It’s nothing like he might have imagined. It isn’t sleep or anything like it, really, more like being buried alive. No, not quite like that, either. It’s like being buried in a coffin beneath the crashing waves of the sea, or perhaps more like drowning, but without all the drama and violence. Still, he surfaces occasionally, long enough to hear words like “coma”, words like “vegetative state”. Long enough to hear Juuzou’s voice.
They keep saying that he wont wake up, but he knows that isn’t true. He wakes up all the time, they just can’t tell. Even with all those fancy machines, even with all the electrodes they keep on every part of him, they still can’t tell. It’s okay. They’ll figure it out eventually.
Juuzou’s soft, small hand fits itself into his and he tries to squeeze it, oh how he tries. He can’t be sure, but his pinky might have moved. The waves crash over him again. He slips away.
“Shinohara, sit down.”
He’d seen the smirks hiding behind their eyes, and he’d returned them with a smile. Some men might have considered it a mistake to come across so affably, but he didn’t really mind being the butt of the department at times. The responsibilities that they shuffled off on him ended in excitement more often than drudgery and anyway, if they gave him any job that he found too reprehensible, he could just pass it on to one of those over-achieving, eager-to-please types that were always trying to work their way up the CCG ranks.
“I’m sure you’ve heard talk of the CCG’s ‘problem child’, haven’t you?”
“Sure,” Shinohara nodded. “Kills animals, kids are scared of him. Why?”
“Well, he’s been fastracked.”
“You’re making him an investigator?” Shinohara asked, brows raised.
“Yep. And we know he needs some guidance, so we’re giving him to you.”
“Well,” Shinohara said with a smile, “I’m glad you gentleman think I’m up for the job.”
There were smiles, nods, something like relief mingling with the amusement in their faces. Shinohara just smiled. He always smiled.
“By the way,” one of them said as he stood up to leave, “He’s your personal responsibility, Shinohara. We know you’ll consider that with appropriate gravity.”
He gave one last smile, a nod, and made his way down the hall. No sense in waiting…he would meet the boy now.
“Mr. Shinohara,” Juuzou’s voice breaks through the waves, and he becomes immediately aware that the boy is whispering in his ear, breath blowing hot against the skin there. “I’m here. Did you know that we match now, Mr. Shinohara? They say that there will be no problem with investigating with our fake legs. You rest now, Mr. Shinohara. I’ll be back tomorrow.
He tries to smile, tries to lift his eyelids but despite his best efforts, Juuzou doesn’t react. He isn’t sure of the time that passes with them sitting that way, only that he’s slipping beneath the tide again as Juuzou whispers, “Rest now, my salvation. We have time when you wake up. Rest.”
This isn’t the Juuzou that he knows…he recalls an anguished cry, uneven footsteps as his boy, his Juuzou went after The Owl with nothing but a single leg to stand on and sheer force of will. He feels like he might cry, but it’s too late, the waves are lapping over him again and he has no choice but to surrender to them, slipping beneath the surface with what might have been a sigh.
“By the way…do you have any professional clothes?” he asked, a smile dancing in the edges of his lips. The Problem Child, Juuzou, just stared at him with great, wide eyes. “It’s alright,” he continued, “I’ve got some you can borrow, even if they’re too big.”
“Okay!” Juuzou called out in a sing-song tone. “Hey Mr. Shinohara, when do I get to play with a quinque?”
“Well, you’ve got a ways to go before you get there, Juuzou. But how about this…I’ll help you when I think you’re ready, okay?
The boy smiled, and Shinohara felt something stir within him. He pushed it away. They took the train back to the tiny apartment that he called home, and Shinohara dug through his closet to find the clothes he wore when he was younger, fitter. Juuzou was so tiny, he wouldn’t fit into anything Shinohara had to offer, but something was better than nothing, and if Juuzou showed up to a scene wearing something ridiculous, it would be on Shinohara’s head. Eventually he came up with the smallest shirt and pants he owned, but after Juuzou put them on, they still hung enormous.
“I think I have some suspenders…” Shinohara muttered, frowning at the way his old clothes hung off of Juuzou’s slender frame. “And you need some new shoes.”
“What’s the matter with these shoes?” Juuzou asked, his dark eyes wide. “I like them!”
“Well, they’d be difficult to run in, you know? If you had a ghoul to chase…”
“But I like them!”
