Set in the tiered roof of an Upper Ring family home, framed by forest-green tiles and gutter gilt, is a wide ricepaper window that is never closed.
Iwaizumi has been staking out this house for over a week. He’s new to the Dai Li ranks, the tassel on his hat still shining, so he gets stuck on the graveyard watch in the manicured gardens and grottos of nobility. Training has ground away the twigs and branches of his old life, but his roots curl at the pressed perfection of this ensconced world. Why couldn’t he get a Lower Ring patrol? At least he knew what to expect down there. None of those gutters were gilded.
Protocol calls for a few days’ observation of a target from a discreet distance before venturing in close enough to matter. Iwaizumi has taken eight, scratching notes on the back of his rock gauntlets on the movements of the household: when the housekeeper goes to the fish market, how the Oikawa family is constructed, who are the attentive guards and who plays more dice than they should. Eight days is long enough to learn when the doors close for the night and the junior guards take post.
Iwaizumi creeps over the back wall blocking the servants’ alley from view of the city residences of these rich merchants in the shade of a gingko, smoothing out the finger-toe divots as he goes with well-oiled muscle memory. He climbs the tree, yellow seashells fluttering down his braid and coat. He need to find a new way in before winter. He leaps from the crown of the tree to the second story rooftop, leaves shaking behind him. A squirrel-bat, the guards will think. He stays crouched on the tiles, breath echoing in the stifling cone of his hat, before he begins the route he had rehearsed in his head during the last false dawns.
Cracks in the shutters glow gray and green, expensive crystals dimmed to a nightlight runner along the thick corridor carpets. His calloused feet ache in their rock shoes. He pauses by each window, ear to the stone, stilling for signs of life. Only the lead of the Oikawa detail knows what the family is being watched for, to keep the secrets contained, but Iwaizumi is smarter than he lets them see. The kitchen smells like Water Tribe vinegar blended with the familiar tea and rice, and thick furs are laid on the foot of an empty bed in a guest room airing out for the night. A travelling family.
A circuit of the second story along the first story’s eaves confirms that when the Oikawa household goes quiet on the outside, the inside complies. He jumps to the next level, smaller than the first. A broken tile crunches under his heel; he freezes, hat tilted down to hide his face from the open window he forgot about.
Cloth shifts inside. Iwaizumi bites his tongue and backs off the roof, falling to hang by his fingers like the shadow he’s supposed to be.
“Hello?” a voice calls, soft, a teenaged tenor. It’s the younger son of the four children (the others are a married daughter, a married son, and an eligible young lady). Iwaizumi drops to the lower roof as the younger son calls again, then gives up and goes away, the yellow rectangle cast on the back grass fading back to twilit gray-green.
Iwaizumi scratches a note on the back of a gauntlet – get on roof on west – and shakes out his nerves before slinking to spend the night in the gingko tree.
The next night is much the same, and the next. The Oikawas may be rich-ass merchants, but they’re nice ones who actually like each other, always in clumps of together, their servants as dedicated as cousins and as close-mouthed as oysters. Iwaizumi becomes familiar with their faces, the chambermaids, the gardeners they flirt with, the dawn drills of the earthbenders in the courtyard, and the soft spot they all harbor for the baby of the family. Comparatively speaking.
Iwaizumi watches from a window cubby on the roof of their behind-neighbors, who are out for the season to oversee the harvest on their Outer Ring estate. It’s sunset, so he’s early to his shift, but he wants to watch the household in action. The younger son sprawls on a blanket in the garden, reading a book in the waning sun, only wearing a filmy tunic and rolled-up pants, heels kicking in the air. The gardeners work around him, trimming hedges and deadheading lilies. His wild, unfashionably short hair is the only disarray allowed.
One of the gardeners makes a joke as she passes, flipping her sunhat brim at the younger son. He looks up from his book and smiles; Iwaizumi is too far away to hear anything today, but he sees the laugh shake his shoulders, wide neck of his robe slipping off one as he pushes himself to his elbows to joke back. Iwaizumi watches the evening sun slant across linen, yellow seashells drifting from his gingko tree to the son’s blanket.
The younger son glances past the gardener’s shoulder to Iwaizumi’s hiding roof. Iwaizumi grips his shadows, plaster cracking under his fingers, but the son’s eyes glint off like a sword on mail. Iwaizumi doesn’t breathe easy until the son packs up his blanket and book and goes inside to dinner.
Two weeks into Iwaizumi’s assignment, the Oikawas throw a party. Iwaizumi hides on his abandoned back roof, mouth watering at the food glistening under the light of blue and gold paper lanterns that hang from his gingko tree and from poles stabbed in a semicircle, framing the open veranda doors. Some of the guests he recognizes from previous visits, but many are new; the younger son is invisible in a cloud of beauty his age – their age. Iwaizumi turns away and slides down to the top of the garden wall, the guests blinded by the lanterns. He moves through the creeping fig covering the stucco towards the lord and lady of the house, standing with three others at the edge of the light. One Iwaizumi knows as the family steward, coming and going at all hours of business; the blue couple is new, fresh from their Water Tribe dealings. They are the guests of honor.
“It’s getting worse,” the blue lady says from behind her fan. “We had to hide the caravan a dozen times from Fire Nation troops in the northern mountains.” She flutters the fan in a pattern. “Why does the crown not act?”
“Nothing will upset their precious peace,” the blue lord spits. Lady Oikawa rests her fan on his forearm.
“Hold, cousin. There are ears everywhere.” Iwaizumi’s own burn as he hides in the vines, only his eyes and hat not hidden behind the wall. Troops?
The younger son floats up to his parents, laughing, stringing the new generation in his wake. He takes his mother’s elbow, smiling at the unhappy cluster. “What’s with the frowns? This is a party – Mama, dance with me!”
She laughs, forced. “Surely you want to dance with someone your own age, Tooru?”
He pouts at her, hooking his arm firmer around hers. “They can wait, I want to dance with you.” He drags her through the open door towards the wafting string music, the other adults ordered to follow as their children take the younger son’s cue and grab fathers and mothers, the mood they didn’t know was weighted lifting.
Iwaizumi moves to watch through an open window, circling like the invited guests around the fire of the younger son.
The first lesson Iwaizumi learned in Dai Li training was that no one ever looks up.
The Dai Li are rooftop denizens, stone soles a match to clay tiles as they criss-cross the net of the city, warp and weft of law enforcement. The world looks different with nothing above – flatter, bigger and smaller, the sky only just out of reach. Every green-shaded building is just another lilypad to spring from.
But Tooru looks up. Tooru looks up all the damn time, marveling at the stars, whistling to a bird, innocent things that make Iwaizumi jump in his shadows and scurry away out of sight. Tooru doesn’t acknowledge Iwaizumi, but if he doesn’t know he’s there then Iwaizumi will eat his hat. He never says anything to his family about it, though. He blocks papers from Iwaizumi’s eyes with his body at the window, guides his parents’ friends deeper into the house they get heated about their excursions outside the wall, but does it so masterfully he never has to give a reason why. Iwaizumi can’t figure it out.
