock is clinging to highest point on the main mast, leaning forward as if an extra inch will let him make out the flags flying in port.

If everything has gone miraculously well, the flags will signal twelve days remaining. If the number is higher than that, someone has fallen sick.

Mycroft can't bring himself to look so he sits on the quarterdeck, back to the growing green shape of the island. His sketchbook is open but he hasn't made a mark. His fingers are clenched too tightly to draw anything but scribbles. He glances over at the wooden stairs leading down to the navigation room below them. He could go down there, could unroll a map and pretend to mark their progress. He could hide from the terribly unsubtle glances directed at him by the men as if he somehow knows more than they do.

He's as uninformed as the rest of the crew and like them, unable to do anything about it. They have no choice but to wait.

At that last curve of land, where lush green slopes meet a steep rocky drop to the sea, Mycroft stands up. He means to go below. He wants to avoid whatever news is waiting. If Gregory's already succumbed to illness, he wants as much time as he can have before he has to acknowledge the fact. But his legs won't move. He's locked into place as the Lydia sails closer, as the sheltered bay resolves into a usable dock and the blurs on the water become small fishing vessels.

He can't bring himself to look at the flags, but the call is echoed down from the mast. “Two flags!” yells someone. “Twelve days of quarantine!”

There's a rousing cheer all around Mycroft but he barely hears it. He's too busy pulling out his spyglass to see for himself. To check the flags: Quarantine. One. Two.

Mycroft falls clumsily back onto his seat. His hands tremble from the sudden release of tension. He can almost taste the relief on the back of his tongue: thick and sour as bad milk.

He forces a few slow, deep breaths to regain his equilibrium before anyone else sees.

***

Twelve days is a long time for a ship as large as the Lydia to stay in such an exposed port, but neither Williams nor Spate suggest leaving. “If we see other sails, we might have no choice,” Spate says, “but we'll stay here as long as we can.”

After a few days of idleness, Williams sets the men to repairing rope and replacing worn blocks. The carpenter is kept constantly busy. Mycroft keeps himself busy in the navigation room, copying maps. There are times when he sits in a chair and closes his eyes for a moment, only to wake a few hours later, stiff and sore.

Those are the nights he'll wander on deck, spyglass in hand, and search for the flags flying above that fishing boat. Usually, it's too dark to make out their meaning but the crew watches them all day. He would have heard their reactions if it had changed for the worse.

He only checks for the faint security of knowing those flags still fly. To remind himself that Gregory is still there, that all is well, that this long stretch of endless waiting is the best possible scenario.

Tonight, there's a lantern burning on the dock and a dark figure sitting beside it. No hat on his head and shoulders slumped as if he's contemplating the dark water below his feet.

Even with his spyglass, Mycroft can't recognise the man. His head is tilted into shadow and the yellow lantern light catches brightly at his temples. Mycroft could tell himself that it's Gregory, that this is a sign of devotion, but he knows that Gregory wouldn't abandon his men to their thoughts at a time like this. He would sit vigil with them, would talk to them and keep morale high. He would not sneak off in the middle of the night.

The figure raises his head and the light reveals Watson's boyish face. He's unfolding something from his hands, a white cotton handkerchief. He holds it up to the light and it shows two dark lines running along and across, separating the white fabric into nine squares.

He pins a smaller, darker piece of fabric behind the middle square, shading it black-blue. Mycroft watches his face, watches him grin and nod, and then pull another bit of cloth, a lighter linen. He pins that to another square, then holds the fabric up. Nine squares: one dark and one showing as a beige shadow. Watson lowers the fabric, adds another dark square and holds it up for someone to see.

Mycroft looks along the deck and finds Sherlock on the quarterdeck, lantern beside him and his own collection of fabrics. He has a duplicate of Watson's squares. It's clear from Sherlock's grin that it's a game, not a form of communication.

Mycroft watches them for a moment. Observes their open smiles and Sherlock's pleased bow of defeat when he allows Watson to win the first game.

He retires to bed before Sherlock sees him.

***

The days pass slowly but Mycroft does what he can to fill them. The longer he keeps himself occupied, the less time he has to notice how much he misses Gregory. It's an acute and sharp feeling, an ache below and beneath his ribs. It's a cold draft along his back when Gregory's not there to hold him; the growing tension in his shoulders as the flags count the remaining days: nine, then seven, then four. It's the quality of silence at night when there should be the slow, regular breaths of another.

Those are the nights he can't sleep, the nights he creeps up on deck and stands in the shadows, watching Sherlock by his lantern. There is a bitter twist of something Mycroft fears is jealousy for his younger brother. Jealousy is an ugly, petty emotion that does no good. He doesn't want to indulge it, but he hasn't seen Gregory's handsome face in over two weeks and there's Sherlock, playing games with Watson every night.

It doesn't help that Sherlock is becoming increasingly belligerent during daylight hours. He has the reassurance of seeing Watson every night, yet increasingly spends his time in the infirmary, muttering over various glass vials and snapping at anyone who distracts him.

Mycroft tries to be patient. Tries to remember that Sherlock has always had a passionate nature, changeable as the ocean and impossible to tame. He can be navigated with care, so Mycroft does his best to stay calm while Sherlock's mood grows darker.

But when he finds Sherlock stacking a rowboat with bags and crates, his own spare clothes peeking from a sack, Mycroft has no temperance left.

“What sort of fool are you?” Mycroft demands, words hissed in anger. “Return those items at once.”

It's two bells into middle watch, and the deck is dark and almost empty. There are sailors on watch up in the rigging, and a few men playing cards in the navigation room, but the rest of the crew are asleep while they're anchored.

On any other ship, Sherlock leaving in the middle of the night would be an act of desertion. Here, it's merely an act of extreme stupidity. It's obvious that Sherlock will head straight for the deck, straight to John Watson.

“I haven't stolen anything,” Sherlock replies sharply. “I gathered the ingredients for the medicines and I've paid for the food.”

He has the nerve to turn his back to Mycroft, bending over bags to lower something else into the small boat. Mycroft reaches out and yanks at Sherlock's elbow. It's only Sherlock's surprise that allows him to be turned.

“You will not leave, Sherlock. You will not break quarantine.”

“You can't stop me,” Sherlock says, using both hands to shove Mycroft backwards, to leave him stumbling for a few clumsy steps. “If you want to stay onboard, timid and cowering,” Sherlock says, eyes narrowed and pulling himself up to his full height, “go ahead.”

“There are four more days of quarantine.”

“And no one has fallen ill. The risk is negligible.”

“It is still a risk,” Mycroft replies, stunned by Sherlock's willing shortsightedness. By the reckless selfishness of his impulsive plan. “If you break quarantine, we'll have to wait another three weeks. All of us.”

“I’ll be there and back before dawn,” Sherlock replies smugly. “No one needs to know.”

Sometimes Mycroft knows his brothers too well. He knows that Sherrinford's sweetest smiles heralded something unpleasant; he knows that Sherlock only sounds smug when he's already proved a theory. “How many times have you been over there?” Mycroft asks carefully, waiting for the answer before he considers the danger brought onboard.

He's read reports from plague ships, entire naval crews defeated by miserable, suffering deaths. He's heard admirals bicker over the economies of war: if the risk of losing a new crew to contagion was worse than the cost of burning an entire ship.

Sherlock knows him too. He hears Mycroft's tone and leans back, ducking his head. He suddenly looks every inch his eighteen years, an overgrown boy playing at adulthood. “Only once. I left provisions on the dock. I didn't talk to anyone. I didn't risk infection.”

Mycroft glances at the boat. The moonlight catches on the white cuffs of Sherlock's spare shirts. Spare clothes would not be necessary if he planned to return before he was missed. “Unload the boat.”

Sherlock looks around the dark and empty deck, calculating his options. As much as he wants to row towards Watson, Mycroft would only have to raise his voice to have men come running. Men have been known to panic and take crazy chances under the spectre of the plague; Sherlock would end up in the brig until Gregory returns.

Mycroft allows Sherlock a few moments to think his actions through to their most likely end, and then says, “I'll help you carry it back to Watson's room.”

***

In all likelihood, Sherlock won't attempt anything so reckless again but Mycroft dislikes taking unnecessary chances. When they get to the doctor's room, Mycroft closes the door behind them. He looks around the room, from the narrow bed against one wall, the drawers and desk against the opposite wall, and the hammock hanging between them. The bed hasn't been touched in weeks.

Sherlock frowns as Mycroft sits on the bed. “What are you doing?”

“Ensuring you don't suffer from another lapse of judgment.”

“You can't stay here.” Sherlock sounds offended by the very idea. Mycroft doesn't care in the least.

“Until Watson returns, I will.”

Sherlock shakes his head, dark curls a disagreeable riot. “No.”

“Sherlock, this is not a negotiation,” Mycroft says plainly. “This is a parole. Either I stay with you and ensure you don't do anything egregiously idiotic, or I tell Williams and you spend the next three days in the brig.”

“You wouldn't,” Sherlock says and he almost sounds certain. During their childhood, Mycroft was the one who protected Sherlock from consequences, who made sure things were fixed before anyone else knew about them. He's never betrayed Sherlock's confidences and he's never threatened to tell any source of authority.

“To keep you safe,” Mycroft says, uncomfortable with the sentiment but forcing himself to meet Sherlock's eyes, “I will.”

Sherlock stares at him as if he simply doesn't believe Mycroft. It takes a few minutes of silence before he recognises that Mycroft is serious.

“No one's fallen ill yet,” Sherlock mutters sullenly.

“Then waiting a few more days is a sensible precaution.”

“Sensible,” Sherlock scoffs, pulling off his coat with sharp, irritated movements. “How lucky the captain is to marry such a sensible man.”

Mycroft ignores the jibe and removes his shoes. He sits up on the bed, back to the wall, and draws his knees to his chest. He watches Sherlock climb into the hammock half dressed and prepares himself for a sleepless night.

***

In the dark, Mycroft's attention drifts with the sound of waves and ship's bells marking time. He leans against the wall, sitting up to try to keep himself alert. A good precaution when he hears the rustle of fabric and the soft sound of socked footfalls.

“Back to bed, Sherlock,” Mycroft says firmly and the footfalls stop.

“I want another blanket,” Sherlock says, lying graciously.

In the dark, Mycroft can make out the darker shape of Sherlock. He pulls a blanket off Watson's bed and pushes it into Sherlock's hands. “Now, back to bed.”

Sherlock snatches it and climbs back into the hammock in one easy movement. “You can't stay here as my prison guard. You have to sleep.”

“I'll sleep when you're on deck,” Mycroft replies because he is more than capable of standing watch over Sherlock if it is required. As a short-term solution, it is vastly better than dealing with the crew's reactions or the lack of trust that might result.

In the darkness, he hears Sherlock twist and turn. There's only another hour to dawn and then there will be too much light for Sherlock's foolish idea. Hopefully, Sherlock will see sense in the morning. He only needs to distract Sherlock long enough...

“Watson has eight siblings.”

“Five brothers, three sisters,” Sherlock says and then rattles off their names. Possibly in chronological order. “Did you think John hadn't told me?”

Mycroft pinches the bridge of his nose. He wasn't looking for a fight. “Gregory has an older sister, with three children of her own. He had two younger brothers but they both died of influenza as children.”

“And your point, Mycroft?”

“We are lucky to have each other.” Sherlock snorts in mockery, so Mycroft takes a deep breath and forces the words out. “I would do anything I could to keep you safe.”

“As long as it doesn't inconvenience you.”

“That is unfair.”

“You were happy enough to leave so you could be master of your own estate. I don't recall any brotherly sentiment back then.”

Mycroft wants to object. It was years ago and surely Sherlock can't still be angry over that supposed betrayal. At the time, he hadn't wanted Sherlock to feel guilty for something beyond his control. Now… There's no reason to keep it a secret now. “It was all I could do to keep you safe,” he says softly.

“After a season of balls,” Sherlock says derisively, knowing that Mycroft had hated attending them as much as Sherlock had mocked them, “you had no suitors in London. Your only offer came from the colonies, and that had nothing to do with me.”

“Sherrinford,” Mycroft says but his throat closes around the name. Like a child afraid of summoning a ghost, he hasn't uttered that name on this ship. Perhap there isn’t any value in telling Sherlock now...

But Sherlock is up and out of his hammock, a shadow looming over the bed. “Sherrinford, what?”

“If I had refused,” Mycroft says slowly, words whispered in the dark, “Sherrinford said he would accept on your behalf.”

Mycroft doesn't say any more. He doesn't need to spell the situation out to Sherlock. Short of running away and being disinherited, Sherlock wouldn't have been able to refuse. Not while his legal guardian agreed to the marriage.

Sherlock sits on the other end of Watson's small bed. Legs folded beneath him, he leans back against the wall, not touching Mycroft in any way. “On the Imperium, there were stories about Magnussen,” he says slowly, awkwardly. “He wouldn't have been a kind husband.”

“Agreed.” If there is one thing Gregory has always been, it's kind. Not something Mycroft expected to find within his marriage but all the more precious for it.

“I came after you anyway,” Sherlock says and Mycroft hears the unspoken rebuke: you could have told me.

In hindsight, Sherlock's right. He should have. He would have, if he'd been capable of conceiving the life they've found, a life that pleases them both. “It was a failure of imagination,” Mycroft confesses. “Every option I considered presumed one of us would be unhappy.”

In the darkness, Mycroft holds his knees to his chest. Outside, the waves are a comforting susurrus. There's a sigh and then fabric moving as Sherlock shifts backwards on the bed.

Finally, Sherlock says, “Impulsive plans aren't always wrong.”

His plan to follow Mycroft into a life of piracy was little more than a whim. It was a sudden and ill-considered plan, yet Mycroft is grateful for it. He dreads what his life would have been without Sherlock's unforeseen arrival.

“Not always,” Mycroft allows. “But right now, everyone is well and we only need wait a few more days. Rushing to action just for the sake of doing something will not help.”

Perhaps this is a conversation suited to the dark. If they could see each other, Mycroft would dissect Sherlock's every expression and try to guess his meaning before he spoke. He wouldn't listen as closely to what Sherlock chooses to say.

“Not all of us find it so easy to be patient.”

Easy. The idea that the last few weeks have been easy is ludicrous. Mycroft spends all night missing Gregory and all day trying to keep busy, trying to forget that Gregory is not here. “The most difficult thing is doing nothing. Knowing that there is nothing you can do, there is no contingency plan that will help if the worst happens. Knowing that all you can do is sit and wait, hoping that each day's news is good. There is nothing easy about it.”

After that uncomfortable confession, they call a silent truce. Each of them sit on opposite ends of Watson's bed, waiting for dawn.

***

Mycroft wakes hours after dawn, leaning uncomfortably against the wooden wall. Sherlock is curled up in a similarly awkward position at the foot of the bed. He has one shoulder pressed to the wall, legs bent sideways to fit on the mattress, head hanging forward.

Mycroft moves by inches, shifting gently off the bed to not wake Sherlock. He has to hold onto the wall when he finally stands, wait for the feeling to return to his left foot. He could wake Sherlock, escort him above deck where the rest of the crew could watch over him, but it's daylight. Sherlock couldn't leave the ship without being spotted, and Sherlock has been looking tired. Even energetic young men need some sleep.

So Mycroft folds back the blankets on the bed. He slowly reaches for Sherlock's shoulders, applying gentle pressure until Sherlock turns away from the wall and down to the mattress. He's still in the middle of the bed but it's bound to be more comfortable lying down.

As Mycroft pulls the blankets over Sherlock, Sherlock's fingers grab his wrist. “John?” Sherlock rumbles, still mostly asleep. Sherlock sounds defenceless, soft and trusting in a way he never is.

Once again, Mycroft desperately hopes that Watson returns. He swallows past the catch in his throat to whisper, “Back to sleep, Sherlock,” and Sherlock grumbles something in reply and rolls over.

***

By unspoken agreement, Mycroft returns to Watson's room that night. At first watch, Sherlock gets up to go on deck and Mycroft follows. He stays in the shadows, out of sight as Sherlock stands by his lantern, playing his game of coloured squares with Watson. It's the first time Sherlock's smiled all day.

Afterwards, they go back to Watson's room. Mycroft takes the bed, Sherlock takes the hammock.

They do the same the next night, but Sherlock breaks the silence when they're both trying to sleep. “Don't tell John. That I… He wouldn't approve of breaking quarantine.”

Mycroft could extract a promise or a favour. Could hold it as blackmail for the next time Sherlock is difficult. The idea is both practical and abhorrent. “You listened to reason. There's no need for Watson to know.”

“He'll know you were sleeping in his bed.”

“Easily explained,” Mycroft replies. “Tell him three weeks was too long sleeping in a hammock.”

“Too long?” Sherlock asks, confused. Clearly, Watson hasn't told him of Mycroft's great antipathy towards hammocks.

“Watson can explain the context to you later.”

***

He spends one more night in Watson's bed but it's far from restful. It's the last night of quarantine and Mycroft finds sleep elusive. He desperately wants it to be tomorrow. He wants to be back in his bed, back in their cabin. He wants Gregory's arms around him and Gregory mumbling, “Back to sleep, Fancy.”

But since he can't have that -- not tonight, not yet -- he lies in the dark and mentally reviews their current stores, their position, the first things they'll need to restock and the island towns most likely to sell to them. He listens to the bells above calling the time and Sherlock's steady breaths, waiting for the night to pass.

“Can't sleep?” Sherlock asks. The hammock hangs in front of the window, the moonlight cut in two by the curve of fabric.

Mycroft sighs. The answer is obvious.

“How can three weeks seem so long?” Sherlock complains.

Mycroft stares at the wooden ceiling above him. “Because misery stretches minutes into hours.” It is overly sentimental but the hour is late.

The waves below lap against the side of the ship. Eventually, Sherlock says, “John will be back tomorrow.” His tone is definitive; Mycroft doesn't know which one of them he's trying to convince.

“The quarantine started at noon,” Mycroft reminds him. “They won't return until the afternoon.”

***

The sun burns down brightly. Mycroft should be wearing his hat. He can feel the heat burning the side of his neck, but he doesn't fetch it. He can't bear leaving the deck.

On the water below, a rowboat with nine men -- nine healthy men -- comes steadily closer. Watson yells out the strokes and the oars splash into the water, across and down, up and back. Mycroft's watching for the wide brim of Gregory's hat, the weathered green of his coat.

