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When they first fall to their bloodied knees in the mud and sludge and smoke-filled air, Hole is dark.

 

Perhaps it’s nightfall; time warping between worlds with daylight on one side, an overcast moon on the other. Perhaps it’s the rain; gathering up clouds dark and huge and black enough to blot the sun from the sky. Or perhaps it’s not so dark at all. Tetsujo may not be the most proficient first aider amongst their group- but even he knows that a pair of rusted scissors and an eye socket which feels emptier than an eye socket ever should do is a sure sign of something bad. 

 

Though, even with his field of vision cleaved in two, Tetsujo can still feel the rain.

 

Water burns on his skin, aching right down to the marrow of his bones; like the useless smoke inside of him is trying to claw its way out of his veins and spill out all over the black mud below. What difference would it make- some spiteful part of him would ask, if it wasn’t for the rain leaving him dizzy, wordless. Pooling sludge-like in the folds of his clothing, an all-encompassing, dull-edged ache cutting flesh to ribbons, thoughts to shreds.

 

It hurts- more than anything- and Tetsujo could almost laugh.

 

The first time the tiny devil in his brain has cracked open its lazy eyes, the first time the smoke in his veins has done something other than sit and sit and sit, the first time being a sorcerer has felt like sure truth; and it’s because his own worthless magic is trying to kill him. 

 

Looming up ahead, the shape of a city twists industrial spires into the night; and Tetsujo is going to die here. If the rain doesn’t kill him, then the infection that’s probably already creeping through what’s left of his eye will. (Part of him hopes it’s the former; one less weight for Dokuga to carry on his shoulders, if he happens to survive. Try as he might, even he can’t fully shoulder the blame for a force of nature.)

 

The shape of a city looms ahead and then- something more .

 

Cutting itself out of the night, a shadow made of mud and torn fabric, swaying towards them on bruised, shoeless feet. If the rain is dizzying then this- this is suffocating- the world bending into it- into him- like he’s a piece of that distant, rain-cloaked city itself. He kills too effortlessly for a human, stands too easily beneath the downpour for a magic user. (Perhaps- another part of Tetsujo that’s halfway to delirious thinks- perhaps he’s neither. The thought doesn’t scare him as much as it should.)

 

He doesn’t tell them to follow. He doesn’t tell them anything at all. There’s a tiny devil in Tetsujo’s brain screaming at him that the rain would be better, the mud would be better, the eye that isn’t anything like an eye any more would be better- but that voice has never done anything to help him before now.

 

Dokuga is the first to move, cracked-glass eyes staring through the rain towards the door and the muddy shadow of a figure stepping through it.

 

Rising to his feet with an energy he didn’t know he still possessed; Tetsujo follows.

 

-

 

The tattoos are new, still. Raw around the edges, painful if Tetsujo pulls on his shirt too roughly or if he lies on them wrong. (With all five of them now relegated to sleeping on their backs, Ushishimada’s snoring is even worse than usual.) They’re scar tissue, in a way. Not so unlike the remains of Tetsujo’s right eye; a ragged scar for the initial cut, made deeper by the improvised bathroom surgery to remove the infected remains that Tetsujo was barely awake enough to remember.

 

The half-vial of smoke that ultimately saved his life was not enough to knit scar tissue back together, to save an eye that was already as good as dead. (Even if they’d gotten their hands on the best healing smoke Shaitan had to offer; Tetsujo isn’t sure it would’ve made much of a difference. Just as he will get used to the cross-marked face that looks back at him from the mirror, that scar is as much a part of him as the eye that existed before it was. He lost it for a reason, and no amount of A-grade smoke could reverse that.)

 

The bathroom mirror that Tetsujo stares into has seen better days- held together at one corner by a roll of parcel tape, too low down on the wall to be comfortable, but still serviceable even at the cost of everyone’s knees. Use things until they break; a habit they’ve all learned to live by.

 

The bathroom door opens behind him, and Tetsujo watches as Dokuga’s reflection slots wordlessly in beside his own. Head turned slightly, because hanging onto old, broken mirrors is not the only habit they’ll likely take with them to their graves. Caution has become a way of living for them- Dokuga more so than most. He stands to the left so Tetsujo can clearly see the damp ends of his hair, just finished bathing even though night has long since fallen. Beyond the bathroom door, Ton and Ushishimada are arguing about something good-naturedly; a rowdy sort of background noise that Tetsujo is more than happy to settle into. 

 

Dokuga’s reflection reaches up to press an absentminded fingertip against the edge of the crosses- Tetsujo watching him twofold out the corner of his eye. Once from the mirror, once from beside him.