One night, Iwaizumi is making his circuit of the sleeping roof. As he passes by the spare bedroom, a candle flickers on inside, framing his shadow in gold on the lawn. He drops to his stomach on the tiles, heart in his ears; cloth shifts at the window.
“You’re pretty young for the Dai Li, aren’t you?”
Iwaizumi curses up a storm in his head and gets to his knees, caught like a bug in a jar. He looks up to find Tooru in his gauzy pajamas, leaning on the windowsill and sipping tea. His usual empty smile is gone, replaced with an intense brown stare that Iwaizumi can’t interpret. “Usually they put old guys on us, but you look like you’re still in smocks,” he continues like he has conversations with people stalking his house all the time. He grins, and Iwaizumi thinks of wolf-bats. “Not that I mind, of course.” Iwaizumi’s throat has gone dry, uneasy shivers crashing over him in waves. Tooru winks over his tea. “You’re the strong and silent type, huh? Typical of you lot.” He sighs and leans in closer, grin menacing. “I know you’re just doing your job,” he whispers, almost under the circle of Iwaizumi’s hat – he can feel his jasmine breath. “And I know if I call the guards on you they’ll just replace you with another tassel.” He flicks said tassel on Iwaizumi’s head. “But don’t get too comfortable, okay? Someone might see you.”
Iwaizumi huffs. “You’re mental,” he growls, voice cracking from disuse. Tooru beams.
“Oh, you do talk! I love it!” He taps Iwaizumi’s hat brim up so he can see his face, chinstrap choking him. Iwaizumi snarls and bats it back down. Tooru laughs, a quiet chuckle. “We’re going to be good friends, Li.”
“Iwaizumi,” he growls before he can think. Shit.
Tooru’s lips part, eyes wide with his smile. “That’s an odd first name, Li.”
Iwaizumi’s hands come up and flex; the palms of his gauntlets shoot around Tooru’s throat, clenching in a tiled choker. It sets off Tooru’s skin, gold in the single candlelight, his chin tilted back as he stares at Iwaizumi.
“Let’s not act too fast there, Iwa-chan,” he says. A muscle twitches by Iwaizumi’s eye, fists tightening in front of him. “You’d miss my pretty face if you killed me.” His cheeks are turning purple – Iwaizumi relaxes his grip, but the tiles stay at rest on Tooru’s collarbones, red indents left behind. “I don’t want to hurt you,” Tooru says, breathless, hands still around his teacup. “And I don’t think you want to hurt me, either.” He straightens. “Want some tea?” He gestures to the set waiting on the table. Iwaizumi raises his eyebrows at him and runs, slipping around to his gingko tree, leaving his handprints behind around Tooru’s neck.
“We need to keep a closer eye on Tooru,” Iwaizumi says to the detail lead the next day at shift change, conducted in the Dai Li’s tunnels under the city that double as the sewers. The lead’s eyebrows shoot up.
“Who, the kid?” The lead crosses his arms. “Why do you say that?”
“He’s smart.” He saw me when no one else did. Iwaizumi shrugs. “It’s a hunch.”
The lead grins and pats his shoulder. “He’s just a silly kid, Iwaizumi. He has been for the last ten years I’ve been watching this family. He’s got nothing in that pretty head but fashion and flirting. Pay more attention to the parents.”
Iwaizumi frowns. “But-”
“Orders.” The lead jerks his chin up. “Get to your post.” Iwaizumi bites his tongue and obeys.
A cup of tea waits on the windowsill of the spare room, still hot under its delicate porcelain lid. Iwaizumi frowns, frowns – the bastard has learned his route already.
He leaves the tea untouched and goes to map a new pattern, fuming.
It only takes three nights for Tooru to figure out his new stalk and leave the same damn cup of tea by the back parlor window on the ground floor. Iwaizumi stops in a bush just before he steps on it, temper flaring as he picks up the finespun ceramic. This guy can go to the Spirit World in a handbasket.
He slaps his gauntlet’s palms around the cup to keep the lid on and shoves the ball in his shirt, scaling the wall to the third story and the open ricepaper window waiting on him with a candle on the sill. He throws the teaball in, where it rolls across the teak floor to rest against a pillow. Tooru is kneeling on it, sitting at a tea table, pouring a second cup for the seat across from him.
“Now there’s no reason to behave like that,” Tooru chimes, gauzy sleeves trailing as he picks up the ball and pries it open, piece by piece. Iwaizumi hovers just at the edge, like a spirit that has to be invited to enter a human dwelling. Tooru sets the revealed cup back on the table, arranging the gauntlet pieces back into Iwaizumi’s hands. Another pair is spread out on the table at his elbow. “Come sit, I just want to talk.” He glances up through his bangs. “Unless you have somewhere else to be?”
Iwaizumi grunts and climbs over the sill before he can think about it too much, crossing the polished floor in three quick strides and dropping down on the embroidered cushion waiting for him. Ever the gracious host, Tooru slides the fresh cup to his hands, still working out his puzzle with his other hand. Iwaizumi raises his hands and bends his gauntlet palms back into place; Tooru jumps, then pouts. “Aw, I almost had it!” Iwaizumi rolls his eyes under his hat. Tooru leans across the table to grin in Iwaizumi’s face, eyes dancing. They’re the exact same brownish-red color as his hair. “It’s not polite to wear hats indoors, y’know.” Iwaizumi curls his lip and unclasps his chinstrap almost with a slap, spinning it across the lacquer table. Tooru smiles, the full force of it hitting Iwaizumi for the first time. “I was hoping you’d have hat hair, Iwa-chan!”
“Stop calling me that,” Iwaizumi grunts, gulping the tea in front of him. It’s the finest tea he’s ever tasted and he hates it. Tooru sips his like it’s nothing, watching his unguarded face through steam. Iwaizumi feels stripped – it’s only a hat. He glares right back.
“I’ll stop calling you that when you tell me your first name,” Tooru says, and Iwaizumi almost does. Instead he wrinkles his nose at the proposal.
“You’re such a spoiled brat,” he growls. Tooru shrugs.
“It is what it is.” He props his chin on his hand, stirring his tea with some delicate gold stick that probably could pay Iwaizumi’s salary for a year. “So, where’re you from, Iwa-chan?”
Tooru sticks his tongue out at him, licking drops of tea off the stirrer. “You Dai Li always seem so mysterious in your black robes and stupid hats,” he says, poking at the hat on the table. “But no one is born a secret police officer, no matter what they do to you.” He leans in, gripping his elbows. “So. What makes Iwaizumi Li tick?””
“That’s not my name.” He sips his stupid tea – he won’t be able to drink the cheap stuff he keeps under his bunk ever again. Tooru sighs, slouching back and stretching his long legs to the side.
“It’s going to be very difficult to be civilized with you if you keep acting like this, Iwa-chan.” He nibbles on a nail – the little finger of his left hand has been amputated to a nub. This boy knows pain. “Of course, I am cultured enough to supply the inanities, but I get bored just hearing myself talk.”
Iwaizumi snorts. “No you don’t.” Tooru tilts his head in question. Iwaizumi gulps his tea – the last of the tiny cup. He shoves to his feet. “I need to go.”