Gregory's sitting at the back of the boat, head tilted against the sun. Mycroft can't see his face or read his expression, but it's definitely him.

When the boat comes close to the Lydia, Mycroft steps back. The men need to get through. The crew throw down ladders for men to climb and ropes to pull the rowboat out of the water. There's a cheer as the first man climbs on board -- Mattson, Mycroft believes -- and far too much backslapping and handshaking. It keeps a crowd pressed around the ladder and delays the next man.

There are four more men, and then Watson's boyish grin appears. Sherlock elbows past the throng to get to the front, to lean forward and offer Watson a steadying hand to pull him up to the deck

11/24/2021 02:46 PM 

Greed

Summary:

Greed (noun) \ ˈgrēd \: A selfish and excessive desire for more of something than is needed or deserved.

 

 

Kakashi knows he doesn’t deserve Tenzo. But god, does he want.

 

 

 

Kakashi had been alone for a very long time.

At first, it had hurt. It hurt so much, Kakashi couldn’t even describe it. He didn’t understand, how could he? He was just a kid. All he knew was one day, his father was here with him and the next, he was gone. And suddenly, Kakashi realized that the brave face Sakumo put on at home couldn’t hold, no matter how much Kakashi tried to help. In the end, Kakashi wasn’t enough to keep his father alive. He just wasn’t enough to live for.

Kakashi wished he could say he didn’t hold a grudge. But after the death of Sakumo, he grew up into a sharp, sarcastic, and often bitter little boy. Despite his attitude, despite his clinging to sometimes inhumane rules and closing off his emotions, he managed to find himself a semblance of a new family.

That family was ripped away from him, piece by piece. Most of it was Kakashi’s own doing. He has nightmares, horrible flashes of boulders crashing around him, or blinding, screaming bolts of lightning. He would wake up dirty and stained, and spend hours at his sink until the water over his hands ran cold. He knew, somewhere in his mind, that the blood wasn’t there. But he could see it, he could feel it, it was as real as the eye in his left socket, real as the guilt churning through his stomach and making him sick. Both ruthless, endless reminders that he destroyed any good thing, any good person in his life.

When Kushina and Minato-sensei died, Kakashi knew. It solidified in his mind an idea he had long ago, standing over his father’s lifeless body. The idea that maybe Kakashi just wasn’t deserving of love. Maybe loving Kakashi was a death sentence. Maybe the only way to keep people safe was to keep them at a distance.

Being alone wasn’t so bad anymore, not if the alternative was more loss.

It wasn’t as difficult as it was when he was young, but then again, he supposed all things got easier with time and experience. A good Shinobi was an island, after all, and Kakashi had become a very good Shinobi. He wasn’t devoid of emotions, not completely. No matter how much he tried to convince himself and everyone around him that he was. His ruse seemed to work well on both his fellow ANBU shinobi, as well as on the other Jonin from his class, and even the Hokage. Some looked at him with contempt, others with pity, and others still with fear. Kakashi ignored every look.

There were moments, still, when Kakashi would feel his resolve slipping. Moments late at night, when he was alone with nothing but flashbacks and tears from Obito’s eye to keep him company. He missed the comforting love from his father, and the camaraderie from his team. He missed missions that didn’t end with him puking his guts out in a corner of the ANBU locker room as the faces of his targets—his victims—swam in front of his vision even when he closed his eyes. He missed things he never even had; was burning with the jealousy of missed opportunities to have close friends, his insides squirming with deep sadness and longing and guilt whenever he brushed off an invitation for dango with the other Jonin his age. Gai, as always, never gave up on him…and that always made Kakashi feel worse. He was kind, and well-meaning, and Kakashi really, really didn’t want him to die. He was aware, on some level, that he was being irrational. But the people he let love him kept dying, and he refused to have another friend’s death on his hands. But he desperately wanted all these things he’d been denied—wanted so badly it made him feel sick.

He threw himself deeper into work, sinking further and further into the depths of life in ANBU. This was his purpose now, everything for the better of the village. He’d become the perfect soldier, and then he wouldn’t need anybody else. It was the perfect plan. Everyone would be safe that way. It was only miserable late at night, when Kakashi was alone, unable to clean the red from his hands.

When he met a little boy called Kinoe, he was immediately intrigued. He was small, and young, and used a technique Kakashi had only heard legends about. If Danzo’s offer had not interested Kakashi before, it may be worth it only to know more about this boy. The assassination attempt orchestrated by Danzo ends Kakashi’s interest in joining Root, but not in Kinoe. Against his better judgement, Kakashi allowed the boy to flee the scene, merely reporting his existence to the Hokage.

When Kakashi and Kinoe meet for a third time, it is when Kakashi is near death from the technique of a clan he had never even heard of before. Kinoe spares his life, but immediately restrains Kakashi under the pretense of interrogation. The mission passes in a confusing blur for Kakashi, having spent most of it chasing a little girl who insisted on calling Kinoe “Tenzo”, and the second part of it fighting Orochimaru. He wasn’t sure whether or not he considered the mission a success, considering the fact that Orochimaru escaped. But the little girl was free, and Kinoe smiled, and that was enough success for Kakashi. This was the second time Kakashi lied on a mission report, and he did it with zero regrets.

The third and fourth time Kakashi encountered Kinoe were separated by years, and Kakashi takes a second to recognize him. He’s taller, his hair is longer, but his eyes are the same. Kakashi knows they are on different missions, serving different masters, but he suggests they work together all the same. He believes when he tells Kinoe that they are both allies under the village of Konoha, and trusts him as he would a member of his own organization.

When Kinoe draws a blade against him, Kakashi defends himself on instinct. But this is too much, this can’t be happening again. He can’t be fighting a comrade again. He tells Kinoe to abandon his mission, that missions that call upon someone to kill a comrade were never worth it. And I would know. He didn’t expect Kinoe to bring up Rin. No one brought up Rin, not to Kakashi’s face. Sure, people loved to talk about it to everyone else. But people never even said her name when Kakashi was around, they were afraid of what Kakashi would do. As it turned out, guilt would churn in Kakashi’s stomach like it always did…and then, Kakashi would get angry. So angry, he’d forget even where he was.

When he came back to his senses, Kinoe was at the mercy of Kakashi and his chidori. And Kakashi gave mercy, electing instead to restrain Kinoe and take him back to the Hokage. Kinoe was two assassination attempts in, and Kakashi was pretty sure Danzo wasn’t gonna let him stop trying anytime soon. Kakashi was just wondering how Danzo managed to keep his position of power when he kept ordering Konoha soldiers and officials dead, when he was distracted by a very large snake swallowing his prisoner. Kakashi kills the snake and rescues Kinoe, but the resulting poisonous vapors render him incapacitated and weak. Some level of consciousness registers the fact that Kinoe half-drags half-carries him to a safe area and administers some kind of antidote, but then Kakashi is unconscious.

He wakes to find a note from Kinoe, hastily scrawled on fabric and pinned to the wall with a kunai. He reads the note quickly, his heartbeat pounding loudly in his ears. Kinoe abandoned his mission for Kakashi. He was going to report back to Danzo empty handed, and who knows what would happen to him then. Kakashi shouldn’t care. This boy was an obstacle every time Kakashi saw him. But he was also a friend, an ally of Konoha, and possibly the last person on Earth who could ever use wood style.

The Hokage wouldn’t give a damn about the first two, but he might care enough about wood style to do something.

Kakashi was right, the Hokage cared enough about Hashirama’s lost techniques to send an ANBU operative with a message to Danzo. But the time for messages was over. Kakashi wasn’t ever going to try to understand why someone like Danzo was allowed so much influence, he didn’t have the time nor the patience. What he did have was the skill and the balls to go into Root and get Kinoe his damn self.

Later, after he stole inside one of the most dangerous organizations in Konoha on an illegal, unsanctioned rescue mission for some boy he barely knew and almost killed three times, Kakashi would question what exactly it was that drew him to Kinoe. Sometime, after he introduced Tenzo to his ANBU comrades under his new code name, after he welcomed Tenzo to his ANBU team, after Tenzo called him “senpai” for the first of many times, Kakashi would question why Tenzo wasn’t turning tail and running the other way from him.

It wasn’t until after a late night together, after Tenzo witnessed him crying, and shaking, and scrubbing invisible blood off his hands, after Tenzo’s quiet voice and gentle hands brought Kakashi back to reality, Kakashi started to wonder if this was the love he had been desperately missing for almost his entire life.

The next nightmare, alongside the falling boulders and screaming flashes of lightning, featured bloodsoaked long brown hair and a cracked Konoha faceplate.

Kakashi would not allow Tenzo to end up that way.

He knew what happened to people he let get close, to people he loved. It didn’t matter how strong he was, or how capable they were. They would get hurt, and then they would be gone, and Kakashi would have to get used to being alone all over again. He needed to stop this while Tenzo was still okay.

The thought of pushing Tenzo back out hurt Kakashi more than he’d thought it would. He’d gotten a taste of the love and connections he’d missed so much, and he wasn’t ready to see it go. He’d never wanted anything more than Tenzo, the burning want for things he could not have that he’d felt since childhood was reaching new temperatures in his gut. He closed his eyes, letting the image of Tenzo’s pale and lifeless body motivate him. This was to save his life.

The shift back was gradual, Kakashi was too weak for it not to be. He started with talking a little less, making his words a little more curt. He cut back his out of mission time with Tenzo down until it was nothing at all. He pretended he didn’t notice the hurt and worry on Tenzo’s face every time he was brushed off or ignored. Pretended that none of this was bothering him. After all, Kakashi pretending to be okay was the longest and most successful con in the history of Konoha.

But, with how well Kakashi knew Tenzo, he should have expected him to not play along.

“Senpai?”

Kakashi tensed where he stood, slowly setting down the kunai he had reflexively drawn in his surprise. He’d never expected Tenzo to make a surprise window entrance into his apartment, but Tenzo was always exceeding his expectations.

“What?” Kakashi’s voice was flat and emotionless. His voice usually was, nowadays, when talking with Tenzo. It was a far cry from when Tenzo had first joined his team, when Kakashi let himself be vulnerable around another person for the first time in years. It was safe to say that Tenzo had made note of the change.

“Senpai, are you…are you okay?” Tenzo began, concern creeping into his voice. “Is something wrong?”

“No,” Kakashi answered. Simple responses, nowhere for Tenzo to go with them. Cut the conversation short.

“You’re lying to me,” Tenzo was clearly distressed. “Why? Kakashi, what’s the matter?”

Kakashi’s throat tightened at the switch to his name. This might not be as easy as he thought.

“What makes you think I’m lying?”

“You…these past few weeks…it’s like you hate me now, or something,” Tenzo seemed nervous. Kakashi glanced back at him and immediately regretted it; the earnest look in Tenzo’s eyes might be enough to break him if he kept looking.

“I don’t know what you mean.”

“This is just it,” Tenzo sighed. “We…we were close, and you…you would talk to me, about stuff, and now it seems that you just…only talk about missions…”

“I’m your superior,” Kakashi answered. “That’s what is appropriate for us to talk about.”

“What happened?” Tenzo asked again, stepping closer. “Did you—get in trouble, or something, for being friends with me?”

“No.”

“Then, why?” Tenzo’s voice grew softer. “I’m worried, Kakashi. I just—I care about you, you know? And I thought—I thought you cared about me,”

“I don’t,” Kakashi answered quickly, almost choking on the words. If he didn’t get them out fast, they never would come. “You’re my comrade, and I value you as such. You’re an asset to my team.”

Silence stretched for a few very long seconds, in which Tenzo was stunned and Kakashi was bracing for fallout.

“Bullsh*t,” Tenzo finally managed. “That—I refuse to believe that, Senpai.”

“Well, that’s your problem,” Kakashi muttered. “Keep deluding yourself if you wish. Don’t let it affect missions.”

“Kakashi!” Tenzo protested, stepping closer still and reaching for Kakashi’s arm. “What are you talking about? What happened to you?”

Kakashi jerked his arm away like Tenzo’s touch would burn him, taking several steps to distance the two of them.

“Don’t touch me,” Kakashi warned, turning his back. “If this is all you wanted, feel free to go.”

The two stood in tense silence, in which Kakashi knew that Tenzo had no intention of leaving. Tenzo had grown stubborn and assertive in his time spent with Kakashi, and had a long standing history of not letting Kakashi get the last word, rank be damned.

“If you really don’t care,” Tenzo spoke through gritted teeth, his shaking hands clenched into fists at his side. “If you really don’t care about me, why did you even come after me? Why not leave me with Danzo? You could have left me to rot in Root forever but you didn’t, Kakashi, because you care.”

“I went back to Root for you because you are an asset to the village—”

“You’re really gonna tell me that was the only reason?” Tenzo challenged. “You came back for me. You care about me, Kakashi. It’s okay to say so. Not everything you do has to be for duty, or for the village, you can act selfish for once—”

“My reasons for getting you weren’t selfish just because you want them to be,” Kakashi snarled. “Drop this. Now.”

Tenzo’s face fell, he squeezed his eyes shut and ducked his head, letting a curtain of brown hair hide his face. “Kaka—”

“Drop. This.” Kakashi repeated, staring forward, determined not to look over at Tenzo. “That’s an order.”

Tenzo froze, his eyes snapping open wide, his shoulders shaking gently with the effort to control his breath. “Yes, sir,” He whispered, slowly raising his head to glare at Kakashi’s back. “My mistake. It won’t happen again.”

Kakashi frowned, the slight quiver in Tenzo’s voice the only thing that betrayed his otherwise hardened professional façade. He was silent for several seconds, his chest constricting uncomfortably. He squeezed his eye shut, letting out a long sigh.

“Make sure it doesn’t.”

Kakashi stood still where he was until he heard Tenzo leave the way he came in, letting out a heavy sigh as he sank down onto the floor. Every part of his brain was screaming at him to stop Tenzo, bring him back and tell him the truth, but Kakashi forced himself to remain still. He didn’t even look at Tenzo, and he knew that he hurt him. Badly. Dammit, he was just trying to keep him safe. There was no way that he could explain without sounding crazy, but he knew this was for the best. Someone like him didn’t deserve someone like Tenzo, anyway. Kakashi ruined everything good in his life. It was better for Tenzo that he stay away.

Kakashi got his discharge from ANBU not long after that. The guilt he felt churning in his stomach at the betrayal written all over Tenzo’s face as he cleared out his locker was familiar, but it didn’t make it any easier to endure. He turned to say something, anything, to Tenzo, but he was gone when Kakashi turned around. Kakashi cleared out his possessions and left without ceremony, his mind completely occupied with Tenzo. Cutting people out had never hurt this bad before. Now that they didn’t work together anymore, Kakashi supposed he’d probably never see Tenzo again. He reminded himself, firmly, that this was all for the best. It was keeping Tenzo safe.

When the nightmares played through his head yet again that night, Tenzo, mercifully, was left out of them.

___

 

Kakashi was older now. Less alone, but maybe more broken than when he was younger.

Leaving ANBU wasn’t enough to cure him of his darkness, even if it took on a different form now. People whispered about him still; about his ruthlessness, about his genius, about his willingness to kill his allies. But now, they also whispered about “disturbed”, about “obsessed”, about how he failed three Genin teams for “unimportant reasons”. And, as usual, Kakashi ignored them. People could scoff all they wanted about how there were things more important than teamwork. Kakashi wasn’t about to let anyone else live like him. Just because he couldn’t let anyone love him didn’t mean that had to be every Shinobi’s life. These kids deserved better. He’d promised Obito and Rin that these kids would have better.

Slowly, eventually, the nightmares started to get better. Less frequent, at least. They were still brutal, and still had Kakashi waking in sweat, but the blood was never there anymore. If Kakashi was honest, the blood hadn’t been there since Tenzo talked him down that night when they were young.

Tenzo. Kakashi didn’t think about him very much, not anymore. When he first left ANBU, he wondered about Tenzo almost every day. He worried for him, he sometimes even went by his house to make sure he was still okay. He stopped doing it once Tenzo started using blackout curtains. So, the little bastard was still perceptive, then. It brought a small smile to Kakashi’s face, even though it was a new kind of hurt not to even be able to see Tenzo from afar anymore.

A lot had changed for Kakashi since he’d left ANBU. For one, he’d finally managed to pass a Genin team. A team with Minato-sensei’s son, no less. And somehow, when he least expected it, these three obnoxious little a**holes managed to worm their way into his heart.

The first time they were in real danger, Kakashi felt years taken off his life. The fight with Zabuza and Haku was a new kind of stressful since Kakashi had the lives of three tiny, blundering people to watch out for at the same time he tried to neutralize the threat. He cared for these kids, he cared for them and that goddamn terrified him. There wasn’t much he could do to keep these kids distant from him, but he would try. He was a genius, so people liked to say. He could be a good teacher while remaining unattached.

So he showed up late for their training, he kept his nose in his book when he spoke to them, he never spoke about himself even if they asked. But, no matter how much he wanted to pretend he didn’t care about them, he cared about them a lot. They were all showing tremendous growth and potential. And, for once, Kakashi had three people who didn’t look at him with pity, or contempt, or fear. Well, sometimes they looked at him with contempt, when he was really late for training. But they didn’t see him as a weapon, or an asset to the village, or even a threat. He was just their lazy Jonin sensei, and it was freeing.

Another thing that changed once Kakashi left ANBU was his relationship with Gai. Kakashi’s three small brats had taken emotional sledgehammers to Kakashi’s mental walls, and he slowly managed to open himself up to Gai. Not as much as he’d opened himself to Tenzo when they were young, but more than he’d opened up in a very long time. He was still reserved, he didn’t think he’d ever match Gai’s outward enthusiasm for their friendship (and he honestly didn’t want to), but he was okay with admitting to himself that he cared about Gai. He cared about and appreciated Gai deeply, and he always had. He kind of regretted being an a**hole when he was younger, even though Gai always seemed to take it in stride. But even though Kakashi had relaxed, the anxiety still lingered. The guilt telling Kakashi that someone like him didn’t deserve relationships like this still reared its ugly head every so often, and Kakashi tried his best to quash it. It was right, but Kakashi didn’t want to think about it.