Shinohara stared down at the ratty, discolored slippers that Juuzou liked to call “shoes” and frowned.
“Look!” Juuzou insisted, running in a tight circle around Shinohara, doing a backflip onto his bed before bouncing off and wrapping himself, arms and legs, around Shinohara’s body. “I’m fine in these!”
Shinohara hadn’t expected the press of limbs, the feeling of Juuzou’s tiny form wrapped around him, and he stuttered and frowned before clearing his throat and nodding. “Alright, Juuzou. I can’t argue with that, I guess.”
Juuzou jumped into the air, pumping his fist, and for the first time Shinohara wondered what the hell his smile and friendly attitude had gotten him into.
The next time he breaks the surface, no one else is in the room. For the first time, he’s able to to open his eyes, to blink slowly, to wiggle his fingers. It doesn’t last long, only long enough to moan incoherently. It’s strange, at first, to see a hospital room, but he knew he couldn’t really be anywhere else…not after fighting the One-Eyed Owl. Still, as he slips back beneath those inky depths, he wishes silently that Juuzou had been there.
“And then he pulled out his quinque and wham! Bam!! It was awesome” Juuzou trilled, recounting the story for the fifth time that day. “Mr. Shinohara, do you think I’ll get a quinque soon?”
“If you study like a good boy, I’ll recommend you soon, Juuzou.”
“Do you really promise?”
“Of course I do. But for now, you should be glad that I gave you that knife. In your hands, I’m sure it’s just as deadly as any other quinque.”
But Juuzou didn’t answer.
“Juuzou?” Shinohara asked, turning around. It wasn’t too odd for the boy to wander off mid sentence. Shinohara was used to it by now. Still, he was surprised that he’d managed to walk a block or so without noticing. Juuzou was more or less frozen at the street corner, staring down at something, hands clenched up into fists. Shinohara jogged over, his usual smile on. “Hey, Juuzou, whatcha got there?”
The closer the got, the more he realized what was happening. Juuzou was staring at a pile of fur, blood, and viscera, the remains of something that could have been a cat, destroyed by the wheels of a car. His usually-pale skin was nearly white as a sheet, his slim body shaking. When he turned to Shinohara, he had tears in his eyes.
“I didn’t do it!” He cried out, somewhere between a sob and a scream. “I’m a good boy! I’m a good boy!”
“Hey,” Shinohara muttered, holding out his arms, “Hey, I know, Juuzou, I know that it wasn’t you.”
Something broke in the boy then, and he flung himself toward Shinohara, wrapping his slender arms around his torso.
“I’m a good boy, I’ve been a very good boy,” Juuzou whispered manically, his words bursting out between his sobs.
“Of course, Juuzou,” Shinohara whispered, one hand petting Juuzou’s head gently, the other pulling him close, not caring who saw. “You’re a good boy, you know. My very good boy.”
Juuzou’s lips are pressing into his forehead. He knows that the lips belong to Juuzou because no one else would dare to kiss him, and anyway, he hears the whisper that’s becoming as steady, as strong as his heartbeat, My Salvation.
“Juuzou,” he tries to whisper, but it comes out more like, “Jurrrrrrrzzzzzz,” and there’s nothing he can do about it. He hopes that Juuzou understands.
“What?” He hears an excited voice shriek. “He said my name! He said my name!”
He smiles, or tries to. He can’t help it. Only Juuzou would hear his own name in the moans of a drowning man.
“Juuzou?” he said his name, but it’s a question. A request, really. His stomach turned.
They were eating takeout on his sofa, the two of them watching some new show about reanimated corpses. Zombies. Nothing would ever have the same kick as a ghoul. He’d spent weeks trying to decipher what kinds of food Juuzou would eat. The boy had turned his nose up at damn near everything he’d been offered except curry. Shinohara didn’t really mind eating curry for every meal, and anyway, it was better for him than candy.
“Yes, Mr. Shinohara?”
He swallowed, not sure if his next question would cross some sort of invisible barrier between them.
“Where is it that you stay?”
Juuzou was quiet for a minute, then he turned toward Shinohara with a strange sort of smile. He’d seen the boy smile that way before — usually when he was about to kill something — and the sight made his hair stand up on end. However, when he spoke, Juuzou’s words were simple.
“Wherever I can, Mr. Shinohara.”
