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This Time

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This Time

It was weird business, saving someone's life. Weird enough to seriously mess with a guy's already messed up head.

The first night with the wounded stranger in his house, Gojyo ditched the idea of going to sleep hours before he registered the need for it. His reasoning was solid enough--who would have wanted to wake up to find a dead man in his bed? He was pretty sure he'd end up with a body to bury at some point, anyway, and if it had to happen he wanted to be awake for it. If the guy he'd found was dying, which he most likely was, this time Gojyo had to be there.

This time. Huh.

The first time that thought popped up in his head, Gojyo ignored it. The second time he muttered it to himself when he was kneeling by the bed, hands stained red up to the elbows as he washed blood and mud from protruding intestines while fighting the gag reflex with varying degrees of success. He pulled a face at his own weird choice of phrasing, shrugged it off and went back to work. A slip of booze-tied tongue.

The third time he froze. He wasn't making sense. Except he wasn't that drunk, and it wasn't that late.

That part was harder to explain.

***

The house was too damn quiet. Which was both odd and not factually true. Outside, the rain kept coming down in buckets upon the tin roof; the stranger's breathing was a wet, dirty battle for air across the room, and Gojyo's own heartbeat pounded thickly in his ears. Still, it seemed to him like it had never been quieter here. It put him on edge and made the rattle of his thoughts stand out in sharp, disturbing contrast.

If he doesn't make it--if he never wakes up--aw, hell. He'll wake up eventually. It's gotta be different this time, yeah?

Another thought that made zero sense--except it did, in an odd, aching way. Gojyo chased down the feeling with the last of his beer and set the empty can away on the floor. It had warmed to room temperature while he was busy scrubbing blood off his hands, and left a sour aftertaste.

On his part, Gojyo couldn't have cared less what tough luck had dumped the stranger onto his path that night. He didn't need to know whom the guy had pissed off enough to end up shredded like that. He didn't even care about the stranger's name, not that he could ask. But he did care to do what he could to help the guy live long enough to come back to his senses, because, well. Maybe if he did, Gojyo would manage to figure out why his heart clenched every time he looked at the guy's face. It ticked him off, in much the same way as having that perfect compliment on the tip of his tongue for the hottest girl in town, and not quite finding that one spot-on keyword into her panties when he needed it.

Those things that slipped from his mind usually came back once he stopped thinking about them. By four in the morning, he was quite ready to do just that.

He didn't need to look to know the stranger was still breathing. He kept checking anyway, again and again. Something about the guy seemed both wrong and absurdly right. It made the hairs on his arms stand on end and his scalp prickle with heat under sweat-soaked hair pulled back into a messy ponytail. Go figure, huh? Gojyo drummed nervous fingers on the card table to erase the offending silence. Nudged the empty beer can with his big toe. Fished his lucky deck of cards from the back pocket of his pants and shuffled them over and over; familiar, automatic motions that almost convinced his brain the night was no different from any other night, as long as he was doing something that didn't kick him so far out of depth.

When that didn't help, he got up from his chair and padded over to the fridge, picked up another beer and tried not to notice there was still blood under his fingernails.

He lit a smoke and tried to relax, but something half-realized in some long-forgotten nook of his brain was giving him hell. No more than a feeling, one that came and went so quickly its origin and meaning eluded him completely, but the impression it left all over him was too damn strong to pretend he hadn't noticed it. Almost as though he'd been waiting for something to happen, and now, the waiting was over.

***

By the first light of the second day Gojyo had spent most of his steam, and his resolution to keep himself awake sported all the telltale signs of a lousy idea not worth pulling off. His shoulders ached with tension, something like a sandstorm raged beneath his eyelids and no amount of rubbing sufficed to make it stop. Gojyo laid out a blanket on the floor, close to the bed so he could keep watch, stretched out his legs and let his mind wander where it would.

It didn't go far. Surprise, surprise.

If you save someone's life, do they love you after that?

Gojyo considered the odds and laughed, the sound caught behind his hand when he reminded himself he wasn't alone. Right. Just as likely, they might hate your guts for meddling before they ran off to finish what you'd interrupted, but Gojyo had learned to take chances when and where he found them.

He'd saved a life. Or tried to, anyway. So far his only reward--not that he expected any--was confusion and a vague sense of losing his mind, but he could live with that.

Something had clicked into place, last night. Fuck if he knew what. He'd have laughed it off if asked; luckily, there was no one around to put his sanity to test. But the truth was what it was: it took one look--just one was enough--into pain-fogged green eyes and his heart had reached out. His mind had fought the impulse, but only briefly; in that split second the pattern he knew so well and long since left behind played out in his head in warning--expectation, hope, disappointment, heartbreak--doing its best to distract him, to persuade his stupid feet to keep carrying him without stopping.

And then something told him that this time, it wouldn't be like that. It whispered like a soothing echo from somewhere beyond reach, and maybe it was stupid, but once he'd heard it, he found it wasn't so hard to believe.