“Why, to watch more empty windows?” Iwaizumi scowls at Tooru, who swirls his tea, eyes lowered. “Stay awhile. I’m way too strung up to go to sleep yet.” He pauses, chewing on his tongue. “If you tell me about you, then I’ll tell you things you might care about.”
Iwaizumi puts his hands on hips. “And how do I know you won’t lie?”
Tooru tilts his head at him, smile caught open. “How do I know you won’t?” He holds his sleeve back as he refills Iwaizumi’s cup; he growls and plops back down, crossing his arms with a huff. Tooru chuckles. “Let’s start from the top again, yeah?” Iwaizumi shrugs. “Where are you from, Iwa-chan?”
The one trait that Dai Li training had not been able to extract from Iwaizumi was his tendency to fall into routine. He finds a new one in his night visits to Tooru’s third floor sanctuary, tea always waiting for the night’s conversation, stumping along with Tooru’s flowery eloquence and Iwaizumi’s harsh grunts. Iwaizumi talks about his old life running a Lower Ring pottery store until a kiln fire burned it down while he was out slicing clay. (The Dai Li only takes men with no attachments to distract them from their job.) He talks about how their teacups got their glaze, the differences between what he’s used to and the make of the briny Water Tribe teapot. He doesn’t talk about the Dai Li. He doesn’t say his first name.
In return, Tooru tells him about his nieces and nephews, what snow and ice crunches like, how to keep your balance on a waterbent runner, how to tell real Water Tribe food from fake. And about the war.
“If you ever try to tell me there is no war I’ll pour this teapot right over your scruffy head,” he says one night as a light drizzle mists in through the open window. “There’s a war, an old war, and I’ve seen it too much to believe this city’s pretty little illusions about it.”
Iwaizumi stares into the green-brown dregs of his tea. He gave away his own stock to an army soldier in the neighboring barracks to the Dai Li the daybreak before. “I don’t even know who we’re fighting,” he admits.
“They really don’t tell you anything, huh?” Iwaizumi glares, but Tooru has never cowered under it. Tooru shrugs. “That’s okay, no one tells me anything, either.”
“Why?” Tooru blinks at Iwaizumi’s bitten question. “Why do you like people underestimate you like this?”
Tooru stirs, stirs, stirs. “Protection,” he says at last, musician’s voice scratchy. “This-” he gestures to his face, his child’s eyes and brown sugar suntan– “keeps people off my back. I can say whatever I want and people will think I’m just being silly.” He taps his chin. “Everyone but you.”
You’re the most dangerous person I’ve ever met. “That’s because I’m not an idiot.”
Tooru laughs, head thrown back, throat bared down the open neck of his robe. There are faded yellowed indents from the first night when Iwaizumi choked him. “And that’s why you’re so much fun, Iwa-chan.” He folds his robe tighter, cinching the tie, smile falling. “It’s the Fire Nation. They’re burning the world.”
They sip their tea, Iwaizumi connecting the pieces, too many burn victims in the refugees flooding his home streets, how wild the response had been to the kiln fire, too many refugees. Tiles that made a handprint. Tooru pours and waits.
“What can you tell me about it?” he asks, rough voice too quiet in the deep city night. Tooru smiles.
It’s like Tooru put new ricepaper in the window in his head. He can see it all now, the veteran soldiers with scars licked up their arms, the forced smiles of pedestrians, the fear in whisperers’ eyes when they catch his silhouette. He’s been taught to listen for unrest, that outsiders are stewing rebellion and he just needs to sparrow-parrot what he hears until he proves worthy. The Dai Li is a mess of nested secrets. Iwaizumi had blocked it out – he had a job, a stable one that didn’t ask questions and kept him fed. Everyone else could handle the intrapolitics of their ranks.
Tooru keeps whispering in his ear over the delicate tea service, about scorched crops and dead land and skull masks, and Iwaizumi’s carefully built peace crumbles into dirt.
“You’re doing well,” his detail lead tells him at a shift change six weeks into the assignment. “Keep this up and you’ll be promoted by midwinter.”
The leaves are almost gone from his gingko tree. Iwaizumi bites his cheek. “Is the surveillance going well?” he asks – his lead likes to try and teach him. The lead spreads his rock hands.
“Nothing unexpected since you began.” He tilts his head up to lock a green eye on Iwaizumi. “What do you expect to find?”
Iwaizumi licks his lips. “Unrest.”
The lead hums and hides his hands in his sleeves again. “The Oikawas have always been… contrary, sticking out like a loose cobblestone at court,” he explains, bowed low. “But there’s never been enough to call it treason.” A sick tremor rocks down Iwaizumi’s arms and spine. “For now, they’re just a peculiar gemstone in the set, but if they ever show any other facets…” The lead spreads his hands again. Iwaizumi nods, and they part ways, the lead to bed, Iwaizumi to Tooru’s tea table.
A few days later, the Oikawas throw another welcoming party, this time for their behind-neighbors whose roof Iwaizumi had been stealing, back from the tea harvest. Iwaizumi is familiar enough with the shell of the Oikawa house to perch in the eaves above a parlor window, listening to the pleasant chatter and trying to mine useful nuggets – to convict or to convince his superiors to back off, he still doesn’t know. He’s not fond of thinking on the consequences.
There’s the usual stuff – so-and-so is engaged, looking at what she’s wearing, oh no, he’s drinking again, boring stuff. Iwaizumi is about to fall asleep on the wall when someone comes over to lean on his windowsill, short brown hair directly under him.
“Lovely night,” Tooru comments to the air. Iwaizumi bites his tongue and drops a tile from his gauntlet on Tooru’s head. Tooru brushes it off, filigree gold gloves twinkling. It’s odd, seeing him in his finery after weeks of pajamas. Nice pajamas, but, still. Pajamas. “If you told me your name I would have sent you an invitation,” Tooru mumbles, just loud enough to Iwaizumi to hear. Iwaizumi stays quiet. Tooru picks at a loose string on his palm. He’s got long, bony hands, lute hands, that Iwaizumi always wants to pluck at to hear them sing. His nails are dipped in gold tonight.
They exist together in mutual silence, crickets creaking in the grass in melody with the bubbling smalltalk. It is a nice night out.
The neighbors’ son their age comes up besides Tooru, leaning against the windowframe. “Moping, Tooru? That’s not like you.”
Tooru’s head turns to him. “Just enjoying the night air.” He reaches out to ruffle his neighbor’s graying hair. “You get older every time I see you, Koushi.”
Koushi slaps his hand away with his fan. “And you get stupider, or have you always been this tactless?” Iwaizumi raises an eyebrow – all the other blue-blooded children fawn over Tooru. Iwaizumi likes this new guy.
Tooru laughs and flips his hair. “I was born like this.”
Koushi laughs with him. “I can’t believe I missed you.”
“I am hard to forget, aren’t I?” Tooru runs a finger under the seam of his fingerless glove that crossed his palm. “I’m sure you found plenty of diversions out in the country, of course.”
Koushi shoves his shoulder, the cheeks visible to Iwaizumi flushed pink. “Oh, put a rock in it, or you’re not getting any of the tea I brought you.”
