The stench of death permeated the cave; putrid, rotting corpses who'd been abandoned in the dark as their comrades fled from the poison gas into the waiting swords of the mercenaries outside. Kame breathed through his mouth and tried to keep his distance as he picked his way through with the torch beam, but when fingers crunched under his boots he almost lost his meagre breakfast. The gas grenade had done its work only too well; Kame had to hope Jin's immunity hadn't somehow been compromised in the three weeks since his abduction. The rebels had a chemist working for them and every merc in Captain Takizawa's troop had seen the pictures of Matsumoto's remains. If that psycho had been experimenting on Jin...
No. Kame couldn't allow himself to think about it, about what shape his partner might be in. If - no, when he found Jin, he was never going to let the captain send them out on separate assignments ever again.
Further and further into the cave he went, until a raspy cough caught his attention. A survivor? One of the rebels, lucky enough to miss the worst of the gas, or...
He swung his torch in the direction of the sound, squinting past ragged bodies and stale vomit till his eyes found Jin, lying on a stained pallet against the far wall. He rushed to his partner's side immediately, frightened by the weakness of the cough.
Jin's appearance did nothing to dispel that fear. Though not poisoned by the gas, his cheeks were fever-bright and his eyes would not focus, even when Kame called his name. His forehead felt hot to the touch, burning under Kame's fingers. Three weeks of captivity, with the rebels constantly on the run, had taken their toll on him.
Still, for all his lank, matted hair and his dirty, unwashed face, he was the most beautiful sight Kame had ever seen.
"Jin!" Kame poured a little of the water from his canteen over Jin's face, aiming for his cracked lips but missing because he was badly shaken up. While being surrounded by dead bodies was nothing new, he was far more used to having cut them down himself. Poison gas wasn't his usual method and the effects were...unsettling. "What have they done to you?"
Jin's barely-conscious moan turned painful when Kame pressed closer in an effort to examine him. He could carry Jin out, if he had to, but he had to make sure it was safe to move him. He'd insisted on going in alone to find his partner and Takizawa had allowed it, but if required, Koki and Nakamaru could bring in a stretcher. It had to be all over by now, outside the mouth of the cave. They'd be safe if they left.
Kame held his torch in his mouth while he stripped away the thin blanket covering Jin. He wore only ragged trousers beneath, tattered remains of his once sleek black gear. Had the torch not been clenched tightly in Kame's teeth, he'd have dropped it at the sight of the lacerations crisscrossing Jin's chest. He'd lost weight in captivity; ribs jutted out beneath bruised and bloody skin. Some cuts were deeper than others; some bled still, with thin trails of blood trickling down to the pallet.
The patterns didn't make any sense until Kame recognised letters. Then came numbers and symbols, all chemical in origin, etched into flesh with a fine point. Precision work, tiny characters drawn with a small blade. They stuck out at all angles but never did they cross.
Kame hoped the chemist who'd been using his partner as a human notepad had survived both the gas attack and the ambush outside, if only so he could have the pleasure of killing the man himself. Slowly.
The rebels had taken men before, always pretty young things to satisfy their leader's cravings while he plotted to take the throne. Those he discarded had always borne signs of the wickedest experimentation - and little in the way of humanity. Jin's misfortune had been to attract their attention, and Kame's had been to be out resupplying while his partner got himself abducted.
"Easy," Kame soothed, struggling to keep his voice calm and even. He still had the rubbery taste of the torch on his tongue. "It's only me. I've got you; it's all right."
"Mmh?" Jin's eyes blinked slowly into focus as he adjusted to the light. "What? Who?"
"Your partner." Kame held the torch under his chin so Jin could see him properly. "Kamenashi Kazuya. Kame. Remember me?"
When Jin let out a piercing scream, Kame realised he probably shouldn't have held the torch as if he were about to tell ghost stories. His partner was terrified of them.
"Just...just calm down, it's okay. I'm here to take you home, Jin." He reached out with one hand, hoping to calm Jin with a gentle touch if not with kind words.
But there was no calming Jin. He scrunched himself up as far as he could go, back to the wall, ignoring the bleeding gashes as he tucked his legs to his chest. "Get away from me!"
"Don't touch me!"
Kame took a deep breath, regretting it as soon as the corpse-smell reached his nose, and took a step back. Jin snatched up the filthy blanket for cover, hands shaking so badly he could barely grip it.
"Jin, I know you've been through a lot, and you're not thinking straight right now, but-"
"I don't know who you are but if you touch me again I'll-" Jin's threat, whatever it was, disappeared in a gulp of air and terrified tears. Kame watched him struggle to take an uninterrupted breath through the panic. This was going to be more complicated than he'd expected.
"I'm not here to hurt you, I promise," Kame said. "You can trust me. You've always trusted me, even when you thought you shouldn't." He hated the wariness and distrust in Jin's gaze, a stranger's eyes staring at a forgotten face. Either he'd been given something or the fever had fogged his brain, but the result was still the same: this man, who'd fought and slept at his side for five years, had forgotten him.