He was never good at thinking before acting, but he'd made an art form out of picking things up and making them his business. He was, no doubt about it, right where he was meant to be, somehow, and so was that guy.

He wasn't too late, either. This time.

***

Tired as he was, sleep didn't happen, after all.

Two hours later, Gojyo dragged himself off the floor, stretching to work the stiff ache out of muscle and bone. He slid a glance at the man in his bed. Still alive, breathing maybe a little easier than before. He'd survived the night and didn't seem to be getting worse, for now. The guy didn't look strong, but perhaps he was. Youkai, after all. His face burned hot under Gojyo's hand, and when Gojyo tugged down the covers, he cursed under his breath at the sight of blood-soaked bandages, red blooming like poppies against the white.

He wasn't half bad at taking care of injuries--had practiced enough on himself--but the guy's chances were less of a gamble if he got some help. And well, Gojyo was running low on smokes, anyway. Might as well fetch a doctor to look at that gut wound while he was in town. He'd gone through the trouble of carrying the guy all the way to his house, and Sha Gojyo hated few things more than watching his own honest efforts go to hell.

He'd won enough at cards lately to not need to worry about money for a while. He did worry about leaving the stranger unconscious alone in his bed. Not that he owned anything worth stealing, but if the guy came to while Gojyo was out, he could mess himself up if he tried to run.

Well then. No choice but to leave some things to chance.

***

It had been raining for two days by then. Still didn't seem any closer to letting up. Rain clouds hung low and heavy over the town, layers of gray rolling westward towards the horizon ahead. Gojyo picked up what was probably his last clean shirt off the back of the chair, then decided not to bother. He left the house as he stood and tapped out a Hi-Lite the second he stepped out the door. A fat raindrop splattered on the smoke even as he flicked his lighter in the shelter of his cupped hand, water spreading around the filter like blood on gauze.

He threw the useless, wet cigarette into the nearest puddle and took out another one, more carefully this time. Not an important thing to mess up, though an annoying one. With the important things, you only had one shot. At least that hadn't been the last smoke in the pack.

The doctor was out on errands when Gojyo arrived. His wife, a beaming old lady who might have been a beauty once, promised to pass the message and make sure he'd stop by Gojyo's place as soon as he was able. Gojyo remembered her from that time he'd needed stitches after a night out gone bad, back when Banri was still around. She'd given him hot soup and called him on running with thugs, but she hadn't judged him for his hair and eyes even though she'd made it quite clear she knew what he was.

A memorable exception, that.

On his way home, Gojyo stopped by the only bookshop in town. Hadn't planned it, really, but the idea caught in his mind and settled in firmly enough to make him retrace his footsteps. When the guy woke up, he might like to read to pass the time--he had the looks of the bookish type. Why the hell not? It wasn't like he'd be much poorer for the purchase of a book or two, and something told him the guy wouldn't appreciate the kind of reading material that lay around the house.

He picked a mystery novel and a few magazines off the rack. As he passed by the history section en route to the register, a plain white cover caught his eye. On a whim, he took it off the shelf and glanced at the title in black, embossed print. The Art of War.

Hn. It seemed fitting, somehow.

***

The house was still as quiet as a graveyard on a windless morning when Gojyo returned. The guy, lucky for both of them, wasn't dead.

No body to bury just yet.

The hour was still early--in fact, early enough that, on any other day, Gojyo would likely still be sleeping off a night of drinking and gambling at the bar. His head felt heavy from the lack of sleep; worse than a hangover, in a way. He made coffee in the biggest mug he owned and made himself as comfortable as he could on the floor, back against the wall, a magazine in hand.

Living by himself and only for himself had been awfully easy. No one but him. No one to hold him back, no one to realize he'd been drifting in circles. If he sank and drowned there would be no one to notice or to pull him back out, either, but that was the price of living the kind of life Gojyo had decided on. There was Banri, once, and if he were still around maybe he'd be the only one close enough to notice. Or not. Banri's capacity for caring didn't extend beyond Banri himself. Sure, he'd held Gojyo's hair up once when Gojyo had puked his guts out in an alley somewhere--too much of that experimental shit he'd snitched from the shady distillery in the hut out in the woods had done it--but those were meaningless things. Easy things anyone could do and not think twice about.

Between his crumpled sheets the wounded stranger stirred, and Gojyo wondered what kind of nightmares he was dreaming before deciding he didn't want to know. A little voice in his head that sounded suspiciously like Banri chewed him out for getting himself roped into doing the responsible thing. After all, he didn't need anyone, not really, right?

But maybe someone needed him.

The smell of coffee wafted through the room; a small measure of true comfort, if not enough to keep him awake and alert. Gojyo planned to shut his eyes only for a second; that second stretched impossibly long and his mind started drifting off. He didn't bother fighting it too fiercely, only half-registering the moment when the net of an unfolding dream began to pull him in, teasing tired thoughts with pretty promises.

This place, he mused at the image floating behind his eyelids. Looks familiar somehow.