Tooru gasps, hands pressed to his chest. “Don’t say that, I’m almost out!”
Koushi tilts his head at him. “Already?”
“I’ve been entertaining in private a lot recently.” Cold washed over Iwaizumi. “Stay the night and I’ll explain.”
Koushi sighs, rubbing his forehead. “What have you gotten into this time, Tooru.”
“Nothing illegal! Probably.” Koushi’s other hand slaps to his face. Tooru chuckles, leaning back on the sill, eyes flicking up. “Don’t worry, you’ll be safe.”
“I better be,” Koushi moans.
The guests don’t leave until almost dawn, the family helping the straggling drunken guests into their carriages so they can shed their stiff finery and slither into bed. Tooru and his neighbor friend go to Tooru’s room as the rest of the Sugawaras slip through the servants’ alley between their homes, yawning, the smaller children asleep in their arms.
Iwaizumi climbs to the third story, even though this is a bad idea and he should absolutely stay away. He jumps up another level to the highest roof, sliding down to the eave right over Tooru’s window. If nothing else, this assignment has perfected his silent rooftop travel.
“I really can’t leave you alone for even a few months without you stirring up trouble, can I?” Koushi’s voice yawns below. Tooru’s laugh tinkles.
“That’s what you get for abandoning me for your farmhand.” Iwaizumi raises an eyebrow, but the farmhand is left behind in the conversation as Tooru calls, “Iwa-chan, I know you’re out there!”
Iwaizumi’s lip curls, irritation flashing. He swings off the eave and into the room, landing on his feet and sending a rock fist into Tooru’s gut. “I’m not your damn poodle-monkey,” he growls as Tooru coughs.
Koushi is frozen in Iwaizumi’s usual spot, teacup clenched in his white-knuckled hands. “What did you do,” he whispers at Tooru, eyes locked on Iwaizumi’s downturned mouth, the only thing visible under the shade of his hat. Tooru beams as he pours a third cup.
“I did what I do best. I made a friend!” Iwaizumi bends his fist back on and shoves his hands in his sleeves, staying by the window. Tooru rolls his eyes. “Oh, come now, can’t you see Koushi is a friend, too?”
“You made friends with a Dai Li agent?” Koushi hisses, teeth bared. “Are you crazy?”
“Dai Li are people too,” Tooru says, and Iwaizumi has to resist punching him again. “Right, Iwa-chan?”
“Stop calling me that.”
Koushi huffs. “Amazing. You even get on the Dai Li’s nerves.” Iwaizumi snorts, hiding his smile by knocking his chin to his chest. He looks up as Koushi bows from his seat. “I apologize for any insolence on his part,” Koushi says, and Iwaizumi can’t help but like this guy.
“Not your fault he’s a spoiled brat.” Tooru gasps; Koushi laughs, pressing his fingers to his mouth to keep it closed. He and Iwaizumi exchange a glance, tea-brown to tea-green. The rising sunlight glints off the shining lacquer table. Shit. He bows to Koushi. “A pleasure.”
“Wha-” But he vaults out the window, dashing around the house to the alley and the weak spot in the cobblestones he uses to access the sewers.
Three nights later, Iwaizumi arrives at the detail’s tunnel rendezvous to find another agent waiting with the lead. Iwaizumi hides his drawn eyebrows in the shade of his hat.
“Iwaizumi.” His detail lead smiles at him, a faint twinge of his mouth. “You’ve got a new assignment, something to better fit your skills. This is your replacement, Ushijima.” Ushijima bows to Iwaizumi; Iwaizumi bows back, head a buzzard-wasp’s nest. The lead smiles again. “It’s a good thing, my boy.”
Iwaizumi nods. “I am honored.” The lead steps in and places a large hand on his shoulder.
“The honor has been mine.” He steps back again, hand slipping away. “Spend the night training Ushijima. Tomorrow you report to your new detail.” The lead bows again, then melts into the tunnel, leaving Iwaizumi alone with the new guy, who watches him with sharp eagle eyes.
“Let’s go,” Iwaizumi grunts, leading Ushijima towards the street access two blocks away from the Oikawa residence.
Ushijima is silent through the night as Iwaizumi gives him a quick overview of the neighborhood, who talks to who, the heavy sleepers, the holes in ivy-draped walls, and the guard bear-dogs three doors down. When they get to the Oikawas’ garden wall after midnight, the light is still on in Tooru’s window. Iwaizumi bites his tongue. Ushijima sees the candle and looks to Iwaizumi, thin eyebrow arched.
“The younger son stays up late,” Iwaizumi murmurs behind a hand. “It’s best to avoid that side.” Ushijima nods once, and they move on. Up in the window, Tooru’s silhouette appears, and Iwaizumi freezes. But he just looks out at the garden for a moment, then picks up the candle and blows it out.
It feels strange to be out in public outside of uniform, like an army ostrich-horse with no trappings set loose in a china shop. He hasn’t used his day off to go into the city since training, but the nice thing about the Dai Li is that no one asks questions. He buys a straw sunhat from a street vendor, the shade over his eyes calming him down as he tails the Sugawara housekeeper through the market. It’s fish day.
When the housekeeper sends her travelling kitchen maid off to buy the shellfish for the night’s dinner, Iwaizumi follows, pretending to look at the oysters while she haggles over the lobster-crabs. She defeats the shop attendant, and he goes to wrap up her pounds. Iwaizumi steps in and taps her on the shoulder.
“Excuse me.” She turns, big eyes under hair curling out from her headscarf. He tries to smile. “You’re with the Sugawara household, yeah?”
She gestures to the crest on her apron, a gold sun over a brown field, and giggles. “I wonder what gave it away?” He smiles, ducking his head to hide his eyes. “Can I do anything for you?”
“Yes, actually.” He pulls a tiled rock ball from his pocket, glazed and etched in engravings from his hands’ idle time between shift and sleep. He hands it over, and she rotates it in her hands, peering at the markings. “I’m with the Balitangs,” he says, naming a family across town, “and the daughter wanted me to deliver this to Koushi.”
The maid shoots him a look. “You know he won’t care about a daughter.”
He smiles – channel Tooru. “Try telling her that.”
She giggles and tucks the ball into her basket. “Well it is pretty, no matter who it comes from. I’ll see he gets it.” He bows to her in thanks; she bobs one back as the shellfish seller comes back with her lobster-crab. She turns to pay for it and take her white paper bundle. When she looks back at Iwaizumi, he’s gone.
His new assignment is right where he wanted to be, patrolling the south by southwestern section of the Lower Ring, knocking heads and taking names. It’s exciting, good old-fashioned police business that only has traces of the shady mystery of the Dai Li, but he misses the Sugawara family tea. The ball he snuck to Koushi had no lovers’ token inside, but a quick note, giving a date and place where he would be – a Middle Ring teashop on his next day off. Bring the brat.
He puts on his sunhat and old clothes and heads out after breakfast, still rubbing last night’s shift from his eyes. It's good work, but spirits is he tired. The place he picked attracts a mixed clientele from all the rings, so it won’t be such a strange visual to see the three of them at a table together. If either of them have a lick of sense, they won’t wear anything too gold or gilded.