When one by one, his Genin team left him, Kakashi felt the heavy weight of guilt in his stomach like a familiar friend. They may not be dead, (and Kakashi felt sick to his stomach at the thought), but they were still gone. Sasuke deserted, Naruto and Sakura both left him for better teachers…and Kakashi couldn’t blame them. He wasn’t cut out for teaching, he wasn’t cut out for anything that wasn’t killing, if he was honest. And he definitely, truly, did not deserve the love and camaraderie from his team. He couldn’t protect the people he cared for, he never could. It was better that they found other people to mentor them.

Adjusting to life without his students surprisingly well. He threw himself back into S-rank missions, using the sense of purpose they gave him as a distraction from the inevitable loneliness. Even when Naruto came back and he was sent on missions with his team again, Kakashi still didn’t feel as though his team was back together. There was a distance between the three of them, and Kakashi couldn’t say he didn’t expect it. But still, Kakashi’s heart ached with how proud he was of hist former students, and he hoped he would be able to share in their successes for as long as he could.

___

Kakashi honestly never thought he would see Tenzo ever again.

So, when Kakashi was in the hospital to recover from chakra depletion and exhaustion, the last thing he expected was Tsunade to walk in with Tenzo.

He looked different; taller and broader, more filled-out. His hair was shorter, in a practical style, and he’d swapped the ANBU armor for standard Jonin blacks and vest. He looked different, to be sure, but his eyes were the same. His eyes were always the same.

If Kakashi wasn’t expecting to see Tenzo again, he definitely wasn’t expecting how much it would hurt. He immediately could only remember the last conversation they had before Kakashi left ANBU, how badly Kakashi had tried to convince Tenzo that he never cared. But he did. He cared so much, and seeing Tenzo again only reminded him of that fact.

Tsunade was talking, saying something about Kakashi’s team needing a leader in his absence, but Kakashi wasn’t listening.

“Tenzo?” he breathed, struggling to lift his head off the pillow to get a better look.

“You can’t call me that when I’m undercover, Senpai,” Tenzo chided him gently. “I’m Yamato now.”

Kakashi wrinkled his nose, not liking the change of name at all. Here he was, going by yet another name that wasn’t his, all in the name of what the village wanted to tell him was his duty. It reminded Kakashi of Root, and he wanted to object.

Tenzo was awkward in Kakashi’s hospital room, not meeting Kakashi’s gaze very often, shifting and fidgeting as though he were uncomfortable. Kakashi, conversely, couldn’t take his eyes off Tenzo in that moment. He didn’t realize how much he had missed having Tenzo in his life, he didn’t let himself realize. And, in the time they were apart, Kakashi would admit that he’d grown up. He knew that people didn’t die just because he cared about them…but he still deeply believed that he wasn’t deserving of the love and affection that people seemed to want to give him.

Tenzo left Kakashi’s room with Tsunade before Kakashi could think of a reason to try and get him to stay. Kakashi wished he could get up and follow them, make Tenzo listen so he could tell him…what? Just saying he was sorry wasn’t enough. Saying that he was happy to see him again was an understatement. Kakashi was never good with words, and he never regretted it until this moment. But he hadn’t wanted a person’s presence so much since he was younger, since he and Tenzo first shared a team. The want was intoxicating.

When the remnants of Team Seven came back without Sasuke yet again, it was more of a blow to Kakashi than he expected. He didn’t have high hopes for Sasuke, and he was still crushingly disappointed. He mostly was upset for his students, they had both gone through so much only to be defeated yet again. Kakashi had no idea how Naruto managed to keep his morale up, when Kakashi was his age he would undoubtedly have left Sasuke as a lost cause.

It was several days after their unsuccessful return, and Kakashi hadn’t had a chance to talk to Tenzo again. It was driving Kakashi crazy that Tenzo was here, he was closer than he’d been in years, and Kakashi couldn’t find him. He wasn’t good at talking, and he knew it, but he just wanted another chance. He didn’t deserve it, he didn’t even deserve the first chance.

Kakashi sat atop a particularly tall roof, staring out at the dark night sky, watching as clouds slowly traveled to cover the moon. He tensed when he felt a presence land behind him, positioned neatly in his blind spot. Before Kakashi could turn, his visitor spoke.

“It’s been a while, Senpai.”

“Tenzo,” Kakashi breathed out a heavy sigh, mostly in relief. “I…it really has.”

Tenzo moved forward, not joining Kakashi at his seat, but standing next to him at least. Kakashi looked up, unable to meet Tenzo’s eyes. He was certain Tenzo was doing it on purpose.

“I thought about you a lot,” Tenzo spoke up. “After you left.”

“So did I,” Kakashi answered. “I thought about you.”

“I know,” he sighed. “That’s why I got the new curtains.”

“Touché.”

They fell into a slightly awkward silence yet again, neither of them moving away or looking at each other.

“I…asked to be sent back to Root.”

Kakashi looked up then, his eye widening.

“What? Tenzo, you didn’t—”

“Right after you left? Yeah, I did,” Tenzo laughed softly, clearly a little embarrassed. “I damn near begged. Lord Third wasn’t having any of it, of course he wasn’t. He put me on leave instead, something about emotional distress.”

Kakashi just sighed, the guilt clawing at his insides. Tenzo had been so affected by their argument that he wanted to go back to Root to get away from Kakashi.

“Tenzo, I—”

“I didn’t understand, for a really long time. I still don’t, really,” Tenzo cut him off. “I just…what did I do, Kakashi?” his voice was so quiet. “What changed?”

“Nothing,” Kakashi said quickly, his voice coming out strangled and rough. “You didn’t do anything, Tenzo. I…it was me.”

“You’re really giving me the ‘it’s not you, it’s me’?” Tenzo scoffed. “Really, Senpai?”

“It’s the truth,” Kakashi sighed. “Do you…do you remember that night, when we were younger? I woke up with nightmares…and you helped me?”

“Of course.”

“That—when I was younger, I thought that people died when they were close to me,” it was the first time Kakashi ever admitted it out loud. It sounded even dumber this way. “After that night I was thinking about you, and—how much you meant to me, how much I cared about you…and you died in my dreams that night.”

Tenzo bit his lower lip gently, but let Kakashi continue.

“I was young, and dumb, and scared sh*tless to lose you, Tenzo,” Kakashi whispered. “I didn’t know what else to do. I thought that if you didn’t know that I cared about you…you would be safe.”

There was another long pause, in which Tenzo finally moved to sit next to Kakashi. Tenzo looked over at him, finally, and spoke again.

“Kakashi…no offence, but that’s the dumbest thing you’ve ever done.”

Kakashi winced, looking down at his lap. “I know.”

“Now I just don’t understand why you’d ever think that would work.”

“I don’t know,” Kakashi muttered. “I…it’s been happening ever since I was young. People who love me keep dying. My dad killed himself, my team died because of me…Minato and Kushina died, when I was supposed to be protecting her…and I just convinced myself that the people who loved me died because I don’t deserve the love. It keeps happening, Tenzo.”

“Kakashi—”

“My team all left to find better teachers, and I can’t even blame them. They deserve better than me.”

Tenzo sighed heavily, unsure of what to say. He laid a gentle hand on Kakashi’s shoulder, the comforting warmth doing nothing to sooth the guilt in Kakashi’s gut.

“And I know it’s my fault,” Kakashi murmured. “I know that…people don’t just die because I love them. I know that. But still…you and the kids…it’s my fault you’re gone.”

“Kakashi?”

“People are always calling me things. A genius, a hero, a murderer, a friend-killer…one extreme or the other, you know? But I’m not any of those things I—I’m just a guy, Tenzo. I’m just a pathetic guy who wants so much but destroys it before I can ever hope to have it.”

“You’re so stupid, Senpai,” Tenzo muttered, tugging at Kakashi’s arm. Kakashi’s eye widened as he was pulled against Tenzo’s chest, strong arms wrapping around his shoulders. “You’re a goddamn idiot.”

“I know,” Kakashi let his eye slip shut. “And I know that I don’t deserve it, Tenzo, but I want it, you,  I—"

“Stop saying that,” Tenzo scolded Kakashi firmly. “You deserve love, Kakashi, you more than anyone deserve love.”

“Tenzo…” Kakashi sat up, reaching a hesitant hand out to touch the side of Tenzo’s face. “Do you think you’d forgive me?”

Tenzo smiled shyly, leaning into Kakashi’s touch just a little. “I forgive you, Senpai,” he murmured. “You moron.”

“That, I do deserve,” Kakashi felt himself smiling. “Not the forgiveness, the insults.”

“Shut up,” Tenzo laughed lightly. “I’m gonna break you out of this.”

“What did I do to deserve you?”

“You went back for me when no one else would have.”

“I’m sure someone else would—”

“You lied to the Hokage to keep me safe, multiple times. You showed me mercy when I tried to kill you for your eyes. You took me in as one of your own and let me find out who I was, as me, Kakashi. Not as an agent of the state.”

Kakashi was struck speechless, only able to look up at Tenzo with wonder. He didn’t think he had done so much—he didn’t think he had done enough to deserve having someone like Tenzo at his side. Surely, all the horrible things he’d done in his life were so great that someone like Tenzo wouldn’t want to associate with him. But here he was, telling Kakashi that all these good things in his life were his doing.

Kakashi felt such an overwhelming rush of emotion in that moment, he didn’t know what to do. He did the only thing he could think of; He took Tenzo’s face in his hands, gently, and pressed his mouth against Tenzo’s in what ended up being a very awkward masked kiss.

When he pulled back Tenzo looked stunned; his eyes were wide, his cheeks were pink, and his lips were still parted in shock.

“I’m sorry,” Kakashi said quickly, releasing Tenzo’s face and pulling his hands away. “I didn’t—”

Tenzo was moving before Kakashi could really comprehend what he was doing, tugging Kakashi’s mask aside and pressing their lips together in a clumsy, chaste, but passionate kiss.

It was Kakashi’s turn to look stunned when Tenzo pulled back, caught with his mask down like a deer in headlights.

“Uh—wow,” was all he could really muster, feeling his cheeks and ears heat up under Tenzo’s gaze.

“You’re such an idiot, Kakashi,” Tenzo muttered with a grin. “You should have just done that years ago.”

“I really should have,” Kakashi readily agreed, still somewhat in a daze. He reached back up to gently cradle Tenzo’s face in his hands, as if he let go Tenzo would disappear. “Can I make it up to you now?”

Tenzo smiled wide, dropping his gaze shyly before looking back up at Kakashi through his lashes.

“You goddamn better.”

Kakashi let out a breath, almost laughing he felt so lighthearted. “Tenzo…stay with me tonight.”

Tenzo’s eyes widened a little at Kakashi’s request, and Kakashi hurriedly explained.

“Not—not anything like that,” he clarified. “Just…to talk. And sleep. I missed having you around.”

“Yeah, okay,” Tenzo agreed.

Kakashi stood, pulling Tenzo up after him and leading him to his apartment. It had been years since the two of them had been there together, the last time being when Kakashi had tried to convince both of them that he didn’t care for Tenzo. Now, he was here to convince him of the opposite.

True to his word, they spent the majority of the night just talking. Kakashi told Tenzo about Team Seven, about the kids that finally managed to break holes through his walls. Tenzo told Kakashi about a ruthless barrage of missions, harder to handle without a support system, but ultimately how Tenzo was able to buck up and move on. Kakashi bit back apologies he knew Tenzo would just shrug off, opting instead to lean into Tenzo, holding him the way he wished he could have when they were younger, when Tenzo was timidly confessing to fears and insecurities that Kakashi wanted nothing more than to make better. He wasn’t there for Tenzo then, not in all the ways he could have been. He never wanted to let Tenzo down every again, and he told him as much.

When they did fall asleep, it was half-slumped against each other on Kakashi’s futon, with the light of day just beginning to creep over the horizon.

For the first time Kakashi could remember, he dreams of his friends; smiling and happy, surrounding him with love.

Notes:

Hey guys! This is my first time writing for this pairing, which is odd since I love them so much. This is also my first time trying my hand at something more sad. But I have a lot of angst feelings about both Kakashi and Tenzo, and I couldn't get this out of my head. That being said, this was pretty experimental and more of a challenge for me, so feedback is very much appreciated. Thoughts and comments absolutely make my day ♥

11/18/2021 06:47 PM 

leaning against the sun

Summary:

"This, too, shall pass, and beyond it will be themselves. Beyond it will be them and eternity, and their rivalry, because Gai wouldn't let either of them give that up, not until eternity -- or at least, their eternity -- had run its course." Set ten years ago, when they were both nineteen, during ANBU, after a particularly bad mission.

 

 

 

 

 

Inebriate of air am I,
And debauchee of dew, 
Reeling, through endless summer days, 
From inns of molten blue.

---------------------------------------------

 

He couldn't go to the hospital.

He couldn't go to the hospital, because Kakashi wouldn't go to the hospital, and that meant taking a trip there himself would take too much time. He had watched Kakashi leave, trailing blood behind him as he walked in drips and streaks, an easy path to follow to reach a man too tough to be taken down, too proud to get help. Gai knew better. He had seen the wounds Kakashi had taken. There were just too many of them, ones that ran too deep; it was dangerous to try and ignore wounds like that. Heading home, shrugging them off, and hoping they got better just wouldn't be enough.

That was why he had gone home only briefly, to do what Kakashi refused to: take care of himself. His own wounds weren't so bad, nothing that he couldn't take care of with a bit of patience and a first aid kit. He had himself tended to and bandaged in record time, changing out of his soiled, bloodied uniform and into a fresh one; he stopped only to grab a few essentials -- a refreshed medical kit, for one thing -- before taking off again.

This time, the door he stood in front of was Kakashi's, and he knocked briskly to announce himself; anyone who associated with jounins knew far better than to startle them while they were hurt or upset. "Kakashi?"

A long beat of silence, too long for comfort, before a faint answer returned from within. "Go away, Gai."

Gai shook his head vigorously in spite of knowing that he couldn't be seen, knocking again -- louder, this time. "Kakashi, if you aren't going to open this door, I'm coming in!" There was no answer (of course), and trying the knob proved that the door was locked (of course), which left him no other choice. Fortunately, he had assumed this might happen, and had brought a few tools to work the lock open -- it wasn't his preferred way of doing things, of course, but that certainly didn't mean he wasn't capable of it. Thirty seconds of work produced a satisfying click, and Gai strode confidently inside, pausing to disarm the traps he knew he'd find, before closing and locking the door behind him, and rearming the traps. Then, he turned back to his mission: getting his Eternal Rival some medical care before he bled himself dry or got a nasty infection. Certainly an A-rank mission if there ever was one, if you substituted danger for stubbornness.   The metallic scent of blood lingered in the air, thick like the sweat of night that darkened the interior of the small one-bedroom apartment Kakashi called home.

It was heavy, that scent, and loud like the pitter-patter of water roaring from the bathroom, needles carving staccato against tile and fabric and skin. And the tension, it was palpable, shimmering between the shadows and the blood that dripped across the floor, the armor that lay discarded over weapons carelessly strewn.

It wasn't like Kakashi to be so careless with his gear, to let shuriken spill and splatter sharp over darkened pools that slowly congealed, to drop his face in a space meant for shoes, chest armor half-dangling over it, revealing only a flash of white and red. But at least he'd taken off that face, the one that wasn't really his, the one that didn't have a name, other than the animal it represented. There were times and nights when he'd forget to remove what wasn't really him, but then sometimes he wasn't sure what was or what wasn't, if he still was or wasn't -- when was, wasn't, is, isn't, were all variables that didn't exist to begin with.

(Or weren't supposed to, when he wasn't supposed to.)

But they did exist, even when he told himself they didn't, because if they didn't exist, he wouldn't be going numb under the icy rush that poured itself over him in pricks of cold that soaked through fabric, skin, and into bones, settling deep under tissue and sinew and muscle, stabbing through fresh ravines that opened up along his back and side, dripping hot and dark against the winter that crept inside. (So unlike the heat of his heart when it burst apart in your hand, lightning screaming, screeching, searing in descent.) And it was cold here, but at least it was quiet, and he couldn't really feel the intensity of the chill that sunk into him, or the heat that had been all he could feel every step home after, radiating and pulsing with blood that was and wasn't his.

And anytime now, Gai was probably going to burst in and ruin it, and Kakashi knew this, but really didn't give a sh*t what Gai did at the moment, when water was filling his ears anyway, and he could simply pretend that he couldn't hear all the f***ing endless optimism Gai always tried to stuff into his ears. (But if his ears were filled with water, Gai wouldn't be able to fit optimism in, and if he did, maybe it'd simply drown and disintegrate and Kakashi wouldn't have to listen to any of it.)

The blood was already drying, staining the wooden floors; Kakashi's quarters were never free of bloodstains, or the shadows that danced in every corner. And it was too often tense, the air thick enough to cut with one of the spilled kunai that lay half in a puddle that was already maroon-dark. Gai's own apartment was brightly-lit and well-decorated, scrupulously clean and warmly welcoming. It was too cold in here, and quiet; all he could hear was the pounding of water and the sound of his own breathing. He had never much liked silence, either; too often it implied being alone. And this time, it definitely did -- or at least, an attempt at being alone, a self-imposed isolation within a curtain of pouring water.

He'd have to pierce such a loud silence by being louder still.

Gai smiled, because smiling was what he did, and he couldn't say that he hadn't been expecting something like this. This time it was the bathroom door he knocked on, opening it without waiting for a response. "Kakashi!" The air was moister in here, and the blood on the floor had yet to dry; Gai walked through it without a second thought, moving to go in and turn off the water, tear away the shell he was trying to build around himself, shut off the silence-noise so that he had to listen, if only because there would be nothing else to listen to.
 
"You shouldn't be doing this." Shouldn't be hiding, shouldn't be freezing himself when it would do him no good, shouldn't be avoiding the hospital, shouldn't be denying himself the care he so obviously needed. His tone was firm, despite his concern.
And of course, Gai would burst in and ruin it, and Kakashi knew this, and should've done a better job keeping him out. If he heard him, he didn't acknowledge it, staying in place with his forehead pressed against cool tile, water dripping slowly as it ran down in rivulets from the tip of his nose, his fingers, the edges of his uniform, his hair, matted down in darker silver tendrils over his face and neck. It was funny how only now when the cold had gone away that he realized how cold the cold had been, when air pricked at the bared skin of his arms, sending gooseflesh to the surface, little tiny bumps forming between drops of water that stubbornly clung to him.

(They didn't want to let go. He didn't want to either.)