He’d guessed as much, but the thought of it still struck him deep in his gut. The thought of Juuzou curling under a cardboard box in the cold was more than he could bear, and when he spoke again, it was with firm conviction.
“Until you find a place of your own,” he said, his voice just loud enough to be heard over the television, “You can stay here with me.”
Vegetative State. He keeps hearing the words, but he can’t help but be angered by them. He’s not a fucking vegetable. He still thinks, still hears, still understands. He still remembers.
“We need to consider our options,” a familiar voice says. He can’t place that voice, only that he knows it from somewhere. “We can’t maintain this state forever.”
Later, though he isn’t sure how much later, he feels those soft, small lips grazing the skin of his forehead, pressing against his ear.
“Mr. Shinohara,” Juuzou’s voice whispers, “I think you’ve rested enough, now. I’ve got so much to tell you, Mr. Shinohara. Don’t worry, I’ve watered all of your plants. They’ve given me a new leg, now. They’ll give you one, too, when you wake up. But you gotta wake up, Mr. Shinohara. Please.”
He wants to whisper, “I’m coming back to you, baby boy,” but his lips wont form the words.
Still, Juuzou catches the tear that falls down his face.
“Don’t worry, Mr. Shinohara,” he whispers, breath blowing hot against Shinohara’s neck, “I know. I know.”
They lived around one another before they ever lived together, Juuzou skirting about like a feral cat before he ever let himself get comfortable. Still, Shinohara waited. Still, he was patient. When he went to bed, he would check the locks systematically, turn out all of the lights except the one in the living room, where Juuzou slept.
“Good night,” he’d always say.
“Good night, Mr. Shinohara!” Juuzou’s voice would call back to him. He did his best to ignore the way the sound of it echoed through his body, settled into an ache in his chest.
Do you know what happened to him? the other men asked, lifting significant brows in his direction. Do you know what happened to his….you know…stuff?
“Is it any of your concern?” he would ask with a smile. That usually shut them up.
They’d been living around one another in Shinohara’s tiny apartment for several weeks when he woke up to Juuzou’s voice for the first time.
“I had a nightmare.” Juuzou said simply, directly.
“C’mon,” Shinohara mumbled, too sleepy to speak coherently. “Get’n bed now.”
He’d lifted to covers for Juuzou and the boy had slipped beneath them, pushing and prodding himself into a little spoon position with such practiced ease that Shinohara wondered if they’d done this before, even as his own body molded around the boy. It was as if they’d been born to lay this way, Juuzou’s silky head resting on his bicep, their bodies fitted together like two puzzle pieces.
“Goodnight, Mr. Shinohara,” Juuzou had yawned softly.
“You need to come back, Mr. Shinohara,” Juuzou’s voice says with urgency. “You really must come back.”
He feels himself blinking, but he can’t quite see anything. Juuzou is screaming for the doctor. Soon enough, he’s being poked, a light shining in his eyes, Juuzou spouting a litany of questions in the corner.
“My god,” the doctor says, quiet, “He appears to be coming out of it.”
Shinohara never touched him, not the way he wanted to…he never slipped his fingers below the worn-out band of Juuzou’s sleep pants, which were once his own sleep pants, back in his college days. Even when Juuzou slipped into the shower with him, chattering away about his studies, his tests, and the ghouls he wanted to kill, Shinohara never touched him, not purposefully. He can’t help what his body did when he was asleep, the way he got hard and pressed into the slight indentation of Juuzou’s ass. He had no control over that, really. He was asleep, after all.
Thus, it came as a surprise when Juuzou’s clever little fingers undid his fly in a few seconds flat one night while they watched Juuzou’s favorite cartoon, cartons of take-out curry littering the coffee table before them.
“Juuzou?” he asked, his cheeks burning as his partner began fondling him with languid strokes.
“Shh,” Juuzou muttered, “I’m watching this. It’s my favorite.”
Nothing else was said…not when Juuzou’s strokes became more urgent, not when Shinohara came in short, sharp bursts, not when the credits of the cartoon rolled. Shinohara stood up and walked to the kitchen, cleaned the mess off his pants, tried not to wonder what the hell had just happened. When Juuzou crawled into his bed that night, however, Shinohara couldn’t stop himself from pressing the barest kiss against the back of his white silken hair.
The first time he sits up, it’s all he can do to stare at the stump where his leg used to be.