 

Dokuga was the first of them to get the tattoos- because he’s started to look at the boss like he’s only just learned what admiration means, and where Dokuga goes, Tetsujo is sure to follow right behind. He doesn’t need to ask what ink below skin means for Dokuga; it’s always been that night, a man cutting himself out of sludge and city smog, a look that veers closer towards devotion with every day that passes.

 

For Tetsujo; ink and scar tissue have always been one in the same. The cross-eyes might be a statement, a promise to a man whose name they don’t even know- but sure as the smoke beneath his fingertips is useless, the boss is not who Tetsujo lost his eye for, who he put ink below his skin for.

 

Trusting Dokuga is the one thing Tetsujo has never had to fight tooth and bloody nail for. Easy as a hot blade through soft skin- all wounds cauterised before they’ve even had the chance to bleed. Trust softens every blow, and so Tetsujo will always follow Dokuga’s word first and foremost. (It used to scare him- late at night before they had a real roof over their heads and Dokuga would sleep metres away from the rest of them- just how much Tetsujo trusts his friends to watch his back through smoke and iron and whatever else is thrown their way. Now, it just feels natural as breathing.)

 

“I’m still not used to it.” Dokuga says, then, meeting the eye of Tetsujo’s reflection.

 

Tetsujo hums quietly in agreement. “It feels pretty strange staying in one place longer than a few nights.”

 

There’s an odd look in Dokuga’s eyes- both of them know that’s not what he meant- but he makes no effort to push further. Instead, he braces his hands against the edge of the sink, and turns to face Tetsujo for real this time.

 

“Ton and Ushishimada are fighting over the new bedsheets,” when he speaks, Dokuga’s voice settles somewhere on the line between quiet amusement and thinly-veiled exasperation. “They’re gonna be at it all night, at this rate.”

 

Comfortable is not something any of them have the luxury to feel- but moments like this might just come close. “I wondered what all the noise was.”

 

“Probably best to keep out of their way.” A droplet of water rolls off the split ends of Dokuga’s hair, tracing past the unhealed edge of his tattoos as it goes.

 

“Probably,” Tetsujo’s half-laugh is barely audible over the raised voices outside. “But if you think we need to intervene, then I’ll follow your lead.”

 

( I’ll follow your lead- Tetsujo tells him- has told him, more than once before. He hopes- somehow - Dokuga knows just how much he means it.)

 

-

 

Ton likes to call the boss’s arrival fate. Saji always smacks him lightly in the shoulder for that, reminds him that it was nothing more than dumb luck- just the right place at the right time. Either way- it changes things.

 

The new life they’ve fallen into is not perfect- Tetsujo still gets spat on or drenched in smoke when he walks past bars in the grimiest part of town- but they have a cause now. A means to push back instead of just standing their ground and hoping for anything other than the worst. The world of magic users is no place for people like them, but they don’t have to lie down in the dirt and take it any more.

 

From the moment they followed him shaky-limbed out of the rain, chasing after the boss has felt like a fever dream. The world warps around him, crowds split and people freeze in something more than fear, and their rag-tag group has somehow found themselves at the heart of it all. (Maybe fate. Maybe dumb luck. Tetsujo still isn’t sure which he agrees with more.)

 

Following the boss- spilling blood and guts onto the pavement for him, learning how to separate skulls from vertebrae for him- it does not earn them respect.

 

Instead, it buys them fear; averted eyes down long, dark alleyways, smoke shifting beneath fingertips at the sight of their cross-marked stares.

 

They’ve got people running scared, and Tetsujo has never felt so hopeful . He can understand how Dokuga got so swept up in the feeling of following the boss from five steps behind, those wide-eyed glances, wondering if one day he’ll turn around and look anywhere but through them. 

 

(Deep down, Tetsujo knows that there’s a difference. Dokuga’s feelings have always strayed somewhere beyond loyalty, landing someplace six feet deeper- somewhere that he probably thinks none of them notice. Somewhere that he might not have even noticed himself. But Tetsujo would have died years ago if he wasn’t perceptive, and so he can’t help but see every time Dokuga stands a little closer to the boss than the rest of them, clinging to the few sharp-edged words he chooses to share like they’re all he has left to survive on.)

 

The five of them are the first, but they’re not the only ones to get pulled in. People like them, with useless magic and no future beyond lying down in the dirt to die. Cross-marked eyes peering out from behind homemade masks are not an uncommon sight, nowadays. Some only join for the black powder- useless sorcerers with filthy hands searching for nothing more than a kick up the social ladder- but if it puts money in the rest of their pockets and keeps a roof over their heads, then so be it. And then there’s the others; some fearful of the boss, some chasing a life where they’re something more than scum, some just looking for a way to get by. Ink below skin means something different for everyone that wears it.

 

The organisation- ( Crosseyes- becomes the name whispered in the streets behind them)- grows larger by the day. More responsibilities to carry, more blood on their hands for the boss and his distant, unnameable goal.