He closed his eyes and focused on the cold, and not on the heat that was starting to soak again through his clothes, a different kind of moisture that stung and burned, but if he paid more attention to the chill and not the warmth, he could pretend that it didn't exist, could also try and ignore the fact that Gai was standing there staring at him, smiling in the way Gai always did.

The water trickling down Kakashi's body was clear, Gai noticed as he watched him. Clear, though pink puddles still lingered in the space that his body had mostly blocked. Clear and cold, and he had only stuck his arm into the spray briefly to turn it off. No doubt Kakashi was freezing in there. (In Tsuchi no Kuni they trained dogs in the mountains, huge dogs that carried liquor and sniffed constantly for bodies, digging through dozens of feet of snow to unearth half-frozen people from what could have been their early graves. Those who lay buried would see the first ray of sunlight pierce their icy tombs, feel a breath of fresh air, be pulled out by helping hands to have the warmth and life rubbed back into them. But they didn't live in the mountains here, and Kakashi was the one who summoned dogs.) He'd catch his death from it.

The man wasn't listening -- or at least wasn't responding -- but that was okay, because he couldn't say that he hadn't been expecting something like this, either. He'd pull him out of here, if he really needed to. If Kakashi wouldn't listen and wouldn't move, then he would have no other choice. He wouldn't let his rival have such an ignoble end as leaving him crumpled in a shower stall, with only the water for company. Gai's unseen smile was as firm as the steps that carried him into the shower itself, as solid and unwavering and warm as the arms that moved to wrap around Kakashi's waist.

Kakashi couldn't stop the shudder that traveled through his body the moment Gai's arms locked around him, heat soaking in, this solid wall of it molding against his back, and it felt so good, almost feverish against freezing skin (how had he gotten that cold to begin with? he hadn't been that cold a moment ago, it had only been a pervasive sense of numb, a tingle of gooseflesh and frosty air, but not this bewildering awakening to frostbite that must've leaked inside out, or maybe it was just that Gai was so warm, that it made all the difference he never noticed before -- he's not sure really, and he doesn't care). Kakashi felt his breath catch in his throat as he leaned back against and into the warmth, pressing himself flush against it instinctively, deliriously (Gai smelled as warm as he felt -- spicy and earthy and masculine), shoulder blades pressed against a hard chest, and then the back of his head came in contact with the curve of a shoulder broader and stronger than his own.

It was impossible for Gai to ignore the weight that very suddenly pressed back against him, the way Kakashi shuddered and fit himself into the curves and planes of Gai's body, the minute trembles that raced through the slighter man's form. The cold radiating from him was so intense it burned, and Gai could feel his own uniform start to soak through almost immediately as sodden silver strands of hair plastered themselves against his neck and cheek. He shuddered as well, muscles clenching and shifting as he fought the instinct to move away. Instead, he tightened his grasp, pulling Kakashi closer against him to share his body heat as well as he could.

He took a deep, controlled breath, letting it out in a long sigh. Even through this chill, he could feel the small spots of warmth blossoming again from Kakashi's bleeding. It wasn't unexpected, but it was worrisome, even more so considering Kakashi's reaction. Normally, Kakashi would ever behave this way. He wouldn't get so close, wouldn't allow Gai to do this, wouldn't accept any help nearly so easily. As much as it might make things easier, this instinctive hearkening back to warmth and life, it troubled Gai. This wasn't normal.

Gai shifted to take a step back, using his arms to gently urge Kakashi to follow. "Come on, Kakashi. Come on." Kakashi's head was rolled back against his shoulder; Gai tilted his own head down to smile at him, voice low and encouraging. The name thrummed in his ears like a drum beat, something to repeat, steady and sure. Kakashi needed to hear his name. His own name, not his number, not the name bestowed on his mask. He needed to know who he was, where he was, who he was with. He needed to realize that he was safe, that the danger was over, that he could let himself be tended to without fear.

Kakashi wasn't sure what his body was trying to feel, the heat or the cold or the fading numbness, or the prickles of sensation that started to roar back alive almost painfully as his skin tingled with it. And then they were moving, shifting, step by step, his limbs tugged along by strings held somewhere above his head, or maybe they were just the ones around his waist, or maybe it was this not-cold and not-hot flash of his body telling him too many things at once, synapses firing irregularly through the warmcold currents moving in-- (he'd been here before and it'd always been heat that brought him back to earth, heat like the sun, burning so bright, so hot, he couldn't close himself against it) --and back out of him.

For a moment, the world had shifted, turned, and Kakashi wasn't sure if it was he that was spinning or the room, or maybe it was just sudden vertigo, but then the warmth was gone and the ceiling and Gai was suddenly filling up his line of sight, something both soft and firm cradling his back.

It worried Gai, this lack of resistance and protest, this lack of seeming coherence or even full awareness. Kakashi must have lost a lot of blood. That had to be it. He would recover his senses after he had been cared for and allowed to get some much needed rest. He had definitely taxed himself during their mission, physically and emotionally. Gai's smile softened a little; he remembered his mother smiling at people like that while she tended to them, gentle and compassionate, empathic and almost tender, even as she remained efficiently professional. A human touch, she had called it. Shinobi needed care and consideration even more than everyone else, especially when they were hurt.

"Kakashi, I need to check your wounds. I'm going to take off your shirt, okay?" Gai leaned over the man, slowly taking the edge of Kakashi's shirt in hand to tug over his head. As long as he knew what was going on, then there was no need for him to panic or even be disoriented. He could just pair the words with the actions and sensations, lay back and let Gai do his job. As unsettlingly alien as the behavior was, it would make things easier.

In a flash of motion, Kakashi's hand clamped down around Gai's wrist, stopping the upwards path of his hand and the fabric it held. And maybe for a heartbeat or two, this was the Kakashi Gai was a little more familiar with, the Kakashi that always pushed him away, who always said no, I'm fine, who always refused a helping hand -- who was suddenly yanking him down against a frame seizing with cold, with a well-placed tug and an arm hooked around the back of his neck. This warmth, it was what he needed more than any bandages or stitches, the seismic waves more violent than the cracks in him, shaking up his spine and back down again, pushing its way out of his lips in hisses of breath that tremored unsteadily.

There was nothing steady about this, nothing even, nothing normal or focused like it always was. He'd left that at the door when he'd taken himself off, and had tried to numb into silence Obito's voice and his own, but didn't get far enough for it to matter at all, when Gai was right there, all muscle and strength and heat, and the smell of reassurance and persevering belief. The belief smelled sweet and like something else, so Kakashi tried to hold onto it, tried to drink up the warmth with his body pressed close like this, and it didn't matter to him that this was Gai that he was coaxing more against his chest, ignoring the pain that carved itself in jagged snaps from the weight of the body pulled down on his.

Even his breath felt cold.

Gai immediately felt bad for him. Of course he would be cold. Why wouldn't he, after being pulled straight from a freezing shower? He should have heated up the water first, helped to take the chill away, before getting him out here. But he had been so worried. Hell, he was still worried, and the medical kit sat right beside the bed where he had set it down before. But now he was worried about the potential for hypothermia too, and Kakashi possibly getting sick from staying so cold and wet. He really needed to get him out of that uniform...

In a minute. For now, though... For now, it was obvious that he needed warmth as much as he needed to be taken care of, and that was understandable enough. The cold did funny things to people... Messed with their minds a bit. Gai was the warmest thing in here at present, so maybe a bit of shared body heat would help Kakashi come back.

With that thought, Gai nestled more firmly against Kakashi, curling one arm around the smaller man's shoulders and using his free hand to smooth the wet hair away from his face.

It was too tender, the way he touched him. But the tenderness was warm, and Kakashi was so cold, and he wasn't sure whether to jerk away or to gravitate more towards it when Gai was so hot, and the heat felt so good, solid and muscular against him. He could feel each ripple of a chiseled chest against his own, rising and falling with each breath Gai took, and the scent of forest and earth still clung to his skin, sweat and power and adrenaline. He wanted to lose himself in it, so he raised his hand to his mask and tugged it down to his chin as he burrowed his nose against Gai's hot neck and slowly breathed him in, inhaling this scent he knew so well, the one that remained at the corners of his life, even when all the other ones had gone, evaporated into memory, into dust.

Gai so rarely saw that face these days, tucked up behind a wall of cloth and hidden away. It was just one more wall that Kakashi raised around himself to keep others out, and that he had removed it of his own accord in front of someone else floored him. That damp face was pressed against his neck and nuzzling into him, cold air whispering across his skin. Gai shivered and instinctively tilted his head to allow it, a long, shaky breath escaping. "Kakashi....?"

Kakashi's hands were creeping up the back of his shirt, cold as they smoothed over the strong, muscular planes of his back, as his lips grazed cold, breath hot, against the side of a warm neck. It would be easy, too easy, to slip and fall into this, to lose himself in this familiarity, growing drunk on the heat, the scent of the earth, the muscles that tightened under his fingers.

It was Gai's first instinct to arch beneath those fingers, roll his head to the side to encourage the kiss, press closer against the man as though he could escape the cold. Only after that did his mind return to the waiting medical kit, thoughts buzzing around each other as concern chased the beginnings of arousal away. His expression sobered, shirt already partially removed as he clasped a hand over Kakashi's upper arm. "Kakashi.... Are you sure about this?" Did he really know what he was doing? Did he really want to do this? Was it just the cold, the pain, the mission?

Whatever it was, Kakashi's gaze suddenly focused over Gai's shoulder and he realized, all too acutely, just what the f*** he was doing. Control snapped up, as tenuous and trembling like his fingers as they jerked into motion, bracing in a hard chakra-powered shove against Gai's chest as he threw the man off him. This couldn't be happening, because it wasn't allowed (because Gai was all he had left and he'd gotten too careless) and his fingers flew up to yank up his mask as he scrambled off the bed, then staggered back, one arm directed towards the door as he pointed right at it.

"Get out." The words came out in a sharp snap of sound.

Like something breaking, or the thrum of a trip-wire being triggered. Control, distance, aggressive aloofness. It all came crashing back down, with more force than any mere punch Kakashi could have thrown. Some small part of Gai was disappointed, some was relieved, but most of his mind was focused once more on the task at hand, suddenly made much more difficult again. Gai landed hard on his side, rolling with the shove so he could push himself back onto his feet. That mask again... He almost wanted to pull it right back down for him, but even he knew that wouldn't do any good for either of them. It had to be willingly done on his part for it to mean anything.

Gai didn't even look to see the door, instead shaking his head firmly. "No, Kakashi. Let me take care of those wounds."

"I'm fine." Kakashi insisted, his voice toneless with indifference more frigid than his skin. His arm didn't lower, nor did his stance waver, as he stood his ground and drew a steady breath in. He needed to get Gai out of here, needed to deal with this on his own, because control was fleeting, momentary, and being so conscious of everything around him reminded him again of everything he didn't want to be aware of, didn't want to face at this moment. The blood could soak through his shirt and it wouldn't matter, when he had a ritual, a way of decompressing, and Gai was in the way of him taking care of it, and complicating things more when what hold on control Kakashi had was fraying apart at the seams, threads wildly unraveling.

"Go home, Gai." He tried to make himself sound tired and annoyed, but the demand sounded more like a plea, which made no sense, because Kakashi never begged (except when he did in silence, always internalized).

"Kakashi...." The wall remained up. The draw bridge remained closed. The moat remained icy, dark, and deep.

Unfortunately for Kakashi, Gai had never minded swimming. Cold water was just one more bracing challenge to conquer.

Gai shook his head again, bending and picking up the medical kit; he wasn't (couldn't, would never allow himself to) going home just yet. "Either take responsibility for your own health, or let me take care of it for you." While Kakashi dug his heels in to stand his ground, Gai moved towards him, holding the kit aloft as an offering and (weapon) shield, both at once. The unwanted pleading tone might have softened his heart even further, but it did nothing but harden his resolve. Had Kakashi forgotten how stubborn he could be already? Rivals though they were, in a battle of wills, he felt there could be no doubt on who would come out on top.

But Kakashi was reeling back away from him, his chakra spiking dangerously with intent that never should be directed at a friend. But he needed his space, needed his time, needed to go through the steps that would bring him back, and his mind was still hovering between there and here and what control he had over himself was quickly slipping away -- Gai was in the way, and he needed him to go away -- "I'm fine," he insisted in a harsh breath, his eye moving between the kit and Gai's face. He'd had worse scrapes before and survived, these cuts would eventually congeal in time -- it wasn't going to kill him (even though sometimes he wondered when it would) and what he needed wasn't hands trying to stitch him up when he needed to feel, needed to bleed, because the pain gave him a focus, and reminded him of what human was still left in him, not just a weapon harnessed in war with no name or face except for the one that now lay on his floor.

"I'll take care of it later. Just go." Because the longer Gai stayed, the longer Kakashi's resolve strayed with flickers of a former comrade's face; eyes dark with accusation, the pain had contorted features that could have once been described as refined (they had once trained together in summer, with the sun hot on his back and sweat pricking his skin, the scent of June grass strong and sweet, kicking up dirt as they sparred) and he only managed to get out a breath that sounded like Kakashi's name, but Kakashi wasn't sure because his hand was screaming through the man's chest, and the lightning was loud, the scent of blood too sharp and coppery and suffocating all at once, and if Gai didn't get the f*** out now, Kakashi was going to throw him out by force.

His hands clenched and unclenched without him even realizing, fingers, muscles, trembling.

Kakashi was seizing up, shaking, chakra forming patterns that Gai had never before had the misfortune of actually facing, only fighting side by side with. This was a dangerous situation even for him, when Kakashi was bristling like a wounded missing-nin trapped by Hunters. (Was this some strange reflection of the traitor they had met in battle, a flicker of the spirit of the man they had once considered a dear comrade and trusted friend? Could the dead breathe one last whisper of loss through those who had taken their lives into their hands?) This was dangerous even for Kakashi, because it was clear that he was not fine, and that he was not in control of himself or the situation -- and if he wasn't, then it had the potential to very quickly spiral into something far uglier than it should be.


Fortunately Gai prided himself on control, both in body and spirit, honed through rigorous self-discipline and back-breaking punishments. If Kakashi couldn't handle this situation, then Gai would do so for them both, even if it became violent. He would not let this (him) go so easily.

"You need to be taken care of now, Kakashi. Calm down and let me help you." Because he didn't want to take care of 'it'. 'It' was something separate and detached, an impersonal wound in a vacuum, rather than the complex human body and psyche of the man he still considered his dear comrade, no matter how many men he had to kill.
No, he would not go. He would, however, move to close the distance between them with unwavering confidence.

But with every single step he took closer, Kakashi only took another step back, shaking his head as he narrowed his gaze at Gai, something hot and dangerous spiking sharp within him, each wave of it cresting higher and higher until it'd filled his lungs.

"You can't take care of it, Gai. You can't handle it," he ground the words out, the lines of his body coiling into a stance that should never be directed at a friend. But he needed his space, needed his time, and Gai was moving in closer when Kakashi was trying to pull back, and Kakashi didn't have anywhere else to go when the wall behind him was closing in, and Gai was right in front of him.

Gai didn't care.


"I can handle anything." They weren't the words of a newly minted genin or chuunin, puffed up and cocksure with their new rank, convinced of their own immortality. They were a matter-of-fact, confident declaration of a man who had gone through plenty already, and intended to go through a lot more before he became incapable of handling it. They were a simple expression of intent -- he would handle it because he willed himself to be able to.


Gai dropped the medical kit as he closed the rest of the distance, threading chakra through weary muscles. He melted into a black blur, and immediately Kakashi began to struggle, fists flying, legs kicking, a full defensive assault that Gai knew he wouldn't have had to dealt with if Kakashi had been in his right mind. But if there was one thing he excelled at, it was taijutsu; their struggle was over in the space of mere seconds, limbs moving so fast that they seemed almost to vanish entirely. Twist, block, block, feint, strike -- now.


Searing heat ripped its way down Kakashi's back when the solid surface of the wall slammed up against his shoulder blades and punched out the breath he held in his lungs as his pulse roared and adrenaline thrummed (and for a moment he couldn't see anything at all, and he's not sure if he was the one who blinked or the world), and he opened his mouth to try and get in a breath, but Gai was moving too f***ing fast, and his wrists were captured in large, calloused hands and pinned back on either side of his head (they're hot, those hands, pressing into the fleshy throat of his wrists, his heart racing in their grip) -- before he could push back off the wall, Gai's body was moving in on his, a hard muscled prison closing in, keeping him trapped so his legs were pinned, and all he could feel was this heat, emanating off of him. It flowed through fabric and sank into skin, a sudden shock of sensation that tangled with the heat that flowered from his shoulder blades, spiraling outwards and colliding with what held him in and kept him in place, slicing through the urge to push Gai away when this mixture of heatpleasurepain overwhelmed his every sense--

Before he knew what he was doing, Kakashi found himself arching towards it, wrists straining against the hands that held him, his breath caught in his larynx. And the intent that had been coloring his chakra suddenly flowed into something just as dangerous, something far more primal and visceral, a surge that felt raw, hungry, violent.

It was over as fast as it had begun, too fast for the surge of adrenaline to have even started to subside. Gai hadn't really expected Kakashi to just give up, nor did he quite expect the way that the man was pressing against him now. It definitely wasn't the way someone immobilized would move to try to escape; the same way his chakra wasn't in the same battle-ready state it had been only moments ago. That--


Gai sucked in a harsh breath, instinctively moving to press against Kakashi in return, even as the situation dawned on him; a man could only take so much close contact, after all, before he started to be affected by it. So this was Kakashi's way of reaching out for help...? This was his method of seeking human contact and comfort. This was his vulnerability, his need, his connection to sanity. This was... His chakra still felt so violent...


Gai's tone was softer now, not nearly so insistent as it had been -- he was, he hoped, starting to understand. "Kakashi.... are you sure about this?"


The question steamed itself across the curve of Kakashi's ear, hot through the thin fabric of his mask, soaking in, sending a tremor down his spine as the words hovered between the space of Gai's lips and Kakashi's skin (he could feel them already, brushing in a tease, grazing just barely over the surface of him, challenging him to give in; always a challenge when it came to them, always a struggle between them). He felt the words before he understood them, in another flush of heat that both rose and fell, then collided in a rush of too much needhungerfrustration fueled by adrenaline and something like desperation (but it can't be desperation because he never is, and Kakashi's always in control of the situation) that had him inhaling in a sharp, shaky breath before expelling it in a soft, controlled sigh.