He orders a pot of white tea with the Sugawara name on it (another reason he picked this place) and kicks up his feet to wait, sitting in a back corner with a clear view of the room and a quick bolt hole through the kitchen. Training never goes away, even without the uniform.
He’s nodding off over his second cup when someone flips his hat up to expose his face.
“It’s not polite to wear hats indoors, Iwa-chan,” Tooru says, sun-bright in white and cream. Iwaizumi scowls and bats it back down, pushing up to sit properly, bare feet thumping out of the opposite chair. Tooru yanks him up and into a hug, squeezing the shock out of him. Had he really never noticed Tooru is half a hand taller? Iwaizumi pats his back until Tooru lets go, holding Iwaizumi out by the shoulders.
“Oh, it’s good to see your angry little face again!” Iwaizumi punches his shoulder and sits back down with a scowl, ripping his hat off to hang it from the back of his chair. Koushi is already seated, wearing normal clothes (even if they’re of a touch finer material than they should be) and watching them over the tea he poured himself. Tooru sits next to Iwaizumi, hopping his chair around to face him. “So, what happened? The new guy’s not nearly as fun as you.”
Iwaizumi scowls. “Are you talking to him?”
Tooru tweaks Iwaizumi’s nose; Iwaizumi jerks back, too startled to retaliate. “Aw, are you jealous?” Iwaizumi scowls, and Tooru sighs. “No, I’m not, don’t worry. This one looks like he might bite my head off and feed it to the king’s guards if I messed with him like I did you.” He takes the cup Koushi pours for him without looking. “I’m not completely brainless.”
“Well, be careful,” Iwaizumi mumbles, leaning in closer to be quieter. “I can’t protect you if I’m not there.”
Tooru’s lips part. “Were you protecting me before?”
Iwaizumi scratches his head, unevenly-cut hair falling out of his stubby braid. “I would have if I needed to.”
“So.” Koushi’s polite cough wakes Iwaizumi up to the bare handspan of air between their noses. He jumps back and shoves his teacup in his face as Tooru clears his throat and fixes his hair. Koushi smiles. “You didn’t get moved because of this waste of space here, did you?”
Iwaizumi smiles behind his cup as Tooru gasps and argues about the indignity. “Yes and no,” he says when Tooru blows himself out. He swirls the words around his mouth with his tea. “I got promoted to the Lower Ring.” Both of them pull faces at that, and he has to laugh at them, shoulders hunched around his grin. “It’s much more fun than watching rich people sleep, okay?”
“I didn’t know you guys knew how to have fun. No offense.”
Iwaizumi shrugs off Koushi’s backtracking. “We’re just people, too.” His eyes flick to Tooru, who wrinkles his nose in return. “I’m sorry for leaving so abruptly, but it was sprung on me at the last minute.”
Tooru sighs, propping his chin on his hand. “I guess I can forgive you, since you went through the trouble to drag me out here.”
“Yui was mystified,” Koushi says, laughter bubbling. “A girl sending me a token? From a family she had barely heard of?” He chuckles. “It took my brother setting a screen on fire to get her to let me open it alone.” He lounges back in his chair, still staring Iwaizumi down. “Where did you get the case, anyway? I’ve never seen anything like it.”
Iwaizumi opens his mouth to answer, but Tooru jumps in first. “He made it! He’s really good with engravings and clay and stuff!” Iwa’s ears heat up under his hair. Tooru hops in his seat and digs in the bag slung over his chest. “Oh, actually-” He digs out a drawstring changepurse and spreads it open on the table, the yellow, white, and unpainted pieces of Iwaizumi’s ball clattering on the teal silk. “Can you put it back together for me? I didn’t get to see it before Koushi opened it.” He pouts at both of them – Koushi rolls his eyes. He pouts at Iwaizumi. “I tried, but I couldn’t make the full shape without bending.”
Iwaizumi scowls, but looks away from his eyes (is it a rich-people thing to have hypnotic stares?) and swirls his fingers in the pieces, connecting them as they touch until only one piece is left out. He palms the ball, hand-sized, and presents it to Tooru, bending the last piece into his tunic with a wrist flick. Tooru marvels at it, rolling it around in his palms to read the characters and watch the white and yellow glaze shine in the light.
“I used the armory kiln to fire them,” Iwaizumi says, shoulders up to his ears. “They hold the shape better that way.”
“That’s so cool!” Tooru beams, poking a finger in the hole. “But what’s this?”
Iwaizumi shrugs. “Guess you lost a piece.”
Tooru frowns, eyes narrowed. “Guess you’ll just have to make me another.”
A few days later, the Dai Li’s night shift is eating the sunset meal, breakfast and dinner distinctions not relevant to the moonwatchers. Iwaizumi normally eats alone, not awake enough for conversation, but this time someone sits next to him in the mess. He looks up from his juk at Ushijima’s eagle eyes cutting into him.
“Mizoguchi says you made the same observation I did about the younger son,” he says. Iwaizumi has to admire how he slices to the point. “You think he’s a threat, too, don’t you?”
Iwaizumi swirls his half-eaten juk around in its bowl. He’s not sure if he’s hungry anymore. “I’m not sure if ‘threat’ is the right word,” he answers after a moment. “But he’s surely smarter than he looks.”
“I agree.” Ushijima stabs his rice with his chopsticks. “He’s wasted on that simpering slimepit they call a court.”
Iwaizumi cuts his eyes at him. “Why do you say that?”
“You saw how well he handles everyone in that house,” Ushijima says.
“Like an airbender with the clouds.” Iwaizumi bites his tongue on the poetry Tooru makes him spout.
Ushijima nods, a single jerk.“I’m going to keep a closer eye on him, no matter what Mizoguchi tells me to do.” He shoves rice in his mouth, single-minded on eating after his decision.
Iwaizumi doesn’t finish his juk.
During the first teashop meeting, the three of them had made plans to repeat the rendezvous next week. Iwaizumi’s gut tells him to find a perch across the square from the teashop and wait, shadowed by a dusty magnolia tree, the only plant that still has foliage. Sure enough, when Tooru and Koushi saunter into the shop, Ushijima is a thread’s-distance away, working overtime in plainsclothes like Iwaizumi. Ushijima plants himself at an outside table when the two disappear inside, watching the streets hard enough to scare the waiter that comes to serve him. Iwaizumi curses and kicks the trunk of the magnolia tree, dust shaking into his eyes.
A moment later, Koushi and Tooru appear again, this time at the table by the window, sitting down in plain sight. He growls – he has to talk to them about the dangers of visibility – and snaps off a piece of a shingle, using a magnolia twig as a stylus to scratch eagle tail into it. The shutters of the shop’s window are open to appreciate the first sunny day in a week of chilly clouds, so he doesn’t even have to break anything to bend the shingle-piece across the square and onto the table in front of Tooru. He watches Tooru jump, then pick up the tile, reading his note with a frown. He looks up in the direction the tile had come from and sees Iwaizumi’s tree. He nods, biting his lip, and turns to Koushi with a pleasant smile, talking about the weather.