It was vaguely flat, though not for the lack of detail--something about the light--the shapes as clearly defined as if he were looking at them through a magnifying glass. A blanket of red flowers, tall grass under his back, tickling bare skin.

Hands on his shoulders, kneading with slow attention; strong, gentle hands. He turned to steal a glimpse and she was there behind him: dark hair, bright eyes, full lips. Gorgeous, more so when she smiled--just slightly, like she knew something he didn't. He rose from his lean to kiss her and knew she'd fall against him, pliant and yielding and yet not soft at all; her touch felt cool, and she tasted like sake and cigarette smoke. He let his fingers wander across the smooth expanse of chest and laughed. Not a she, that one, but so pretty he'd almost been fooled; too pretty for a man.

The scent of cherry blossoms drifted past him on the breeze, making his head spin. He closed his eyes and wrapped himself around the lithe, naked form; shivered as dry lips brushed the shell of his ear. The call of skin on skin, desire and need consumed him, his body heeding it all without pausing for thought.

If there was ever a feeling of coming home that wasn't heartbreak, indifference or fear, maybe that was it.

The other grew warmer and moved like a wave against him, hips grinding against his hips, hands around his neck, holding on, steadying him.

"Still here," a low voice spoke against his lips. It wasn't a question; perhaps shouldn't have been. "Or should I say, again, General?"

His eyes opened slowly, unfocused and hazy with need. When the world regained its razor-sharp contours, that other face turned away. He moved his arm to tangle his fingers in her--no, his mind corrected itself, in his hair, soft and thin like silk. A pair of hooded eyes lifted to meet him; a slow, sidelong glance.

The image before him shifted as he blinked, just a bit, and he knew that face, from someplace else, from another dream--

The hand that reached for him was slender and strong, calloused from centuries of wielding a sword. Hot pleasure spilled through his gut all the way into his fingertips and toes. He curled them in the grass, felt something feral and raw come awake inside him. His back arched and he struggled not to close his eyes, wanting, needing to stay captured by that sight and make it last; he couldn't remember how long it had been, but it made his chest burn with a feeling he couldn't hope to name, much less to understand.

"When I find you," that voice murmured in his ear, a familiar melody, "I'll find me, too."

Past the rush of blood in his ears, he heard himself speak, a lilting cadence that might have once been his. "You found me. A stroke of luck, I guess."

"There isn't much room for chance in fates as tangled as ours."

He sighed, rolled over and pulled the other with him. "You might be right, this time."

A knock on the door startled him from the dream. And damn if Gojyo didn't wake up with his hand around his dick, breathing hard, his heart thumping out a furious rhythm. He shrugged it off, or tried to, fumbling with his zipper with not quite steady hands. It was nothing, meant nothing, or so he told himself, willing the trembling out of his knees even as his body insisted on making him understand that it had been something, all right.

Fuck. Oh, fuck. If he got that kind of shit out of it, that was the first and the absolutely fucking last time he'd carried a guy to bed, his own or otherwise.

***

Once the doctor had left, Gojyo heated fresh water on the stove and set himself to the task of redressing the stranger's wounds. He'd offered to do it himself--more practice never hurt--and that aside, he really needed something to do to keep his mind working and not thinking about... that. It wasn't at all weird for him to dream about getting laid. But that--that had been disturbing, to say the least.

He sat on the edge of the bed, the mattress sagging under his weight. His hand hovered over the guy's face. So like that face from his dream. Not the same, but freaking close enough. Gojyo sneered. Stupid dreams happened, and his sleep deprivation probably didn't help. Sighing, he waved off hesitation and wiped the sheen of sweat from the other's forehead with the back of his hand.

"Looks like you're gonna be okay after all," he said. "Dying's not as easy as you figured, huh?"

He was quite sure the guy couldn't hear him, but his mouth fell open and a moan slipped out, as if in response.

The house didn't seem so quiet anymore.

Gojyo ignored the weird little thump his heart did at that, and turned his attention instead to sorting through the fresh supply of bandages and antibiotic ointment the doctor had left, setting everything he needed beside him for quick access. When he touched the stitches holding the stomach wound together, a hot, clammy hand grabbed his fingers with shocking strength. Gojyo jumped, electrified, half-expecting the guy to open his eyes and try to rip his head off, but nothing happened.

Nothing of that sort, at least.

But something else did.

He couldn't let go. Didn't want to, even. The rush of frantic thoughts chasing one another through his mind disappeared.

You only realize you were born into freefall, going down, down, ever down from day one, when suddenly everything grinds to a halt and you're steady, so steady.

Steady... Heh. Understatement of the year. He'd never felt better grounded in his life.

Gojyo's mind reeled from the change, but in that short, startling moment, the difference between surviving and being alive became crystal clear--like he'd always known it and simply forgotten for a while. Whether this was the rock bottom or a stop for a breath on the way further down, he really couldn't tell, but he wasn't falling anymore, holding that hand.

It would be different this time, whatever the hell that meant.

*