His eye fell shut and the world receded, and he could feel how Gai's strong, chiseled body molded against his, each breath he took rising and falling against him, each muscle taut and rippling under the surface, coiled with strength and heat and passion and everything that made Gai who he was. And Kakashi wasn't sure if he could handle it, wasn't sure if he could let Gai see this; because Gai was all he had left when there was no one else, and Gai had always been there the entire time, and the Kakashi Gai knew wasn't weak, wasn't vulnerable and uncontrolled, wasn't this mess Kakashi brought home when he took off his face and left it at the door with the rest of his armor and his control. 

(Kakashi had a way of decompressing, and Gai was in the way of letting him do it.)

He needed Gai to leave him alone, needed Gai to walk out the door, and let him deal with his mess on his own, bleeding out the parts of him he needed to excise from within, when he forced himself to forget an old friend's face, and the way his lips formed Kakashi's name. It was easier when he was taking those parts in his hands and crushing them to dust until they were erased from the surfaces of him everyone could see (because it's the outside that counts, no matter what they say), until he couldn't recognize his face when he looked at himself in mornings after the missions. After the silence and quiet had ended. After the blood had coagulated, and wasn't running, running, running out of him in rivers too deep to navigate, too wide to cross, too dangerous; tides that only ever fell in the hush of night that held all the whispers and secrets and lies about heroes and legends.

But Gai was all he had left when there was no one else, and Gai had always been there the entire time, and Gai would never give up on him, would never judge, because Gai knew Kakashi wasn't infallible, wasn't nearly as invincible as Kakashi wanted him to believe. And Gai had made a promise so long ago, and he never broke a promise that he made with his Nice Guy Smile because Gai believed in the honor of promises and what they meant, the sacred oath that he made, and Kakashi was Gai's Eternal Rival, and it would take both of them dying to undo that promise.

There was nothing steady about this, nothing even, nothing normal or focused like it always was. He'd left that at the door when he'd taken himself off, and had tried to numb into silence all the pieces of him that were far too damaged, too broken to fix, but Gai refused to let him slip into that space he always did, keeping him centered with strength and heat and all his reassurance and endless belief. And the belief smelled sweet and like something else, so Kakashi didn't just shove him away, fighting him out of his personal space, choosing instead to respond in quiet tones. "If you're not going to do this..." he began as his wrists strained against the restraints that held him in (he's not sure about this and he never will be). "Then get the f*** out, before I kill you." The words were so soft, they were almost a whisper, but Kakashi's preferred mode of violence was never loud, always silent.

Everything about Kakashi was silent, subdued, held in. He was a moonbeam swathed in darkness, hidden beneath layers of black. The uniform, the gloves, the mask -- all of it neatly concealed him, held in and hid what was inside, provided a conveniently smooth, steady facade to focus himself and everything Kakashi wanted people to see. But Gai had been there the entire time, longer than anyone else ever had or ever would be. He had been there, and he had seen him, seen him with eyes that nobody else could boast, even the renowned Uchiha or the noble Hyuuga, because he had seen him from all angles and times, inside and out, with and without the mask -- both masks. He had seen Kakashi the Little Fang, as some few had once considered him, and he had seen Kakashi the genius, and he had seen Kakashi the hard worker. He had seen Kakashi teammate and student, and Kakashi the Copy Ninja, and he had seen Kakashi the ANBU -- Wolf, always Wolf, but what was a wolf (except vulnerable, alone, crippled, piteous) without a pack to acknowledge and be acknowledged by? He had seen Kakashi healthy and wounded, on missions and off-duty, eating and training and fighting and sleeping and unconscious.


But most of all, he had seen Kakashi the Eternal Rival, because that was one thing he had been since the day they had met. And he knew his Eternal Rival better than anyone in his life. He saw even without seeing, knew even without knowing so much of what Kakashi didn't want anyone to see or know about. Whatever his temporary state, Kakashi would always be Kakashi (his Kakashi), would always be the rival he opposed. (Because what was rivalry, other than an endless struggle against each other and themselves? To work and sweat and fight and strive to be better, become better, do better than each other and each past accomplishment? To be a constant counterpart, circling endlessly around each other, held fast by the bond they shared? To be a rival was to always be a solid rock that the other could steady themselves on; a mountain to surpass, a constant presence to brace and ground and anchor with, one's most trusted adversary and friend, one's most beloved comrade.) All of those parts that made up the whole, he could and would take them, because he always had, and always would. There was no question of whether or not he could handle him. He would always be there, to help him along and clean up any messes that Kakashi couldn't manage on his own, because he believed that he and Kakashi could continue to surpass all obstacles in their way -- if not alone, then together, relying on each other as true friends and rivals should.


Gai didn't bother to answer Kakashi's threat, empty as he knew it would have to be, in the end -- Kakashi would never strike him down, just as he would never do so to Kakashi, because he knew that neither of them would ever allow anything to come to that. Instead, he leaned in to close what little distance remained between them as he released Kakashi's wrists. The cloth mask was damp still, and quite thin; he could feel Kakashi's breath through it as he captured Kakashi's lips with his own, through and in spite of the barrier the mask presented. Kakashi's lips were softer than he expected, and their mouths moved against each other slowly through the fabric, a kiss that was almost chaste at first contact, but quickly grew deeper and more heated with Kakashi's lips parting under the mask against his, the warmth and moisture of Kakashi's tongue flicking through the barrier against his.

Gai caressed Kakashi's cheek through the mask, fingertips skimming just over the line dividing cloth and skin without moving it. This too was a part of Kakashi, a necessary though not entirely healthy one, something he clung to because he was not yet ready to let it go. And though Gai could wish and worry, though he could hope and encourage, he could not judge, nor could he force the issue -- he wouldn't pull it down. He wouldn't remove that mask until the entire shirt was removed, and he wouldn't force their bared faces and lips together in such intimacy before Kakashi was ready to take that step himself. But still, the fact that it was even needed in the first place, that Kakashi would cling to his last shreds of protection and invulnerability, even though he so desperately needed this contact...

It was difficult to say, just by knowing Gai, whether he had never learned to restrain his emotions, or whether he had learned to let them run free all over again. Either way, the tears (these were not tears purely of sorrow, defeat, or despair, but rather the bittersweet tears of pain and regret, of empathy and healing and hope for the future -- and yes, even of love) began to flow soundlessly down his cheeks, uncontrolled and unashamed, as his hands slid beneath Kakashi's shirt and rose over hard, rippling muscles. He wept for their comrade where Kakashi would not, and wept for Kakashi when Kakashi could not. For the way his innocence had been stolen and his heart had been broken, for the humanity that had been twisted and savaged and the trust and emotions that were almost (almost, because Gai would never give up on him, never stop believing, never acknowledge that defeat was a possibility when it came to this) broken beyond repair. Maybe (hopefully, eventually, definitely) someday, they would be able to cry together, but until then, Gai would simply have to be enough for them both. Enough to shoulder the weight of the world.

But when would it ever be enough? Kakashi had wondered for years, still wondered what enough was, and when it would come, or if it ever would, or if there would ever be a point when enough would be enough, when he didn't even know what enough was. Or if it even existed. (It's thin, that idea, not full like the scent of blood or the spark of adrenaline. The kind that leaves you hungry for more, when the hot thrum of life whispers under your skin and reminds you just what you really are; when it's so easy to forget, easy to be subsumed by the world that controls you.) The battle drums were loud in the distance, rhythmically rumbling in their silent echoing through the emptiness he held in with a mask so it wouldn't leak out and erase him.
 
He lived his entire life in a state of constant erasure (there's nothing constant in this world except for the constant that never is), filling the emptiness in with the lives of other people, letting their stories and their talents define him, exiling himself into the blankness of margins.

But Gai always reached past him and yanked him out. Always with a promise and a Nice Guy Smile. And sometimes Kakashi just couldn't bear to see the infinitude of hope and honesty that always rose in his eyes, or how it sometimes glittered down his cheeks in streams that tasted like the sea, even through a layer of mask. He could taste the salt each time the heat of their mouths collided, the wetness of tongues warring against a barrier of separation, seeping through the fabric with each rough brushHe kept his eyes closed so he wouldn't have to see it, fingers finding traction in the hemline of Gai's shirt as he violently yanked him against his body. It was hard enough to bruise ribs and cut up lips, forcing a soft grunt out of Kakashi when the solid, hard weight of Gai's body slammed him back into the wall, sending another flare of heat that clawed its way up as the sharp taste of copper drowned out the salt.

There was nothing gentle or tender about this because this was a war.

There was always a war. A war against Iwagakure, a war against Kumogakure (narrowly averted, by a sacrifice both terrible and noble), a war against letting the bijuus wipe out all they had strove and struggled for, a war against pain and wounds and death, a war against madness and utter numbness, a war against losing yourself as a person -- losing who you were and why you existed, what you believed in, what you felt, why you lived. That was the most personal war of all, to be true to yourself and those you cared for, who cared for you. And could you even be true to yourself, if you couldn't be you? If you allowed yourself to fade away, hide in the background until you became a part of it? If there was no longer any you to be at all? If it were up to Gai, then no! A hundred thousand times no, never, not at all. That was the deepest betrayal of all, the one that cut deepest into the heart, because it was your own.


(And wasn't that the wisdom that his father had in his dying breath bestowed upon him? He had made his last moment on earth, his final words, a wish, a prayer, a plea to his only son. To make this into a sacred vow -- to your own self, be true. Live each day not as though it were your last, but your first. Embrace it all, prosperity and adversity, head on and face to face, and make it a part of who you are. Be an inspiration. Be joyful, and a joy to be with. Laugh. Love. Learn. Live.)


He wouldn't allow that to happen. To himself or anyone else, especially his Eternal Rival. It tore at his heart to know that it was necessary, to see the violence in the storm of chakra raging through Kakashi. But if that was the way it had to be, then so be it. He would pull Kakashi back, out of the margins and into the rush and vigor of the great story of life. He would ground him solidly on earth once more, held steady by these two strong arms until Kakashi could stand on his own legs again. And if there needed to be a certain violence to pry him free, then...


Well, Gai was no stranger to violence.


He could taste something that definitely was not tears, and his hands moved to give them a bit of space -- to let him grasp onto the bottom of Kakashi's shirt and pull. Hard muscles rippled, temporarily straining against the tough cloth before it gave way, allowing him to tear straight through, rather than just pulling the shirt off as it ought to be. He pushed the ruined shirt down over Kakashi's shoulders, moving to press their bodies tight against each other once more. His lips moved too, gliding down a sharp jawline to reach the other man's throat, his tongue flowing over Kakashi's pulse before his teeth scraped across skin, sucking, licking, kissing harshly to leave a mark, claiming Kakashi as his. Because if he wasn't his, then whose was he? Gai had been there. He'd always been there. He had made his claim first, well over a decade ago, right when he was beginning to understand what kind of implications the act of claiming someone had. (This is my Eternal Rival. This is the worthy man I will carry with me through the rest of my life. This is the one who will always be in my heart, who I will strive with and against and for, who I will never be able to abandon. This is my promise!) Kakashi was his, and after all this time, Gai refused to let him slip away.

He wouldn't kiss him on the lips now, not with the mask gone. This wasn't what love and intimacy should look like -- this was a necessity, a mercy, a retrieval, a release. He wouldn't kiss Kakashi with nothing between them unless he was Kakashi, really Kakashi, and choosing this -- not from necessity, not from pain, but choosing it himself and of his own free will, simply because he wanted to.
And even with Kakashi's pulse roaring under his tongue, even with Kakashi's breath leaving him harshly, even with Kakashi's body rippling against him as his fingers grappled at the hem of his shirt, pulling, tugging, stripping with such urgency, the fabric tore straight up the back -- none of this was because Kakashi wanted it. This wasn't about desire or pleasure or passion, but hunger and violence and too much need.

He needed to be broken down, needed to be destroyed, needed to be taken apart with unforgiving hands, to remind him that he still could feel and need and gasp with breath. Feel it on him, in him, around him, let it tear right through him -- sensation too overwhelming to deny their existence. Plunge him in and let him choke, make him breathe it in so it's all he knows -- what it means to be alive and that he is. That he can still live and breathe like anyone else, that he can still feel and scream like anyone else, that he's still human like anyone else (and somewhere buried deep within him is a boy who once could and did smile openly, accidentally; but a smile was still a smile and Gai had seen it then because they were only six, only children, not yet men -- even now they weren't quite men, but boys who'd grown up far too fast -- before he disappeared behind a mask), and can need and f*** and come like anyone else, so he can put himself back together after the storm. Scrape up the pieces and rearrange them into the shape of a man that never needed anything other than a mask and a colorful book of porn to hide himself behind. 

(Because Kakashi was always strong, always confident and proud. Except when he wasn't. Like now.)

Gai had made a promise to him when they were six, that they would be Eternal Rivals for the rest of their lives -- and Kakashi hadn't believed him then, and didn't care; but there wasn't a year that passed after when Gai wasn't there to challenge him, wasn't there to rival him, wasn't there to force him to work harder and faster and better, or to remind him with blinding smiles and bright eyes that he'd never leave, never leave, never leave like everyone else. And there were times when Kakashi couldn't, wouldn't believe him, because there was nothing permanent in this world, nothing that ever lasted; not sunrises or rivalry or even Nice Guy Smiles. There would only be memories of two boys who wanted to believe in the promise of forever; in an eternity that was only ever a myth and legend.

But there were times he wanted to believe in hope, in dreams and faith and promises made so many years ago, in this man who just didn't know how to give up, not on his promises or someone who didn't deserve to have him in his life -- he never knew how much he'd always needed him until now, with rough fingers carding through his hair and yanking his head back, lips burning hot on his throat in scorching open-mouthed kisses that left his skin tingling and red in their wake, forcing him to swallow down sounds that threatened to break past his lips. Gai's other hand closed around his ass, dragging their bodies tight together in a violent grind that sent fire through blood that had him shuddering. And then he started to fight back, a hand fisting in black hair to tug Gai's head back, as his own lips rained down vicious kisses against his throat, lapping his tongue across the beat of a too-strong heart, mirroring their stances with his other hand circling around to clench around a muscular curve, undulating hard heat against heat -- not as a friend, or an Eternal Rival.

Need, want, hopes, dreams, beliefs -- were any of them really different? How could you distinguish them? Should you distinguish them? What was the point of even trying, when they tangled together so thick and fast that they were about as hard to untangle as the proverbial Gordian Knot? There was no need to, anyway--as far as Gai was concerned, that was a good thing. As long as you were still capable of one, then you were still capable of the others. Beliefs and desires could tear a man up just as passionately as any carnal need could. Hopes and dreams were just as necessary as any need could ever be. Because Kakashi needed it, Gai would tear down these walls he had erected around himself, just for a little while. Because Kakashi needed it, Gai would forcefully push him back into his humanity. And because Gai had hope, because he believed in him, because he dreamed big dreams of them both going far -- well, Kakashi had to have (need, need me, believe in me, I'm not letting these dreams of ours die) him for a friend and Eternal Rival, because he damn well said so. He had said so for years, and he'd say so for years more -- forever, as long as forever lasted. (Because he needed it too, more than Kakashi seemed to realize.)

The torn shirt hung uselessly from his shoulders; Gai didn't bother with it. He was more concerned with the hand in his hair that pulled his head back, the way the blood roared in his ears as they moved against each other, the gasp that slipped out with Kakashi's mouth hot on his throat. This wasn't supposed to happen. This was about Kakashi. Gai growled quietly, moving to slam Kakashi -- roughly, harder than he needed to, but wasn't this what he wanted? -- against the wall to crush their bodies together once again, hips rolling deep and hard and tortuously slow, forcing out a half-sound that Kakashi strangled off with teeth coming down hard on his lower lip as his body arched against Gai's in a motion that felt almost uncontrolled. Kakashi's head was pulled back once again, and he kissed and licked a hot trail up Kakashi's neck and jaw, interspersed with punishing nips, each one dragging out a short pant of breath from Kakashi's lips, before he took Kakashi's earlobe into his teeth and sucked hard, before letting it go.

"I'm the one doing this," he commanded in a low growl against Kakashi's ear. (I'm the only one who should be doing this. I don't know who else is, but it can't be healthy if they aren't here for you now. It can't be healthy if they won't help you outside of the bedroom. Do they care like I do? Do they know you like I do? We're rivals. I'm your friendI'm the one doing this. For you.)

Kakashi's breath hitched on the final word, head falling back in supplication. Gai could feel the trapped jerk and twitch of Kakashi's need through his pants as the fingers in his hair loosened and slid down to the back of his neck, before traveling to clutch his shoulder. His hands wandered over skin and scars, deliberately working their way down Kakashi's chest and stomach, caressing the curve of a hip, before palming the bulge at the front of Kakashi's pants and slowly grinding the heel of his palm against it. Kakashi was already so hard, the fabric of his pants pulled tight around him. His hips bucked, pressing more of himself into Gai's hand, as a moan caught in his throat, where it remained stubbornly trapped. Everything within Kakashi was trapped. That was it, wasn't it? Not even so much a matter of hiding as it was caught, stuck in this fortress-cocoon he had built-spun for himself, the towering walls not only hiding his heart, not only keeping others from entering, but keeping him from reaching out to them as well. He needed to be set free. Gai ran his tongue around the rim of Kakashi's ear, firmly kneading and stroking his length through the cloth, and Kakashi's fingers tightened around his shoulder as hums of smothered sound continued to vibrate in his throat, breathing heavily, instead, through his nose.

He wasn't ready to let go.

Gai's hand was swallowing him up and each pulse of fingers sent his body into small paroxysms. Soft lips smoldered along his ear, then his throat once more, teeth vicious, tongue wet, scorching-- "F***." Kakashi ground out the word between his teeth when Gai's strong fingers mapped the shape of him through his pants, thumb finding the hard ridge of his c*ck before giving the head a squeeze that shot through his body in a surge of sensation, melting somewhere deep within him, at the pit of his stomach. And his fingers grappled around to slide down Gai's back, trying to clutch, to grab for control; for something, anything, to hold himself in place. To grasp at strings of silk he kept himself cocooned within, drawing up the walls closely, so they wouldn't fall, crush them both, when he was struggling to keep them from crumbling with straining arms.