Iwaizumi is going nuts.
Every time Iwaizumi tries to connect with Tooru, Ushijima is there, doing his job as excellently as possible. It’s pain to watch Tooru charm from a distance after he’s been close enough to smell his jasmine and sandalwood. Koushi does what he can, exchanging little codes in tea deliveries and fake lovers’ tokens to and from the Balitang daughter. The weather gets colder, the city shaking out its long sleeves and shoes for the mild, short winter. Iwaizumi bundles up with them, long underwear under his uniform, but the wind whistles right through the Tooru-shaped hole in his chest. He never thought he would have one; he never thought it would be so big.
Tooru gets sloppy, too. He looks for Iwaizumi more when he’s out, on edge when he knows he’s there. He smiles less behind his fur-lined collars. Sometimes Iwaizumi catches him playing with one of the tiles from his latest not-lover’s token, edges worn smooth.
At least Tooru has Koushi to talk to. Iwaizumi can’t talk to anyone – fraternizing with the target is on par with cutting your hair and abandoning your post in the Dai Li. It just isn’t done.
Weeks pass like this, work the only distraction from the aching hole Iwaizumi had forgotten life could be. Ushijima still comes to him sometimes over the sunset meal, asking for advice on the neighbors, who’s the gray-haired kid the son talks to, did he ever try watching from this spot on the wall? Iwaizumi tries to answer without malice, but this guy is the only thing keeping him from listening to Tooru’s chatter about Water Tribe economies or the favorite toys of the child Earth King. He’s lucky he has a standing reputation for being terse.
He hopes Ushijima’s interest in Tooru will wane with time, especially now that Tooru knows about it. Nope. The devilishly-capable agent has set his claws into Tooru and won’t let go until he unearths a conspiracy to unseat the monarchy and install this merchant’s son as the new ruler or something equally insane. (Iwaizumi wouldn’t mind living under Tooru’s rule, but he’s probably alone in that regard.)
It’s flurrying a few days before the winter solstice when Iwaizumi finds Yui, the Sugawaras’ kitchen maid, in the fish market again. She laughs when she sees him, adjusting her basket on her hip. “Is she ever going to call on him in person?” she asks by way of a greeting.
He smiles – this interaction is the only easy part of his life anymore. “She likes the mystery.” He hands over this week’s ball, painted in Oikawa teal and white.
If Yui notices the significance, she doesn’t say anything, tucking it into a corner of her basket. She tilts her head at him. “Say, if you don’t have to run home right away, would you mind helping me? Kiyoko – the housekeeper – had to send me alone so she could keep the little monsters from tearing the house to shreds, but I could really use a hand with this.”
He shouldn’t. He can smell ‘bad idea’ coming off this like cheap pine incense. But it’s so nice to have normal, unguarded conversation again, even if it’s not Tooru. He smiles. “I won’t mind, for a little while.” She beams in return.
Shopping with Yui is pleasant, the popcorn snow casting a clean veneer over the muddy marketplace. She laughs easy and doesn’t treat him like he’s terrifying, loading his arms with redfish and halibut and bossing him around the market. He had given her his dead brother’s name instead of his own on their third meeting, but that scar was cauterized during Dai Li training. He barely flinches when she calls him by it.
He only notices they have left the market and are headed back to the house when he doesn’t have to bend down to hear her. He looks around at the familiar walls of the alley between the estates, dormant landscaping laying his old haunts bare – shit.
“I should head back,” he says, wishing he had his sunhat instead of his knit cap, even though the sun itself was hidden behind slate gray clouds.
She pouts. “Oh, it’s just another block or so, and I know we’ll have something to feed you with – it’s the least I could do after all your help.” His stomach growls, and she laughs. “Besides, maybe we can convince Koushi to send something back to the poor dear besides tea.” He smiles, stomach churning on more than hunger.
He keeps his head down as she leads him through the back gate on the beaten dirt path to the kitchen door, face averted from the Oikawa detail’s hiding spot. The kitchen is bustling – unlike the Oikawas, Koushi is the oldest of the five Sugawara children, each one a different breed of trouble for the staff to contain. Two of them are underfoot now, throwing rice flour at each other without regard for who gets caught in the crossfire. Iwaizumi’s face and hands tingle with the flood of warmth that wafts over him.
Yui directs him to the icebox, introducing him as they step around maids and cooks – the Sugawara staff is as happy and easygoing as the family they serve. He packs the fish into its designated spot as he fields questions about the Balitangs, blessing his past self for reading their file before using the cover more than once. Hopefully by the time someone checks his story, he’s long gone.
He waves a goodbye to Yui with the stuffed pastry he's been given; she’s already elbow-deep in tonight’s dinner. He pulls his cap down over his ears and eyebrows against the increasing snowfall as he ducks out the back door to the garden-
Where Tooru is spinning, arms spread and tongue out to catch the meager flakes dusting down on the brown grass.
Iwaizumi stills, pastry hanging from his mouth and hand on the gate latch, watching Tooru twirl and laugh, head thrown back, fur collar brushing his cheeks. Melting flakes stick to his hair, disappearing into rain like those that hit the too-warm earth; he is both eight and eighteen, a small child’s heart caged by a head too adult for his own good. Iwaizumi’s thoughts are stuck like his tongue to frozen metal.
Tooru stops spinning, closing his eyes against the dizzy spell. It’s Iwaizumi’s window to run, but he can’t, not with Tooru finally on the same plane as him. The pastry crumbles in his mouth, and he jerks to catch it before it hits the ground.
Tooru’s eyes pop open and latch onto him struggling with baked goods. His smile falls, then blooms into a beam. “Iwa-chan!”
Iwaizumi can only smile back, the knot twisted in his chest for over a month now unraveling. “Hey, brat.”
Tooru bounces over to him, open blue coat billowing, sliding to a stop a foot away from Iwaizumi’s toes, breeze made by his movement hitting Iwaizumi full-force with his sandalwood and jasmine. Iwaizumi’s knuckles are white on the latch, pastry crust flaking off in his fist. “What’re you doing here?” Tooru breathes, panting.
“Yui made me help with the groceries.” Iwaizumi shoves the last of the pastry in his mouth, wiping his hands on his tunic so they’re somewhat clean when he brushes snow out of Tooru’s hair. It’s exactly as soft as he thought it would be. He swallows. “You’re going to catch a cold.”
Tooru wrinkles his nose. “Please, this isn’t enough snow to make me sneeze. It’s not even sticking.” He sighs, looking up at the clouds through the dormant creeping roses. “Still, any snow is better than no snow.”
“If you say so,” Iwaizumi says. Tooru’s breath is hot on his face – he hopes his own doesn’t smell like the cheese in that pastry. He’s always a sewer turtle-rat next to Tooru. “Is the Sugawara garden better for dancing or something?”
Tooru laughs, bottom half of his face buried in fur. It’s a thick white tipped with brown, and looks almost as soft as Tooru’s hair. “No, I was calling on Koushi when I saw the snow and had to make sure it was real.” His fingers just brush Iwaizumi’s elbow. “That doesn’t mean it’s bad for dancing, though.”