Worse yet, was afraid of him.
"Do you remember outside, Jin?" Kame asked softly. "The scouts say you've only been in here three days. It took us that long to reach you."
"U-us?" Jin stammered.
"The Brightwings. Our family. Captain Takizawa's troop. Everyone's here, waiting for you outside the cave. All you have to do is go to them."
"I don't- I don't know you." Jin folded his arms protectively across his chest, then winced from the cuts. "You could be one of the men who kept me here."
"They're all dead." Kame shone his torch over the floor, illuminating the bodies for Jin's benefit. He'd seen the occasional lamp on his way in, shattered in the rush to escape the gas; he had the only working light in the entire place. "Either here or outside. We were hired to stop them, do you remember? You'll probably get the biggest cut this time."
He wished he'd chosen his words more carefully; Jin whimpered into the blanket.
"Let me take you outside," Kame begged. "You need a healer. You're feverish, you're all sliced up, I don't know how much blood you've lost and..." He didn't want to speculate on what else might have happened during those three weeks. Jin didn't look like much at the moment but he cleaned up well. He did have the prettiest face in the troop, after all.
"If you're my partner, why weren't you here? Why was I the only one!" Jin screamed at him.
Kame licked his lips, wishing he had something stronger than water in his canteen. "We were...we were separated. I was with Junno, getting supplies. I do most of the cooking for the troop; I usually do the shopping. Takizawa wanted you for something else, though. There was a rumour the rebels were using the town kids as message runners, and you're the best with kids. You were supposed to get them to like you, to talk to you."
"No kids here." Jin smiled bleakly. "Only men with blades."
Of Jin's own sword, there was no sign. Of course they'd have taken it from him. Tsubasa, the troop's swordsmith and the captain's own partner, could make him another one, the twin of Kame's.
"The only blade here now is mine." Kame unstrapped the scabbard from his back, handing the whole thing hilt-first to Jin. "Take it, if it makes you feel safer with me. I told you, I'm not here to hurt you."
He neglected to mention the knife in his boot, but if Jin didn't remember it, there was no harm. Shorter and slighter in build than many of the Brightwings, Kame preferred not to leave himself totally unarmed, especially not in hostile territory. Jin was in no shape to watch his back. No shape to do much of anything, in fact.
Jin snatched the sword away but didn't unsheathe it, holding it by his side where it couldn't be retaken easily. Having a weapon seemed to help with the terror; his hands shook less and prudent unease looked to be winning out over mindless fear in his face. "What if I killed you with it?"
Kame tugged his shirt open, sending buttons flying to the ground and baring his chest to the air. Faded bruises and old scars were a merc's lot in life, each one a story to be told, but Kame valued a small, skew fairy below his throat most of all.
"Then you'd have to find your own way out. Alone." He pointed to the scar. "Do you remember this? You have one too. It's your fairy."
Though he looked doubtful, Jin shed the blanket to search by torchlight. Kame held his breath, hoping the tiny scar still existed somewhere in the mess of wounds.
"It's...it's here." Jin stared at Kame's scar, the mirror of his own. "It's backwards."
Kame grinned. Jin had always been a master of stating the obvious. "Shall I tell you how we got those scars?"
Jin shrugged. "If you want."
Kame hoped this would jog his memory. At least he'd calmed down now he'd established Kame wasn't trying to hurt him. "Five years ago, we both signed on with Captain Takizawa as mercenaries. I thought you were a playboy; you thought I was uptight. We were both wrong. I didn't know how to be myself around you and you couldn't be anything but yourself around me - it took us a while to figure out where we fit together. A year later I was in love; six months after that, I finally told you about it - because I thought we were both going to die in a burning temple and so it wouldn't matter if you rejected me."
He had Jin's attention now, he was sure of it. "The flames were all around us. We were the last two, and the smoke was so thick I could barely get the words out. I confessed...and you branded me."
"You hugged me," Kame explained. "Which would've been great except that all the metal in the room was hot enough to burn, including your fairy necklace. You pressed us together and we're still carrying the scars."
Stupid story, but he still felt good whenever he thought about it, especially since it finally managed to raise a faint smile from Jin. It wasn't the most ridiculous thing that had happened to them since they'd met, but it came pretty close.
"And then Ueda dropped down through the ceiling on a rope and hauled us both out," Kame finished. "I think he was waiting for the last minute so his rescue would look more impressive."
Jin shook his head, smile still there, shy around the edges. Kame hadn't seen it in far too long. "I don't...I don't know... But I'm sorry. About the scar, I mean."
"I'm not." Kame touched his fingertip lightly to the fairy's lone wing. "Some people have rings. Some people have tattoos. We have these. None of the men who were here with you had a scar like this, right?"
Jin's smile reached his eyes at last. "Right."