And he couldn't let go of it, refused to give in, even with this onslaught of sensation pouring down on him, filling him up, forcing all thought to flee his mind as something far more primal overtook him (he remembered the first time that this happened three years ago, when he was only sixteen and a fledgling captain, how hard the earth trembled under his knees, when he was pressed down into the mud, into the muck and the dust, with a hand placed at the back of his neck, pressing his face right down in it so he would understand the hot earth-pulse and what it meant -- the smell of blood and dirt and death so strong -- heady and violent like what split him, filled him, made him remember what he was when he was so torn up, and coming, coming, coming apart in perfect silence; with only harsh breaths and the lewd, wet f***ing noise the only sounds that they made; no moans, no groans, no grunts -- only silence and breath, blood and come), he still held onto it with both hands, sealing it up inside of the cage of his chest with teeth clenched.

It was jailed up, that kind of passion. Walking the tenuous line between sex and desperation. And sometimes it was one and the same, but still Kakashi kept himself held in, drowning every noise, every sound of weakness he could make. And sometimes when he was f***ed up enough to let them take him dry, with spit and blood the only lubricant, it was easy, too easy, to keep it locked up. He'd learned how to let go just enough for it to count. Just enough to remake himself after the sweat and blood and come had dried, long after they'd finished and left him there to pick up the pieces on his own. (And sometimes he did it too, when they needed to be reminded like that, as well. There was a madness to it all, how they lived only to erase lives. How easy it was to lose yourself behind a painted mask.) But never completely.

And Gai wanted him to let go, wanted to break down those walls. Kakashi could feel it in the way that Gai kissed him, with an intensity he'd never experienced from all the nameless, faceless men he let f*** him. There was need in each kiss, roaring between each breath, and it scared the f*** out of him, how it soaked into his skin and tore at the strings he held. Gai never did anything in moderation, always pouring himself completely into any situation, and Kakashi had almost forgotten how Gai was made of passion, and here it was sweeping over and into him -- so much at once he could barely breathe, because each time he did, he only breathed Gai in. This scent that was so thick and sweet, filled with so much trust, faith, belief; spicy in its earthy, woodsy masculinity; a scent that was so uniquely him.

Overwhelming, like everything else Gai did. That was what they called him. Overwhelming. Overwrought. Overdoing it. Over the line. (He hated lines, borders, boundaries, walls -- he always had. Give him wide open spaces and limitless possibilities. Give him the forests and plains, the depthless oceans, the blue sky without end. Give him the majesty of freedom and opportunities unfurling into forever. Eternity existed, and he would hold it in his hands, cupped close and careful against his heart, splash it over his face, drink it in, seize the-moment-the-day-eternity and throttle it with both hands.) And maybe they were right. Maybe he was overwhelming. Maybe people had difficulty handling the way his heart and spirit and dreams, his mind and ideals and emotions ran wild and unrestrained, so often unfiltered and uninhibited.

But if the truth were to be known, he was really the one overwhelmed. (Inebriate of air am I, and debauchee of dew) There was beauty out there, marvels of nature and civilization and humanity that so many people seemed completely blind to. Why was that? It was all there, right there in front of them! The sun, the sky, the sand, the sea, the earth, the forest, the flowers. (Reeling, through endless summer days, from inns of molten blue) It was there for the taking, to just drink up and roll around in, to let it soak straight down into your skin and melt into the very marrow of your bones. You could take the world and make it a part of you, and you would become part of the world. You could grasp the eternal youthful beauty of nature's endless cycle, of spring and summer and autumn and even frost-delicate winter, and become it -- it would be a shining fragment of who you are, in all its gloriously passionate variations. There was so much to life, so much more than this, so much more than blood and pain and madness, so much more than fighting and war and murder, so much more than death and despair and betrayal and sorrow. There was beauty here. Glory and goodness, hope and happiness, love and laughter.

He wanted everyone to know it. He wanted Kakashi to know it. To have and hold and appreciate, to accept and understand. He wanted to be the one to give this precious, priceless gift to him (everything that's good in this world I offer, always and forever for you), to show him the world beyond their job. But you couldn't wrap spandex around the world, and you couldn't force it between graphic, colorful covers. And how else would he get Kakashi to open his eyes (yes, both eyes -- the friend that meant so much to him certainly deserved to experience the wonderful world, too) to what was right in front of him? That was why he wanted so badly for Kakashi to allow those walls to crumble, to crawl out of this chrysalis (what will you turn into, once you emerge with your wings?) and let him in.

Just let go already. (Why don't you trust me? Why do you never believe?)

Kakashi was shaking with the effort to keep holding on, hands scrabbling against Gai's bare back for purchase. But he would find no handholds with him, not now. Gai gave Kakashi another slow squeeze that pulled out another hitch of breath from his rival, as his lips and teeth seared down his throat again, leaving a hot, wet mark on the opposite side of his neck from the first. (Rivalry was an endless duality.) And then he was tugging, pulling, yanking Kakashi back step by step, fingers moving, fabric rustling as it was divested, revealing the scarred topography it hid, no longer cold, now hot -- still wounded and bleeding but that could wait, would have to. He didn't have to look down to know what he'd see -- he could see it in the way Kakashi looked at him.

 

11/18/2021 06:37 PM 

Mirror, Mirror

Summary:

While poking around in corners of the palace, Loki finds a peculiar mirror that doesn't show his reflection.

Things only go downhill from there.

 

 

 

 

 

He wasn’t looking for trouble. He wasn’t looking for anything in particular, really, just poking around in one of the many, many palace storerooms that sat forgotten if not abandoned. For the most part there was nothing interesting in them. Every so often, though, Loki found something that was - an ancient manuscript, a miniature dragon’s skeleton, a strange black orb that could throw an entire room into darkness blacker than the Void.

(That one...made Loki a little nervous. But he kept it squirreled away on his shelf anyway, and nerves hadn’t stopped him from using it to terrify Thor. He’d deserved it. Leaving Loki behind, again, without so much as asking. Ass.)

He couldn’t say what about the mirror caught his eye - it was broken, after all, a few shards of silvered glass lying on the floor that crunched under Loki’s heel. He crouched down in front of it, studying the slender silver frame - remarkably simple.

Realizing abruptly what it was that he’d noticed, Loki’s eyes widened.

The glass didn’t reflect his face. There was no answering gleam in the mirror of the witchlight hovering over his shoulder. The broken pieces stayed dark and gleaming. Loki pulled a piece of glass away and turned it over; the back was the same.

“Why make a mirror that reflects nothing?” Loki asked it, frowning. He flexed his fingers and stepped back, concentrating.

The shards on the floor flew back into the frame, the cracks fusing together. When he finished, there were still a few pieces missing, but it was almost whole. Nothing appeared in the glass, however - it remained dark, though he thought he could almost see the darkness moving. Loki pursed his lips and reached out to run his finger over the glass. Maybe it was because it was incomplete? If he could find the missing pieces…

He nicked his finger on a sharp edge of the glass and hissed, jerking his hand back. Looking from the blood welling up on his fingertip to the opaque surface of the mirror, Loki chewed the inside of his cheek and then smeared blood on the glass.

For a moment nothing happened, and Loki exhaled in disappointment.

Then the streak of blood sank into the mirror and disappeared.

Loki jerked back. A thousand warnings cut across his mind: blood magic is unpredictable, dangerous, carries a high price. But he hadn’t done anything. Still, he stood up quickly and took a step back, wringing his hands and staring nervously at the mirror. It didn’t do anything, though, except that the faint trace of movement he’d thought he’d seen was gone.

“Well,” said a quiet voice behind him. “And who are you?”

Loki spun around, magic surging to his hands, but there was no one there. Or - no. Not no one. But not someone, either. It was like wisps of smoke that almost formed the outline of a person - not solid enough to even be called a shadow. Loki took a step back.

“Who - what are you?”

“I do not know,” it said. Its voice was high, strangely musical, and sent shivers down Loki’s spine. “I was caged. And now I am free.”

Loki glanced at the mirror. “In that?” He asked, curious in spite of himself.

“Yes,” it said after a moment. “I suppose so.” Loki had the impression he was being scrutinized, though he could see no eyes. “Will you tell me your name?”

“I am-” Loki remembered, in time, that it was unwise to give one’s name to unfamiliar magical creatures. Names had power, and some beings could use it for ill ends. “Loptr,” he said, after a moment, and chose to leave off prince of Asgard as well.

“No,” it said after a moment. “That is not your name.”

Loki flinched, then blinked. “How should you know?” He said. “You do not even know your own, and you would call me a liar?”

“Yes,” it said. “That is a name for you. Liar.”

Loki’s eyes widened and this time he did summon his magic. “Begone,” he snapped. “You are not welcome here, spirit.” He sketched the rune of banishing in the air, and flicked his hand to trigger it. The apparition dispersed like dust before a strong wind.

Loki stared at the air where it had been, his stomach churning. That is a name for you.

It was nothing anyone had ever said in his hearing. But he wondered, sometimes, if silvertongue was an epithet that masked something less fair-sounding.

He shook himself. The thing had been a ghost from a mirror, not an oracle. Hardly worth the effort it had taken to banish it.

Still, the chill lingered, and he left the room perhaps a little hastily.


Loki went back to his room, feeling oddly drained, and found Thor waiting for him by the door and scowling at it. He checked his stride for a moment, exhaled, and walked over to him.

“Did you try to open it?” He asked. Thor turned to look at him, holding out his reddened palm.

“It burned me. When did you set wards on your door?”

“After the fourth time you interrupted me in the middle of delicate work,” Loki said, unapologetic, but he reached for Thor’s hand, working a simple spell that sank into his skin, the red fading away. “What did you want?”

“Not me,” Thor said. “Father. He asked for us both.”

Loki blinked, anxiety bubbling in his stomach. “Did he say why?”

“No,” Thor said, and scrutinized his face. “Did you do something?”

Loki stiffened. “Do something? What makes you think I did something?”

Thor put up his hands hastily. “I was just asking!”

“If it were about me,” Loki said, annoyed, “why summon both of us?” Though he did wonder. Had their father sensed what had happened with the mirror? It seemed unlikely that he would have, and the room he’d found it in wasn’t technically forbidden, but...

“Perhaps he is going to send us to look into the disturbance in the southeast,” Thor said, sounding hopeful. “Apparently there is some sort of monster ravaging farms.”

“He won’t,” Loki said. “We’re too young.” Thor scowled, as though he resented the reminder, and Loki rolled his shoulders back. “We should go. I don’t want to be late.”

Thor’s eyes widened a little. “You’re right,” he said. “If we’re in trouble, I’m telling him it was your fault. Where were you, anyway?”

“About,” Loki said vaguely. Thor looked like he wanted to roll his eyes, but just reached out and shoved Loki instead.

“Skulking in the library seeking new tricks?” He said with a laugh. Loki pushed away the anger that prickled between his shoulder blades and summoned a smile he hoped looked mysterious.

“Something like that.”

The door to their father’s study was open. Thor went in without knocking, and Loki trailed after. Odin looked at him briefly, his single eye piercing, before turning his gaze on Thor. Loki shifted, but stayed quiet.

“You told me to find Loki - I found him. So what is it you want to tell us?”

“You’re old enough now,” their father said at length, “to take on some new responsibilities.”

Oh. Loki relaxed. So he was not in trouble, and this was not to be a lecture. He straightened, a little, trying not to smile. Thor straightened as well, less successful at hiding his pleasure. “We’re honored, father,” he said, and if Loki felt a twinge of resentment at being spoken for, he tucked it away. “What would you have us do?”

Their father stood slowly. “It is time you began to learn what it is to rule,” he said. “The responsibilities of kingship. From now on, you will spend your afternoons with me, observing council meetings.”

Thor deflated. Loki stifled his laugh: he’d still been hoping to be sent out to slay a monster. This, Loki thought, was much better. This was trust, not just of their skills but that they would not embarrass the All-Father or Asgard. It meant learning not just the theory of politics but its practice.

Loki could see Thor on the point of trying to protest, and cut in quickly. “Thank you,” he said. “We look forward to learning--”

“I was speaking to Thor,” Odin said calmly, and Loki was brought up short like he’d just run into a door suddenly closed in front of him.

“What?” He said, stupidly.

“What?” Thor said, sounding equally surprised, and looked at Loki in confusion. “Why? Why doesn’t Loki have to go?”

“Loki will be spending his time with Halvar,” their father said. Loki felt like he’d been punched in the stomach. The treasurer. Thor was to be privy to their father’s highest councils, and he was to spend his days counting coins?

Thor’s eyebrows knitted together. “With Halvar? But-”

“Thor,” their father said, and though it was mild even Thor heard the warning in it and shut his mouth. “I have made my decision.”

Why, Loki wanted to demand, like Thor. He bit his tongue, though there was a pit that had opened in his stomach. And humiliation burning in his cheeks, for assuming as much as he had. Don’t you know your place by now?

He lowered his eyes. “I am grateful for this opportunity, Father,” he said, words carefully measured. “I will do my best not to disappoint you.”

He felt Thor glance at him, and then back at their father. “I am...also grateful,” he said, but the words were stiff. There was a tightness in Loki’s chest and he bit the inside of his cheek so he didn’t start fidgeting with his hands.

“May I go?” He asked, keeping his voice even. “I was in the middle of - a project. It shouldn’t be left unattended too long.” It was a weak lie, and he was sure for a moment that Odin would call him on it, but he just nodded.

“Go on,” he said. “We will speak more later.”

Loki bowed his head and left the room with as much dignity as he could manage, keeping his head high as he turned back toward his rooms. His lungs felt too tight. Don’t be an idiot, he thought viciously. This is - it’s an honor. He’s giving you more responsibility. It doesn’t matter what the responsibility is. You’re younger than Thor, it only makes sense--

But he was the one who applied himself to his studies more. He was the one who did better in their classes on politics and history and comportment.

He was secondborn. He wasn’t Thor.

“Loki!”

He stopped, inhaling through his nose and keeping his fists from clenching at his sides, but he didn’t turn.

“Loki,” Thor said, coming around in front of him. “I tried to tell him-”

“You shouldn’t have bothered,” Loki said. “You know as well as I do that father doesn’t change his mind.”

“I don’t understand,” Thor said, shaking his head. Loki shrugged.

“I suppose he thinks it is where we need to be.”

“Yes, but…” Thor trailed off, and shook his head with a forced laugh. “I don’t know why you’d be upset. At least Halvar is young. I’m to be stuck listening to a flock of gossiping greybeards.”

Loki felt a flash of anger and stifled it. He forced a smile. “Mind you don’t fall asleep.”

“Without you there to prod me awake, I just might,” Thor said. Loki looked away from him, and Thor reached out to grip his shoulder. “Let’s go riding. I’ll find Fandral and Sif and the others-”

“No, thank you,” Loki said, pulling away. “I’d rather...skulk about in the library.” His smile felt more and more forced. “Go on,” he said, when Thor’s eyebrows pulled together. “Enjoy yourself. You’re soon to lose your freedom, after all.”

“If you’re certain,” Thor said, after a long pause.

“Of course I am,” Loki said. “Stop worrying.”

Thor squeezed his shoulder. “Tomorrow,” he said. “I will drag you out into the sun. You are beginning to look positively ghostly.”

Loki watched him walk away, waiting until he was out of sight to let the smile fall away. He wove a spell around himself that would keep him unnoticed the rest of the way back to his room, and sank down into his favorite chair, resting his head in his hands.

It was fine, he told himself. Fine.

“He loves you less,” said a voice, and Loki’s head snapped up. He looked around wildly.

“Who’s there?”

“He looks at you and sees the lesser son,” said the same voice, and Loki lurched to his feet, calling on his magic and scanning wildly back and forth. “He doesn’t trust you. Thor shines in his eyes, but you...you are a shadow.”

Loki found it, finally. It stood in a corner, little more than a vague outline, a shimmer in the air. He straightened up, jaw tightening. “You,” he said. “I banished you-”

“You thought you had,” it said. “But I didn’t go far.”

Loki raised a hand to sketch the banishing sigil again.

“Don’t you wonder,” it said, “why he loves you less?”

“He doesn’t,” Loki said angrily. “Thor is older. That’s all-”

“Is it?”

“You’re a ghost - a demon,” Loki said. “What do you know of love?”

“I see more clearly than you do, a child chasing your father’s approval. You’ll never have it. You may as well give up.”

Loki’s hands clenched into fists and he wrote the sigil in quick, jerking gestures, triggering it. The figure wavered, but did not vanish.

“Pathetic,” it said. Loki licked his lips and tried again, but it was gone before he even finished the spell. Like it had never been there. Loki took several heaving, deep breaths. He could feel himself shaking and bit down hard on his lower lip.

He wasn’t going to cry. He wasn’t a child and he wouldn’t act like one. A child chasing your father’s approval.

Loki dug his fingernails into his palms and bent his head forward, fighting for control as hard as he could.

Tomorrow...tomorrow he’d go see if he could find information about how to banish malevolent spirits. He’d start work with Halvar and he’d do it well, prove that he could be trusted, that he was responsible, that he could be useful. It was - disappointing, of course, but it wasn’t...it didn’t mean anything.

Didn’t mean…

He loves you less. Thor shines in his eyes, but you are a shadow.

Loki shoved the words away. It was the shadow, not him.


It didn’t leave him alone.

It came back again when he was studying in the library, poring over tome after tome of Asgard’s history. The more he knew, after all, the more valuable he could be to Asgard. And yet as he focused on memorizing the law codes implemented by Buri the Undefeated, he felt it like a shadow falling over him.

“Why are you bothering with this? It won’t change anything.”

Loki hunched his shoulders. Perhaps if he simply ignored it. He needed to look up stronger banishing spells. Something more permanent. Spells of destruction, even.

“It doesn’t matter how much you know, little liar.” Its voice had changed; it sounded deeper, less musical. “It isn’t what you know. It’s what you are.

Don’t call me a liar, Loki wanted to say, but he bit his tongue and tried to focus on the page. In the third year of his reign-

“And you know what you are, don’t you?” It sounded closer. Goosebumps rose on the back of Loki’s neck but he refused to turn and look. “Lesser. Inferior. Unworthy.”

Loki’s stomach clenched along with his teeth. He closed the book and made himself stand to take it back to the shelves. Sliding it back into place, careful to line up the spines perfectly.

“The heir and the spare,” it said. “Why do they even bother? They have everything Asgard needs in Thor.”