Iwaizumi frowns, eyes narrowed. “There’s no way I’m going to dance with you.”
Tooru pouts. “Aw, come on, no one’s watching! My hawk shadow never bothers when I stay at home during the day.” His hand slides down to hold Iwaizumi’s wrist. “Don’t you trust me?”
Iwaizumi tugs his arm away, not hard enough to be a yank. “I can’t dance like you can.”
“I can teach you.” He steps closer, their boots crossing, and takes both of Iwaizumi’s wrists this time. “I’ve been told I’m good at it.”
Iwaizumi almost accepts, backed up against the arch of the gate, mouth parted. His eyes catch movement over Tooru’s shoulder along the wall; he curses and yanks Tooru around and in to cover him, adrenaline spiking. “I thought you said he left you alone in the day?” he hisses into Tooru’s fur, tickling his nose. Tooru grips his wrists tighter, a confused whimper escaping.
“He does! He always does, I don’t-”
Iwaizumi doesn’t have time for this. He fumbles the gate open and darts into the alley, using his secret break in the cobblestones to go underground and into the sewers, joining the turtle-rats and leaving Tooru behind.
In some respects, Iwaizumi is lucky that of all the Dai Li agents Tooru could have attracted the attention of, it was someone as forthright as Ushijima. He plops down next to him that sunset, eyes hard, and asks, “Did you know the son has a boyfriend?”
Iwaizumi chokes on his rice. “Boyfriend?” He clears his throat on the squeak caught there.
Ushijima nods, shoveling food in his mouth blindly. “I don’t know how I never saw him before.” He shrugs. “He looks like a servant, so I guess it explains all the sighing and moping.” Iwaizumi straightens – servant? (That cover is a servant, but still.)
Iwaizumi scowls at his rice, swirling it with his chopsticks. “Are you sure he’s not just a friend you missed?”
Ushijima snorts. “You didn’t see the kid’s face when he left.” Iwaizumi grips his chopsticks in his fist and stabs his rice, ears hot and thumping. “So you never saw a trace of a boyfriend? No late night visitors or anything?”
Iwaizumi gnashes his teeth, shoulders hunching. “No,” he growls, “now will you leave me alone?” He scowls into his sloppy rice, ignoring the twin holes being bored into the side of his head, until Ushijima slides down the bench to give him space to stew in solitude.
He quits Tooru cold turkey-hen.
He thought it would fade with time, this reliance on Tooru’s strange comments and round eyes – it’s not like they knew each other for long. But he only hates himself more each day that passes; the new year comes and goes, and the Tooru-hole just yawns wider. The few Dai Li who try to talk to him off-shift give up, leaving him to his snaps and perpetual headache. The streets he patrols shine in their winter mud; even the skinniest pickpocket gets a stone fist in their gut when their fingers wander. Ushijima stops asking him Oikawa questions, but Iwaizumi can still feel him watching from across the mess and barracks. He doesn’t need his worry. He only worries about Tooru, wishes he could have said a proper goodbye, but he doesn’t even trust himself enough to give a new lovers’ token-ball to Yui. (That doesn’t mean he doesn’t make one, though.)
It’s a cold, starless night two months after the Sugawara’s garden, the cloud cover blocking out the moon and rendering the Lower Ring’s shadows a deeper black. Iwaizumi dumped his partner hours ago (or maybe it was the other way around; he’s been a platypus-bear to work with lately). He perches on the point of a roof, head cocked for trouble. There’s always trouble.
Two blocks east in a cutthrough alley, muffled grunts and jeers echo. Iwaizumi stalks to the noise, pausing at the eaves overhead to look down on the proceedings. A mugging, three-on-one, the one in dirty borrowed clothes under drooping reddish-brown hair. Iwaizumi goes cold, then hot. A mugger sinks a fist into the one’s stomach, a breathless whine wheezing out of his victim.
Iwaizumi drops the two stories to land hard behind the muggers, cobblestones cracking under his feet. The three turn in comedic sync, but Iwaizumi isn’t laughing.
“Oh, earth and fire,” one of them moans.
He grabs the two closest to him and knocks their heads together, a sick crack ringing out. The third drops his knife and tries to run; Iwaizumi shoots a glove out and snatches his threadbare tunic, yanking him back into the wall of the building next to him, a foot stomp bending the earth up to lock his feet down. The mugger tries to cry out; Iwaizumi’s other rock palm slaps over his mouth as the wall reaches up and swallows his scrabbling hands. His wide eyes flicker over Iwaizumi’s drawn mouth to his two companions, eerily silent and unmoving on the ground. Iwaizumi turns his back on them to crouch by the victim, who is curled up in the dirt, arms tight around his stomach, a new sour puddle shining in front of him.
“Tooru?” Iwaizumi breathes, bare palm cupping the victim’s face to turn it up. A fading purple bruise is painted on a cheekbone. Iwaizumi might be sick, too. “Are you okay?” he asks, hands trembling.
Tooru stares at him, white circles around his irises. He beams, blood in his teeth. “I’m wonderful.”
Iwaizumi’s other hand comes up to Tooru’s other cheek. “You are a cursed dumbass idiot,” he growls, voice cracking. Tooru laughs under his breath, wincing.
“Iwa-chan, that hurts.” Iwaizumi lets him go, hands shrinking into fists; Tooru falls on him, arms around his neck, burying his face in Iwaizumi’s stiff uniform collar. Iwaizumi holds him back, nose in Tooru’s hair. It doesn’t smell like sandalwood this time, but sweat and iron and fear. Is he skinnier than he used to be? What in the name of the earth is he doing here?
Questions swirl in his head, but he clamps his jaw on them when Tooru jerks against him, something wet trickling down his collar. “Can you stand?” he asks instead, grumble rough. Tooru nods against his neck, and Iwaizumi pulls him to his feet, leaving the three muggers without a glance as he cinches Tooru to his side – definitely skinnier – and jumps, the earth pushing them to an easy landing on the roof above. Tooru grips his robe, eyes squinted shut, as Iwaizumi lilypad-hops away from the alley to a dip between two dormer windows he’s taken naps in before. He sets Tooru down there, kneeling in front of him so he can do more than a cursory glance over his condition. Tooru ducks his face into a shoulder, hair hiding his face – his hair had never been long enough to do that before. He’s wearing one of his family’s stablehand uniforms, torn in unnatural places with strips missing from the hem that flash in bandages through the holes, expensive boots caked in mud. His bare hands are chapped from the cold, and even in the barren light, Iwaizumi can see the imprints of more bruises at his collar and cuffs. Iwaizumi’s fists clench in his lap.
“How long have you been doing this?” he growls, vision blurry. Tooru wipes at his face with his sleeve and shrugs, not meeting Iwaizumi’s stare. Hot liquid frames one of the tiles on the back of Iwaizumi’s fist – he’s crying. He grips Tooru’s chin and yanks him up to look into his eyes. “Tooru.”
Tooru’s lips part. “A few days, maybe.” He tries to laugh, a watery chuckle. “The Lower Ring is huge.”