Juuzou’s there, standing on his prosthetic like he’s been wearing it for a lifetime, his grin so large it looks like it may overtake his face.
“Mr. Shinohara!” he exclaims, eyes bright, “The doctor says you’ll be able to come home soon! Don’t worry, I’ve brought curry and all of your favorite sweets. It’s just as you remember, so there’s no need to be upset. You’ll have a leg like mine in no time, and we’ll be a team, just like we always were!”
Shinohara smiles, or tries to, but the force of it hurts his mouth. During the day, when Juuzou’s like this—full of energy, full of life—Shinohara gets exhausted easily. He’s happy that his partner is just as full of life as ever, but even when he’s missing a leg, Juuzou is a force to be reckoned with.
“Thanks, Juuzou,” Shinohara rasps with a smile, “You’re such a good boy.”
It’s a month before they make it home. Shinohara used to take the stairs two at a time but now, in his wheelchair, he’s just glad his building has an elevator. Juuzou’s been chattering non-stop since they left the hospital, going on about the new faces at the department and their recent stunning success rate with ghoul eradication.
“I helped on a couple of missions,” he says, grinning at the memory, “But I wouldn’t let them reassign me. Not until you woke up, anyway.”
Shinohara’s never been this weak. Even after a month of physical therapy, his body is so shrunken, he can hardly drag around his own weight. Juuzou seems keenly aware of this, pushing him to eat more even as he insists he really, really can’t stand another bite. This time, when they shower together, Shinohara is left to the indignity of a plastic shower chair, Juuzou balancing precariously on his good leg as he scrubs the soreness out of Shinohara’s rebellious muscle.
“You’ve changed,” Shinohara mutters as Juuzou drys him off, meticulous, careful.
“Mmm,” is the only reply Juuzou offers.
“It’s not a bad thing,” Shinohara murmers.
Eventually they find their way to the bed that Shinohara remembers, a mattress that severely needs replacing, but one where he feels comfortable nonetheless. He has a hard time sleeping these days, but he thinks that here, in his own bed, with Juuzou sprawled across him, breathing steadily, he may just be able to manage it.
A few hours later, he’s not so sure.
“Juuzou?” he whispers into the blackness.
He didn’t expect the boy to answer, but he hears a small voice cut through the darkness anyway.
“Yes, Mr. Shinohara?”
“Nothing. I mean…I just…well.”
“It’s okay,” Juuzou whispers. “I’m still awake.”
“You said something to me,” Shinohara pushes on, “When I was asleep. You called me something,”
“My salvation,” Juuzou’s voice is quiet, small.
Silence settles between them, but the sound in Shinohara’s head is deafening.
“Why?” he finally manages, “Why did you call me that?”
Juuzou is still at first, and then he moves so that he’s straddling Shinohara, his hands pressing down into Shinohara’s chest, his good knee pressing into the mattress on one side of his hips, his stump pressing down on the other side. He presses his cheek to Shinohara’s cheek, his long, full lashes brushing Shinohara’s temple.
“I didn’t think I could do it,” he whispers, barely audible. “You said you’d be sad if I died, but I didn’t think I could be sad. Not…for anyone else. But when you…when I thought that Owl had…”
Juuzou’s voice dies in his throat and Shinohara’s hand find his cheek, feels the wetness there.
“You’re a good boy, Juuzou,” he whispers back, rough, “You’ve always been such a good boy for me.”
Juuzou’s lips fall against his, warm and wet and tasting of salt. Shinohara’s thought about the taste of him so many times, but the warm, sweet reality of his lips is beyond anything he’d thought to expect. Their hands travel the lengths of one another’s torso, their lips and tongues and teeth seeking, exploring. Shinohara discovers the sensitive place behind Juuzou’s left ear, the dip between his clavicles. Meanwhile, Juuzou tongues and nips at his lips, his earlobes, the tender skin of his neck. Their explorations leave them both exhausted and somehow, sighing, they let sleep roll over them.
The next morning Shinohara wakes to find Juuzou gone, nothing but a note left for him on the kitchen table.
I’ve gone to play whack-a-mole and practice on my new leg. Soon, I’ll be hunting with you again. Your good boy, Suzuya Juuzou.
Shinohara sighs. Perhaps now, they are not whole. But, he thinks with a small, private smile, they never really were. Not until they found each other.
“I’ll be hunting with you soon,” he whispers back to the note, “My Salvation.”