He couldn’t hold back. He whirled around and threw one of his knives directly at its heart.

It passed harmlessly through, black parting around it and reforming in its wake. Loki stared. It looked more solid now, more real, the outline clearer and less wavering. He almost took a step back, but refused to give ground, clenching his fists.

“You can pour all the poison you like in my ears,” he said, and his face burned to hear how his voice shook, “but I will not listen to a word of it. I am Loki, Prince of Asgard, a son of Odin-”

“Ah,” it said, sounding satisfied. “So that is your name, little liar. Loki.”

His stomach plunged. Idiot, he thought savagely. You utter fool, a little stung pride and you give up your true name to this mirror-demon, a dark creature of unknown nature?

“Loki,” it said. “Yes.”

He took a step back, breathing quickly.

“Loki?” He heard. Thor’s voice, but Loki didn’t call back, standing frozen, staring at the thing he’d unleashed. “Loki! Where are you?”

“You had better answer,” it said. “Or he will leave without you. As he always will. Every year, he leaves you further behind.”

“Be silent,” Loki said, and hated how his voice quavered. “You know nothing. You are nothing.”

“I only speak what you do not want to admit,” the shadow said.

“Loki!” Thor called again, and he took a step back.

“Begone,” he said, finally calling on his magic and lashing out with it. The shadow melted away, but Loki could have sworn he heard it laughing as it did. His throat burned and he wanted to scream at it: you’re wrong, Thor will never leave me, we’re brothers, no one is bound so closely together as we are.

Thor rounded the corner. “There you are,” he said, sounding impatient. “I’ve been calling you for ages. What were you studying that was so interesting?”

Loki glanced away with a shrug. “Nothing,” he said. “What did you want?”

“Sif and I are going for a ride,” Thor said. “Do you want to join us?”

For another afternoon of standing to the side and watching the two of you banter and tease each other? No, thank you, Loki thought, but the shadow’s words crept into his mind: he will leave without you. Every year, he leaves you further behind.

Loki balled his hands into fists and forced himself to open them and shrug as though it didn’t much matter. “Why not? I’m finished here.”

Thor brightened, and his smile went a long way toward sweeping aside some of Loki’s uncertainties.

He glanced uneasily over his shoulder as he left, searching the corners for any suspicious looking shadows. Perhaps, he thought briefly, he ought to say something to Odin or Frigga about the thing.

Loki dismissed the thought immediately. It was just a small problem. A nuisance, nothing more. Not worth bringing to them at all.


The next few days were quiet, though Loki caught himself peering suspiciously at any patches of darkness that seemed out of place. He began shadowing Halvar, and was surprised by how engaging he found the work. It was not glamorous, certainly, but it was...interesting. And more complicated than just counting coins.

Still, for all Thor complained about how dull the meetings he attended were, a private envy still gnawed at him. And some part of him wondered if Thor was deliberately exaggerating how hateful he found it to make Loki feel better, which seemed too much like pity for Loki to appreciate.

For a few days, Loki dared to think he might have gotten rid of the mirror-shadow for good.

Then - oh, then.

Thor was joining their father on a journey to Vanaheim. A brief one, Thor said. Just a few days, Thor said. Loki did not ask if he had been invited; the sheepish, almost nervous look on Thor’s face was clear enough. The way he was trying to make excuses.

Loki forced a smile. “You’ll have to tell me all about it when you return,” he said, injecting false cheer into his voice that didn’t sound convincing even to him. Thor’s face fell.

“You’re not jealous, are you?” He asked. “It’s only Vanaheim. Besides, wouldn’t you rather stay here anyway? It’ll all be talks and meetings with dull Vanir lords. Nothing exciting.

Meetings with your future liege lords. Parties where you will dazzle and charm everyone there, as you always do. Loki’s shoulders tensed. “Easy for you to say,” he snapped. “It isn’t you always getting left behind.”

Thor straightened. “What are you yelling at me for? It’s not my fault.”

Yes it is, Loki thought, unexpectedly savage. It is your fault, you’re like a fire burning up all the oxygen in the room so there’s nothing left for me. You are the heir and I am the spare and everyone knows it. I’m nothing more than your shadow. “You’re right,” Loki said. “It’s not your fault that Father likes you more.”

Thor stared at him, shocked, and then laughed. “What do you mean? Don’t be ridiculous, Loki.”

“You wouldn’t see it, would you,” Loki said. “After all, it’s only what you deserve.”

Thor’s face darkened. “What’s gotten into you? Why are you making so much fuss about one little trip?”

Loki looked away. It’s not fair, he thought, like the child he wasn’t supposed to be anymore. “Never mind,” Loki said bitterly. “It doesn’t matter.”

Thor frowned at him. “Fine,” he said. “Go on and sulk.” He turned on his heel and stormed away. Loki resisted the urge to call after him and just stood, hands balled into fists at his sides and breathing hard.

Only a few seconds after Thor was out of sight, though, the anger melted away, leaving a hollow space where it had been. Loki slumped, feeling childish and stupid. He’d lost his temper with Thor, driven him off, and it didn’t mean anything. Nothing changed.

Thor was still going, and he still wasn’t.

“He is probably going to your father right now.”

Loki whirled around, tensing. One shadow detached itself from a cluster of them, and Loki almost thought he could see the glitter of eyes. He took a step back. “Back again?” he said, trying for callous disdain though he fell far short of it.

“What do you think he will say?” The shadow said, as though he hadn’t spoken. “That his brother is envious, full of petty jealousy?

Loki opened his mouth to argue and snapped it shut. He shouldn’t give it the attention. It was trying to provoke him, clearly, and he was not going to be manipulated by a phantasm from a mirror.

“You make a very pathetic prince,” the shadow said. Loki dug his nails into the palms of his hands and turned away, stalking back toward his rooms. “Are you going to sulk now?” The shadow called, and Loki whirled before he could stop himself, hissing the harshest banishing spell he’d ever memorized.

The shadow melted away - and reformed a moment later. Loki froze, breath catching in his throat.

“Is it any wonder that you aren’t being brought along?” It said sweetly. It swayed to and fro like a snake, it’s form for a moment almost something like a man before it blurred back into shapelessness. “’It’s not fair.’ Of course it is. This is a reward, and you have to earn rewards. What have you done to earn anything?” Loki couldn’t seem to move. He opened his mouth to object, but the only words that bubbled up in his mind were it’s right, you know.

“Nothing,” the shadow said, like it was relishing the word. “Nothing at all, little liar. If you hadn’t been born in this house...no one would ever look at you twice.”

“Stop it,” Loki said. The shadow laughed.

“Why? It isn’t anything you don’t already know. Oh, you try to smother it in comforting platitudes. You are a prince. Born to be a king. But there is one heir to Asgard’s throne, and it isn’t you.”

Loki swallowed hard, or tried, the lump in his throat seeming to block it. “It doesn’t matter,” he said. “I do not need to be king. I can be just as important at Thor’s side–”

“Behind him, you mean,” the shadow interrupted, drawing nearer and seeming to bend down. It was man-shaped, now, long and spindly fingers reaching toward Loki’s face. “Unseen. Unnoticed. Or do you really believe your own lies?”

Iron bands tightened around Loki’s chest, squeezing his ribs. “What do you want from me,” he said.

“The truth,” the shadow said, voice suddenly turning gentle. “It may be painful now, but isn’t it better to know than to pretend?”

Loki wavered. He shook his head. “I don’t believe you. Are you really claiming that you are just trying to help?

“The sooner you admit what you are,” the shadow crooned, “the better off you will be. The better off everyone will be.”

Loki’s eyes burned. He turned his back. “I will not listen to you,” he said, teeth gritted. “You are - you are just some dark thing seeking to poison my mind. To weaken me. It won’t work.”

The shadow withdrew its hands. “There is only so long you can hide,” it said. “You already know I am right.”

Then it was gone. Loki let out a ragged breath that sounded just on the edge of a sob and sucked it back in, blinking rapidly several times until he had himself back under control. He felt shaky, chilled, like he was coming down with a fever. He could still hear its voice echoing in his head, slithering through his thoughts and taking root.

You already know I am right.

Loki pressed the back of his hand to his mouth, turned on his heel, and went to go for a ride, hoping that the fresh air would clear his head. Then he would come back and look for stronger banishing spells. Or maybe workings to lock spirits into objects. It had come out of a mirror; maybe Loki could trap it in another one.

Do you really believe your own lies?

Loki dug his fingernails into his palms, the sting grounding him somewhat. It was something, at least. Something to focus on that wasn’t the word nothing circling in his mind like a vulture eyeing a dying animal.


Loki woke up the morning after his argument with Thor with a headache and exhaustion dogging his heels. His thoughts were a blurry, confused, muddle and while he couldn’t remember them, he knew he’d had terrible dreams.

He took breakfast with his mother, who watched him picking disinterestedly at his food and frowned.

“Are you feeling well, Loki?” She asked. He raised his head and forced a smile.

“Yes,” he said automatically, and then said, “a bit tired.”

She smiled. “Working hard? I know your father has been giving you and Thor more responsibilities. I hope he isn’t leaving you with no time for yourself.”

“No,” Loki said quickly. “No - I can’t complain. I - I appreciate it, truly. It’s an honor.”

Frigga gave him an odd look, a frown touching the corners of her mouth. “Well, then,” she said. “I am...glad to hear that.”

“Yes,” Loki said. “Yes, it’s...good.” He took an overlarge bite of egg that tasted like paper, and forced himself to chew and swallow before setting down his fork. “May I...ask you something, mother?”

“Anything, love,” she said with a smile. Loki looked down at his plate.

“Do you know of…” He paused. “I was reading something, and...can mirrors be used to trap things? Spirits, or the like?”

Frigga paused, and after a moment set down her own utensils. “What were you reading?”

Loki shrugged. “I don’t remember what it was called. It wasn’t about...just a passing mention, and it got me thinking.” The lie came to him easily. A faint frown line appeared between his mother’s eyebrows.

“It’s old magic,” she said, finally. “Not much in use anymore. It used to be done, in order to sequester certain types of spirits.”

“Why not anymore?” Loki asked. How is it done? He couldn’t exactly say that, though, without losing the pretense that this was a theoretical discussion. And he did not much want to tell his mother that he’d loosed something unpleasant on Asgard by accident.

She would think he was such a stupid, ignorant child. Imagining the disappointment on her face - without even touching his father’s anger…

Frigga spoke slowly, as though considering her words carefully. “Mages these days favor banishing,” she said. “It was not...a permanent solution, after all. Mirrors can be easily broken, and the spirit within freed. And it was used, also, as a means to...bind spirits to a sorcerer’s will. Rather than banishing them entirely, they could be tied to the earthly plane and used.” She gave Loki a sharp look. “I needn’t tell you how dangerous that sort of magic-working is. And how easily twisted to evil ends.”

A shiver went down Loki’s spine. “I know,” he said. He remembered, quite vividly, Frigga’s description of what happened to mages who lost control of spirits they tried to bind. Which was all of them, eventually. His mother relaxed slightly.

“Ultimately,” she went on, “the whole practice was deemed too dangerous, and as summoning magic fell out of favor in general, it was one of the first things to be discarded.” She examined him. “Does that answer your question?”

“What happened when the spirit was freed?” Loki asked carefully. “Couldn’t you just banish it?”

Frigga hummed. “Often, yes - though of course that isn’t always such a simple task. But sometimes…” She examined him, and Loki thought she was debating whether or not to say something. He held still and tried to look curious but innocent. “Sometimes the spirit would...fix on the person who broke the mirror. A way to insure that a rival mage did not free a spirit in order to sabotage her fellow who had called it to begin with. In those cases, extricating it from the material plane became a great deal more complicated.”

“But it could be done,” Loki blurted out, before he could stop himself. “I mean - it wasn’t permanent.

“No, of course not,” Frigga said, giving him a strange look. “Few things are. But it is seldom a benefit to have a spirit fixed to your heels - especially one that has been trapped and is likely angry.” She paused. “But all of this...it is history, Loki. You are thoroughly unlikely to run into anything of the like unless you go looking for it.”

Loki tried to smile and look relieved. “Thank you for indulging my curiosity,” he said, and picked up his fork again to resume eating, staring down at his plate. Conversation fell quiet for a while.

“Loki,” his mother said abruptly, and he looked up to see an expression of concern on her face. “You know if something is bothering you...you can always come to me. Don’t you?”

“I - of course,” Loki said, somewhat automatically, and then, “why?”

“I know that…” she seemed to be considering. “Thor said that you were...upset by the fact that you were not to be joining him and your father on their journey to Vanaheim.”

Loki’s stomach turned sour. He imagined Thor complaining to their mother about Loki, about his petty, resentful little brother. He controlled his face with an effort.

“It’s all right,” he said, forcing a little smile. “I understand that it’s not about me. It’s just not my turn yet. I’m not upset.”

“Really,” she said.

“I guess I was, a little,” Loki said. “But I thought about it, and not anymore.”

It was so easy to lie. So...natural.

“Good,” his mother said after a pause. “That’s good. I’m glad to hear it.”

Something in his chest ached. He’d wanted her to say something else, Loki realized. To push, or to agree with him that it was unfair, or...something. He wasn’t even sure what that would be, exactly.

Just that not getting it left him feeling rather hollow.


Loki slept poorly, restlessly, and woke with his head aching and full of wool. He couldn’t remember his dreams, only that they’d been unpleasant. Thor and Odin were leaving today, he remembered, and wanted to roll over, pull the blankets up over his head, and go back to sleep.

“You look pathetic.”

“Go away,” Loki said, and cringed at how childish it sounded.

“Why? So you can lie here moping alone?” The shadow scoffed. Its voice sounded different than it had before - clearer, and strangely familiar. “As I said. Pathetic.”

Loki pushed the blankets back and sat up. The shadow was there, and its outline seemed more solid, now, like it was getting stronger, gaining more of a foothold. Loki turned his back resolutely and began dressing himself, trying to ignore the warning prickle on the back of his neck.

“Ignore me all you like,” the shadow said. “It is no less true, and you know it. Besides, pathetic is the best that can be said of you, little liar.” Loki hunched his shoulders and said nothing, marching into the bathroom to splash cold water on his face in the hopes that it would clear his head. “What a performance you gave for your mother,” the shadow went on, its voice following him. “How she loves you. And you repay her with deceit.”

Loki bit the inside of his cheek so he didn’t answer, and straightened up only to jump, eyes widening. The shadow was just behind him, and for a moment he could almost make out a face; he did feel it when it reached out and caressed the side of his face, cold as ice, and he flinched hastily away.

“I know what you are,” he hissed, his stomach roiling. The chill of that touch seemed to sink into him, all the way to his core. “Nothing but a spirit, captured and bound by some sorcerer. Chained. You must have been weak.”

The shadow shifted, morphed, fingers extending into claws. “Weak,” it said, more snarl than speech. Loki felt a stab of triumph.

“Yes,” he said. “Weak. Trapped in a mirror. Locked away in a dusty room. Forgotten. You might be haunting me, taunting me, but that’s all you can do. You’re nothing but words.

The talons formed back into fingers. Its body coalesced back into an ordinary shape. “Is that what you think?” It said. Loki raised his chin.

“It’s all you’ve done so far. Are you going to tell me you can do worse? Threaten me?”

“No,” the shadow said. “No. Not threaten. Why would I threaten you?” It seemed to settle, calming. “I don’t need to threaten you.”

An alarm bell was clanging at the back of Loki’s mind. “Why not?” He asked, suddenly uncertain.

A flash, as of teeth. As of a smile, and a shadow, Loki thought, should not be able to smile. It stepped closer to him.

“Because whether or not I threaten you,” it crooned, “you will give me what I want.”

Loki’s stomach lurched and his breathing quickened. “And what is it you want, shadow?”

“That,” it said, “would be telling.” It withdrew, then. “Go on, princeling. Don’t you want to bid your brother farewell?”

Loki’s jaw worked. “I will be rid of you,” he said. “And all your hateful lies.”

“Not lies,” it said. “Never lies. I would never lie to you, Loki.” This time he was certain of it: a smile, and it looked entirely wrong on the shadow’s not-a-face. “I don’t need to. You think I am trying to wound? I am the only one in your life who will be honest with you.”

It was gone again before Loki could answer. He wrapped his arms around himself, realizing that he was shivering, chilled to the bone. His mouth flooded with saliva and he twisted quickly to vomit into the sink rather than on the floor.

When the wave of nausea passed, Loki lifted his head and looked at himself in the mirror. His face was bone-white. He looked sickly, ugly. Pathetic.

He conjured a glamor to cover himself and left, his stomach still twisting in knots, the cold of the shadow’s touch lingering in his bones.


Loki bade Thor farewell with a smile, and Thor seemed pleased, embracing Loki hard enough that his ribs creaked and promising to bring him back some treasure - perhaps a dragon’s egg? Loki laughed, though some dark emotion still seethed in his chest as he watched Thor and Odin lead their horses out to the end of the Bifrost. He turned away before it swept them off, and went to seek out solitude.

His solitude did not last for long.

“And now you are alone,” the shadow said. Loki did not look at it, but he could see out of the corner of his eye that it was no longer formless at all, but well and truly man-shaped. It seemed to have shrunk, however, and where it sat on the bench beside him was nearly his exact height. “He must be relieved not to have you tagging along at his heels.”

“Thor loves me,” Loki said, before he could stop himself. “You cannot make me doubt that.”

The shadow laughed. “He loves having an obedient little companion who makes him greater by contrast. You make him feel superior. Give him confidence in his own greatness. After all, if ever he doubts himself, all he needs to do is look at you and think at least I am not Loki.

Loki dug his fingers into his legs. “It isn’t like that.”

“Isn’t it?”

He lurched to his feet and walked away, his stomach churning. It was like the shadow’s words were seeping into him, and while he tried to shake them off they were already in his bloodstream. He felt sick.

“He loves me,” he insisted. “I am his brother.”

“You are his shadow,” the shadow said with relish. “Your mother pities you. Your father sees you as a disappointment. Have you deluded yourself so far that you do not see it?”

Loki resisted the childish urge to put his hands over his ears. “They are my family.”

“So they love you out of obligation,” the shadow said. “Nothing more.” It stood as well, circling around to stand in front of him. Loki could just make out the vague outline of a face, the hint of a jawline, the suggestion of eyes. “What use are you to them otherwise? They only need one prince. They only want one.”