Iwaizumi wipes away Tooru’s tears with tremoring fingers, tiles clacking, his own saline dripping unhindered. “You are a special breed of shithead.” Tooru jerks, a laughing-sob. “What possessed you to be so brainless?”
“Jerk, it was you, it was always-” Iwaizumi cups his face and smashes their mouths together, bloody teeth clacking, nose smushed against Tooru’s cheek. Tooru sucks in a breath through Iwaizumi’s lips and throws his arms around his neck, falling back against the shingles and dragging Iwaizumi with him, knees poking into Iwaizumi’s abdomen. He gasps into Iwaizumi’s mouth, a strangled cry; Iwaizumi sucks away and props himself on his elbows over him, no breath deep enough to fill his lungs.
Tooru stares up at him, eyes leaking out of their corners into his tousled hair. He’s a disgusting crier. “Not fair,” Tooru whispers, legs straightening by Iwaizumi’s side. “I’m supposed to be the sweep-you-off-your-feet romantic.”
Iwaizumi snorts, forehead knocking against Tooru’s. “You can’t even lift my heels off the ground,” he whispers back, their breath coexisting. Tooru pouts, lower lip shining; Iwaizumi pecks it, an easy tilt up of the chin.
Tooru hides his sharp inhale with a huff. “I can’t believe I ran away for you.”
Iwaizumi tangles his fingers in Tooru’s hair – not as soft as it was in the Sugawara’s garden. A lifetime ago. “Neither can I.” They smile at each other, Tooru a miniature sun in the deep night. He reaches up and unclasps Iwaizumi’s chinstrap with stiff fingers, batting the hat off his head. It clatters to the roof, sliding down the incline to catch in the gutter.
Tooru pulls him down this time, unhurried as he sticks his tongue in Iwaizumi’s mouth, the blood mostly swallowed as he coaxes Iwaizumi more on top of him and less to the side. Iwaizumi tilts Tooru’s head with the grip on his hair for a deeper angle.
“I missed you,” Tooru breathes between kisses. Iwaizumi clenches his hands tighter in Tooru’s hair.
Iwaizumi has no idea how long they lay like that, wrapped up in each other’s palates like the other was a state dinner prepared just for them. The night is cold on Iwaizumi’s back, but Tooru is warm against him, sighs and soft fingers on Iwaizumi’s working skin. He knows it’s not yet false dawn when Tooru pulls back to breathe and exposes the length of his neck like the dessert course. He ducks in and mouths at a tendon. Tooru gasps under him, arching up. There’s the faintest slick of oil here, his old sandalwood perfume. Iwaizumi licks it.
“You need to go home,” he murmurs into Tooru’s jaw. Tooru stills under him, hands that had rucked up his outer robe freezing at the clasp at Iwaizumi’s collar.
“What.” Iwaizumi rolls his eyes where Tooru can’t see and shoves himself back to his elbows, ignoring the persistent curl in his gut. Tooru glares at him, flushed and disheveled. “But I found you!”
“And now what? You’ll hide under my bed in the Dai Li barracks?” Tooru huffs, a puff of breath on Iwaizumi’s chin. He runs a thumb down the bruise on Tooru’s cheekbone. “You don’t belong here anymore than I belong in your high society,” he says, watching Tooru’s face shift through his convulsive emotions. Iwaizumi’s mouth twitches. “You’d miss Koushi’s tea.”
Tooru pouts, hands falling to snag at Iwaizumi’s waist. “Do you have to be right all the time?” Iwaizumi chuckles and nuzzles against Tooru’s unmarked cheek. “I didn’t exactly leave on the best terms,” he admits to Iwaizumi’s sideburn.
“Everyone in those walls loves you,” Iwaizumi says. “They’ll forgive you.” He kisses down Tooru’s neck, the other side. Tooru hums.
Iwaizumi pauses, nods. “Yeah.”
Iwaizumi takes him home in the waxing daylight, teaching Tooru how to jump across alleyways and breaking at every crevice for a kiss. They take old tunnels under the walls, catacombs swallowed by time, green crystals glowing on, unhindered by human memory. Tooru grazes his fingers over them in their natural habitat instead of mined and refined for household use. Iwaizumi drags him on, their gripped palms sweaty. It’s way past time for him to have rejoined with his shift partner and gone back to base, but it’s hard for him to care. These travelling hours hang immortal.
It isn’t long enough before the tunnels curve familiar, and Iwaizumi’s ears twitch for signs of Dai Li life as they run by the sewage. Tooru presses close to his back, quiet now but for his labored breathing.
They don’t run into any danger beyond the runoff wildlife, though, and Iwaizumi pauses under his bolthole between the Oikawas and Sugawaras. Tooru steps on his heel and whispers an apology. Iwaizumi turns on him and grabs both of his hands.
“I don’t want you to come looking for me anymore,” he says in a low rush, “it’s too dangerous. You’re lucky someone didn’t kill you before I got there.” Tooru opens his mouth to protest, but sighs and ducks his head instead. Nods. Iwaizumi lifts Tooru’s chin with the tips of his fingers, smiling. “I’ll find you next time, okay?” Tooru tries to smile back, a corner tuck.
“You won’t abandon me again?”
Iwaizumi frowns at the tunnel’s ceiling and the quiet street above. “Honest, I have no idea what’ll happen after right now. Nothing you’ve made me do is standard operating procedure, and the Dai Li don’t like those who abandon their posts.” Tooru squeezes his fingers. Iwaizumi slides the hand on Tooru’s chin around to the back of his head, pulling him down to rest their foreheads together. “But I’ll find you, okay? Maybe not tomorrow, or this year, but I will.” Tooru nods, brushing their noses together with each bob. There’s a last kiss, grabby and choking, before Iwaizumi bends his bolthole open and hands Tooru up, a skinny pillar of earth lifting them to street level. Tooru sits on the edge of the hole, hands on Iwaizumi’s shoulders, eyes shining in the sunrise.
“Hajime.” He lets go and retreats to the sewer as Tooru scrambles to his feet so he can crouch on all fours instead, staring down the hole. “My name is Hajime.” Tooru rubs his eyes with the back of his hand, and when his eyes adjust to the morning light, Iwaizumi is gone, the hole solid earth once more.
(Fourteen months later, Hajime is called in from the tea fields to the big house, bustling with the fresh arrival of its masters. A manservant directs him to a sunroom, sniffing at the mud trail he tracks on the carpet through the chaos; Hajime ignores him as he walks through the open doors to the two men sitting at the breakfast table, cupped by glass and green. He keeps his head lowered to hide his eyes and his grin behind his straw field hat.
“Thank you, Chikara,” the gray-haired one says to the manservant, who bows and retreats, closing the doors behind him at a gesture. Hajime roots himself to the floor as cloth shifts.
“It’s rude to wear hats indoors, Iwa-chan,” the other man says as he stands, familiar voice a few shades deeper than it used to be. Hajime bites his tongue, lifting his chin enough to watch Tooru approach with one eye under his straw brim. His face is flushed under travel-dusted hair, and the teal silk bag in his hands muffles tiles clacking together inside. Hajime’s eyes crinkle, and Tooru throws himself at him, laughing.)