Loki swallowed hard. His eyes and stomach burned. “Be silent.”

“Weak,” the shadow said. “Foolish. Pathetic. Useless. What do you have that your brother does not? What do you have to offer?”

Nothing. Nothing at all. “My magic,” he said. “I’m smarter. Cleverer.”

“Who cares?” The shadow stepped closer to him, as though they were about to kiss. “Magic and trickery? A modicum of cleverness? You grasp at straws. No one wants a clever prince. A clever son. They want one who can command loyalty. Respect. One who is brave and true and a proper warrior.”

“What would you have me do?” Loki burst out. “You tell me I have no place here - where exactly do you expect me to go? This is my home.

The shadow laughed, soft and vicious. “And it doesn’t want you,” it said. “Nobody wants you. You could disappear tomorrow and no one would notice, or care. You could die, and who would mourn?”

Hot and shameful tears welled up and spilled over. “It’s not true,” he whispered, but his stomach ached. The shadow reached out and cupped the back of his neck with its cold hand, a mockery of affection.

“You know it is,” it said, voice shifting to gentleness. “You feel its truth in your bones. Don’t you? You haven’t wanted to admit it, but it is there. Every time you are passed over for Thor. Every time you are silenced to let him speak. Every time your father ignores you. Your mother tells you that you are not different, not less, but if that is so then why do people treat you like you are?

“Because you are the flaw. You are the fault along which the stone splits. You are what is wrong.

Loki stood, transfixed, trembling very slightly.

“Admit it,” the shadow said. Loki swallowed hard.

“I know,” he said, soft and hoarse. “I...know.”

There you are,” the shadow crooned. “Don’t you feel better?”

It vanished before he could answer. Loki covered his face with his hands, still shaking, tears rolling down his cheeks.

You are what is wrong.

He made himself invisible and stumbled back to his rooms, where he locked the door, crawled into bed, curled up under the covers, and wept silently until he managed to escape into sleep.


He woke in the middle of the night feverish and nauseated, having slept for nearly twelve hours. Stumbling to the bathroom, he vomited twice but his stomach did not settle. Dizzy and weak, his joints aching, he considered calling a healer but shoved the idea away.

Odds were he’d just eaten something that had disagreed with him. He was not going to be a weakling who went whining for comfort at the slightest of pains.

He tried to go back to sleep but it was elusive, and eventually he lit a candle and tried to read, but the words swam in front of his eyes. An ache started at his temples and spread until it felt like his head would split in two.

The thought slid into his mind that Thor never fell ill like this. Not Thor, the mighty, the invincible, the perfect–

His eyes prickled. He wanted someone to know he was suffering and come. He wanted someone to have noted his absence yesterday and come. He knew Frigga would, if he asked - she would be here in moments, and run her fingers through his hair, and comfort him, and imagining it made his chest ache with longing–

But it would ring false. They love you out of obligation. Nothing more.

He curled up tighter into himself. It felt a bit as though there was a small animal gnawing on his heart.

“Hiding away in the dark?”

Loki held in a moan. Leave me alone, he wanted to say, like a whining child. Stop it. “I’m sick,” he said.

“I can see that,” the shadow said, voice smooth and sure. “What a fine figure you cut.”

“Do you never tire of your own voice?” Loki demanded. He meant it to sound caustic, but it came out thin and pathetic.

“Do you?” The shadow laughed. “All that talk to fill the silence. The emptiness at your core.”

“That isn’t why.”

“Isn’t it?” He could hear the shadow’s smile without seeing it. “I know you, Loki. You forget. I know your mind, your soul. Your thoughts and fears and secrets. I have seen the core of you, and just as your father has, have found it wanting.”

Loki’s stomach clenched and he tasted bile. He bit his lip so he didn’t answer.

“Look at me,” the shadow said, and there was something resonant in its voice that he could not disobey. He opened his eyes and turned his head, and his blood went cold.

He was looking at his own face. Or almost: it was his, but not quite, ever so slightly wrong in a hundred small ways. Even as he looked, though, the features shifted, clarified - the clearest sign of difference was the eyes, black as pitch from lid to lid.

“Do you think I would make a better you?” It said, soft and malevolent. “I doubt anyone would notice. They might even be grateful for the change.”

“No,” Loki said, but it came out a croak, his throat half-closed. He couldn’t move, frozen, fear choking him. Finally, he lunged for his magic, remembering himself - only to feel it seized, bent, twisted from his control. Pain spiked through him and he cried out, struggling as his power was pulled out of him, drawn up from his core.

The shadow let out a pleased sigh, like it had swallowed a draught of fine wine. Loki felt himself shivering, his vision doubling before it steadied.

Thank you,” the shadow said, “for letting me in.” The black of its eyes diminished, shrinking to a normal pupil. Loki couldn’t catch his breath, and when he struggled to rise his limbs felt like dead weight. “I won’t need you for much longer,” it went on. “A few more days. A week at most. Oh, princeling.” It bent down and kissed him, its touch, before cold as ice, now warm as ordinary flesh. “You set me free. You made me strong. I could not be more grateful that you made it so easy.

“They’ll know,” Loki managed. His voice sounded strange, distorted. “My mother will be able to tell-”

“We’ll see, won’t we?” the shadow said. “Perhaps. But with my power, and yours…” Loki felt that painful tug on his magic again, sucking more out of him. “I think I can deal with her.”

Loki wanted to howl, to scream, but his own power wound around him, a silencing spell tightening around his throat that left him utterly voiceless. He would not be able to so much as whimper. His head felt as though it was going to split in two, and every breath lanced pain through his lungs. His stomach lurched and heaved.

“Time for me to go, little liar,” the shadow said, in Loki’s voice, and walked away.

The door locked behind it. His own spells would keep it closed.

Stupid, he thought savagely. Stupid, stupid, to think you could handle it on your own, to think that you were strong enough when you are nothing, nothing at all. His eyes burned with helpless, angry tears. And he was still too weak: too weak to rise, to fight, to free himself from the bonds of his own magic usurped and turned against him.

He tried. Oh, he tried. But the more he fought it, the weaker he seemed to become, and ultimately, miserable and exhausted, he gave up. His only hope was that someone would realize something was wrong. But would they?

They might even be grateful for the change.

The tears that spilled over felt hot on his cold skin.


His memories blurred. The shadow, though it was shadow no longer, returned, and laughed at his struggles that were becoming weaker by the day. He, Loki thought, was becoming the shadow himself, and he wondered if when it was over he would be locked in a mirror - or if he would simply die and be buried in some anonymous grave, or sent over the edge of Asgard into the Void.

His periods of consciousness grew shorter. The despair grew stronger. He tried, belatedly, to strip away the protections that kept him from Heimdall’s sight, but he had no control over his own power, yoked as it was to the shadow’s will.

“I was right,” it said to him at night, whispering in his ear. “No one has noticed anything wrong at all. It stands to reason, as no one ever noticed you.”

The animal in his chest was eating through his heart. He closed his eyes and sought refuge in oblivion. His ability to fight was dwindling to almost nothing.

He was on his own, maybe had always been on his own, and he wasn’t strong enough to save himself. Asgard did not need a weak prince.

Asgard did not need him.

The next thing he was aware of was Thor’s face looming over him, his hands on Loki’s face burning. “Loki!” he was saying, from what sounded like far away. “Stay awake, please, stay awake.”

Why, Loki would have asked, if he’d been able to speak, but he could not, and could not do as Thor asked either.

Slipping away, he wondered if his eyes would open again.


It was dark when he woke up. He hurt, but not like he’d been beaten - somehow deeper, a sense of wrongness not yet corrected despite the fact that he could feel magic humming around him.

It took a longer moment to remember what had happened, and why he was here. He must have been found. Somehow, someone had realized before it was too late.

He was less relieved than it seemed as though he ought to be. Perhaps he was just too exhausted for it.

Loki’s mouth was as dry as bone and he looked for water, but none had been left. He found the bell to summon an attendant, rang it, and flopped back down, staring up at the ceiling. His chest was hollow. I have seen the core of you, and just as your father has, have found it wanting.

If they’d figured it out, recognized the imposter, then they knew his weakness. Knew what he had done, his mistake, his failure. Loki’s heart sank and he wanted to crawl under the bed and make himself invisible.

The healer came in, but despite the nagging thirst Loki pretended to be asleep. He didn’t want to talk to anyone. Maybe never again.


They didn’t leave him alone forever.

Eir came back later to perform a series of tests. He only half listened to her explanation about energy drain and vulnerability to infection and careful monitoring, his attention more occupied by his mother sitting at his bedside, her hands folded in her lap and looking at him with an expression that was mostly unreadable save the faint lines of strain around her eyes.

“You are recovering well so far, my Prince,” Eir said. “But it will be a couple days yet before you can leave this room for your own quarters.”

She glanced at Frigga, bowed, and went out, leaving the two of them alone. Loki tried not to hunch his shoulders, but he did look away from her.

“Loki,” she said, her voice soft. “Why do you turn away from me?”

He knew what he was supposed to say. “I am sorry,” he said dully. “I should not have hidden the truth from you.” How did you realize, he wanted to ask. Was it too perfect, too good?

“That is the last thing that concerns me right now.” She reached out and touched Loki’s shoulder. “We nearly lost you.”

Loki said nothing. He did not see what there was to say.

“The spirit stalking you was draining you,” his mother went on. “Drawing on your life force and, when it was strong enough, your magic. When Thor found you, you had barely enough strength to sustain your body.”

“Thor found me?” Loki said before he could stop himself, turning toward Frigga. Her eyebrows were furrowed.

“He was the one who realized something was wrong,” she said after a long pause. “He was adamant. Eventually, your father investigated, to indulge Thor, and unmasked the deception. It would not say where you were, but Thor had already gone to your rooms, guessing that it would need you close by.”

He remembered Thor pleading with him to stay awake. So now Thor, too, knew him for a weakling and a liar. Loki wanted to shrivel up.

“Oh,” he said. His mother’s expression flickered.

“We have all been worried sick waiting for your recovery,” she said. “Destroying the spirit seems to have helped, but–”

“Destroying?” Loki said. “Not banishing?”

Frigga gave him a long look and then said, “your father was very angry. It suggested that…” She drew an unsteady breath. “It suggested that you were dead, and we to blame.”

“Of course you aren’t,” Loki said, too tired to put much feeling in it.

“I should have seen that you weren’t well,” Frigga said. “I knew something was wrong but I decided not to press it–”

“Mother,” Loki interrupted, “it’s not your fault. I freed it. I kept the secret. I was weak enough–”

She blinked. “Weak enough?”

Loki fell quiet and looked away. She said nothing for several moments.

“Spirits are deceivers, my darling,” she said. “You must know that. They will say whatever they must to hold the attention of their victims, and keep them snared.”

Little liar, the shadow whispered in his mind. Loki bit his lip.

“I listened.”

“Listened to what?” Frigga asked, her voice suddenly sharpening. “What did the fiend say?”

Loki held his tongue but his eyes burned. He closed them, hoping that would keep any tears from spilling out. “Nothing,” he said. “Nothing important.”

“It seems to me it may be of some importance.” His mother took a deep breath. “Why didn’t you ask me for help? Or your father?”

It didn’t matter, did it? How much worse could his shame be? How much lower could he sink? “I knew you would be angry,” he said. “And it would only prove…” He trailed off, and then forced the words out. “It would only prove how worthless I am. As a prince. As a son. I know...I know I’m a disappointment. I wanted to prove that I could deal with it on my own. But I couldn’t.”

Loki twisted away from her and hunched his shoulders. Frigga was silent, but he could hear her breathing, suddenly unsteady.

“Is that...is that what it told you?” She sounded a mixture of anguished and angry. “That you are worthless? A disappointment? That could not be further from the truth–”

“It’s all right,” Loki said. “You don’t have to lie to me anymore.”

Lie to you!” Her voice rose sharply. “I have never - you are my son, Loki, and I love you. How could you believe…”

“It’s just obvious,” Loki said. “What do I have that Thor doesn’t? I’m the spare. And not even a very good one.” He closed his eyes. “I think I’d like to be alone.”

He thought by the sound she made in her throat that she was going to object, but she only said, “we’re not done talking about this.”

“I don’t have anything else to say,” Loki said emptily. You are the flaw. You are the fault along which the stone splits. She’d coddled him, trying to make him something more than what he was. It wasn’t her fault it had failed.

“I love you,” Frigga said again. “More than you can know. Will you believe that?”

“You have to,” Loki said. “You’re my mother. You didn’t get the choice.”

“That’s not how it works,” she said.

It felt like he was drowning. “I want to be alone,” he repeated. It was several moments before he heard her sigh and stand up, moving away in a soft rustle of her skirts. He slowed his breathing, yearning for the oblivion of dreamless sleep.


Eir woke him and inquired after his state, both physical and, with more delicacy, mental. Loki told her honestly: he was weak but not in any real pain, and mentally he felt like himself. She probed further on the latter, but Loki gave her nothing more.

He regretted saying as much as he had to his mother. She wasn’t there this time, nor Thor, nor Odin. Of course not Odin. The shame...his shame must be great. How many people knew? What had they told the court to explain Loki’s absence?

As soon as Eir left he went back to sleep. Despite how much time he’d spent unconscious under the shadow’s parasitic attention, he was still exhausted, deep in his bones where it felt like it would never leave.

The next time he surfaced it was to the sound of an argument.

“--didn’t hear what he was saying, Odin.”

“I am certain. The creature is gone; there is nothing left that could be clinging to him. Eir would know if there was.”

“He called himself worthless. A disappointment. Claimed that I was lying when I tried to tell him otherwise, and that I only love him–” Frigga’s voice broke off with a sharp intake of breath. “That I only love him because I don’t have a choice. Tell me that does not sound like madness.”

Madness. So now they thought him mad, too.

“Frigga,” his father said slowly, “this sort of creature cannot...alter thoughts by force. And destroyed, it cannot possibly have any hold over Loki’s mind. Anything he said…”

“Oh,” Frigga said, her voice soft. Loki curled up tighter and bit his lip.

“It might have amplified them,” Odin said, and his voice sounded heavier than Loki could remember hearing it. “But the thoughts were already there.”

“Norns,” his mother said, after a long pause, and it sounded shaky. Now look what you’ve done, hissed the shadow’s vicious voice, but now only in his head. You’ve made her weep.

He shut his ears, but he could not shut out the touch of a hand on his shoulder, when it came.

“Loki, my son,” said his father’s voice. “Will you look at me?”

He did not dare disobey. He turned his head to look Odin in the eye. His expression was grave, the lines around his mouth seemingly a little deeper. “I am glad you have returned to us,” he said, though he didn’t look glad in the least.

“Mother told me that you freed me,” he said. “Thank you.”

An odd flicker passed through his father’s eye. “I should have seen sooner that you were...troubled.”

Troubled. What a kind word. “It isn’t your fault,” Loki said wearily, as he had to his mother. “I chose to hide it from you.”

“Nonetheless,” Odin said. “I am your father. It is my duty to notice these things, and address them. To keep you from harm.”

You are a weakling who cannot take care of himself, Loki heard, and wanted to flinch. “It should not be,” he said in a small voice. “You have other duties to see to. Many - many matters that need your attention.”

“Not least the welfare of my sons,” his father said, a little more sharply, and Loki did flinch then. Pain tightened Odin’s face though he cleared it quickly, and Loki wished he had controlled himself a little better. “Loki…”

“It’s my fault,” Loki said. “No one else’s.”

His father was quiet. His eye turned from Loki and he looked into the distance. “Creatures like this...they can cultivate the worst thoughts a person has. Sap their strength by nudging someone toward their fears and hurts, and feed on the despair that provokes. What they say may...may feel true, but that doesn’t mean it is.”

 

11/15/2021 08:38 PM 

stitches.

i’d rather write about the freckles on your back than think about all of the ways in which you quite possibly don’t love me.

i feel sick at the very thought of you picking me apart the way you did; fingers grabbing and stroking in a catastrophic symphony of skin and vulnerability.

let’s read between each other’s lines; share my sentences and punctuate my paragraphs with your mouth; because i can breathe easier on the mornings where i wake up wrapped around you.

because my moods change like the goddamn seasons and the spinning in my head doesn’t want to stop.
                                         you tell me that i should probably get a therapist because no one that thinks about all the ways in which they could kill themselves has an ounce of mental stability.
                                          i tell you that i have been to four.
                                          names faded into a blur with hazy snippets of conversation remaining.
20mg.
                    30mg.
you tell me that trust issues and scars aren’t endearing and i tell you that neither is counting up the potential number of pills needed to dissolve your body into the living room carpet.

let me sink inside your skin and make a home in your flesh;
i tell you about the nights where i lay awake in the bath turning the water red.
                       tragic, isn’t it.

you tell me that this isn’t how my head should work and i tell you that i already know. everything you could possibly tell me i already know.
i know that 400 calories a day isn’t normal, and my hands shouldn’t shake all the time.
                                             i know.
please let me stitch myself into you, even just for a while; until i no longer feel dizzy and my world stops spinning.
i don’t need you to tell me that it will be okay, because honestly i don’t think it will be and, that in itself, is okay.
                                                                ­                 let me stitch myself into you, because my own skin can’t take it anymore.

let me call you back when my voice stops wobbling and my vision straightens out, but honestly, i’m terrified that it never will. what if this is it. headaches and tears and shaking and blood.
                                             and the debilitating, gut-wrenching feeling of pure and euphoric emptiness.

                                              tragic, isn’t it.
 

11/15/2021 08:31 PM 

My Feathers Eye

My feathers
     ((eye))
                    still flies
         the mist
                   ‘. ‘.  ‘.
              of crystal
  sea blue
        skies.

                         A sailors day
                    on horizons port
       running rum
slicked masts
   on lingered breaths
where sugared
            lips once kissed.

                          Laughter rides
                             on glories wAvE
                        and flies  ـم
                a ravens
        wing.

                 To rejoice
      a heart
ached in
     harbinger bones
       peppered red
               in seasoned
                         algal bloom.

                                           Ebony’s noose
                                   a rising tide
                                       when nesting grands
                             flock distant lands
             to bare my bluff
             under warming stars
perched still
       in cliffside
         aerie.

Where
my feathers
     ((eye))
                    still flies
         the mist
                   ‘. ‘.  ‘.
              of crystal
  sea blue
        skies.

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