 

Tetsujo learns to treasure the comfortable silence of the kitchen at night, cleaning two-hour-old blood off the blade of his sword (a new, wicked-sharp thing stolen off the wall of some elite magic user’s home earlier that week). Saji is dozing on the sofa across the room, his legs too long to fit comfortably without folding into impossible shapes or spilling off the sides. Dokuga kneels in the far corner, sharpening his knives with meticulous care.

 

Perhaps Tetsujo is used to it being just the five of them against the world, drifting aimless as paper bags, no way of telling where they’d wake up the next morning. They’re part of something larger than just themselves now- but Tetsujo will learn to be fine with it if the hope is here to stay.

 

They have a place to spend the night, now. Tetsujo’s new sword is something close to beautiful, and no amount of Ushishimada’s teasing will stop him from pulling it from its sheath every other hour to stare at it. The boss is off doing who knows what after showing them critical smoke veins that will sever their opponent’s magic, and Tetsujo feels invincible.

 

-

 

They’re running; the boss up ahead, Tetsujo a few paces behind, grip white-knuckled and ready around the hilt of his sword. Smoke curls at their feet from the group of magic users leering down at them from up ahead- piss-drunk, with turned-up noses and too much confidence in their own filthy hands. 

 

The boss doesn’t have to tell Tetsujo to move twice.

 

Fighting near the boss (never alongside him, because he sits somewhere worlds apart from the rest of them) is as terrifying as it is exhilarating. Tetsujo’s heart threatens to batter itself into pieces as he severs smoke veins, then makes quick work of the muscle and bone below. Somewhere to his right, the boss has a knife in both hands, each vicious-sharp blade pressed against a throat which will soon breathe its last pathetic breath.

 

(His eyes are just visible below his hood- wild and hungry and black as mud. It’s not the viscera that Tetsujo wipes from his sword before they’re running again that leaves him feeling sick, yet more powerful than he ever has done before.)

 

-

 

Dokuga is bleeding when he steps back into the kitchen.

 

Hands stilling around a stack of bills they’re due to pay, Tetsujo can’t help the head-to-toe assessment he completes in the time it takes for Dokuga to get from the door to the kitchen table. An awkward tear in the arm of his hoodie that will take time they don’t have to sew up, clearly exhausted, a knife-cut on his forehead matting clumps of his hair against his face but- (a breath of relief that Tetsujo was well aware he was holding)- otherwise uninjured.

 

Overhead the kitchen light flickers, and Dokuga’s voice sounds more like a sigh than words when he speaks. “Some assholes tried to get the jump on us near the entrance of the factory.”

 

Ton slides in through the doorway like an afterthought, then, stifling a yawn as he goes. “Their mistake,” He leaves a trail of wet footprints on the floor behind him, as if he’s only just finished rinsing the gore off his shoes in the yard outside. “I’m gonna sleep like a corpse tonight.”

 

He’s gone no sooner than he arrived, slipping out the side door with only a trail of cold water to show that he was even there at all.

 

Quietly, Tetsujo clears the gas and water bills off the table, more than glad to leave them till later. Dokuga- tugging at the hole in his sleeve with his lips pressed into a tight frown- is worth the extra workload that will come once the sun rises.

 

“I hope you’re not planning to leave it like that,” Tetsujo gestures to the wound on Dokuga’s forehead; still bleeding steadily into his eyebrows. 

 

“Ah-” Bemused, Dokuga raises a hand to the broken skin, probing the damage. His fingertips come away bloodied. “I’d forgotten about it, honestly.”

 

Tetsujo goes to reply that he’s seen Dokuga forget about a knife sticking out of his leg before, but he holds his tongue. Night settles still and calm, the house too quiet even for comfortable arguments, where they rib at each other like they’re stupid kids with no hopes for the future all over again.

 

“Dokuga, it’s still bleeding,” Tetsujo tells him instead, moving one chair closer as a wordless request. ( Let me look, I promise I’ll be careful. ) “I think we’ve still got some of that healing smoke lying around somewhere, if you wanted-”

 

“Just ‘cause we have it, doesn’t mean we can waste it on something like this.” Cutting him off, Dokuga shakes his head firmly. Disturbed by the movement, a trail of fresh red blood traces the line of his cheekbone, not a single particle of smoke in sight. “If I haven’t bled to death yet, then I doubt it’ll happen any time soon.”

 

Don’t try to convince me otherwise- his eyes say, loud and gunshot-clear. Always thinking about the future; unofficial second-in-command in all aside from name for a reason . Even before this, before the boss and the black powder and the blood on their hands, he’s always been the one at the head of their schemes, the front of their plans. A sure truth that Tetsujo has clung to for as long as he can remember; they wouldn’t have survived half as long without him. (And so, in return, Tetsujo will be there: a shoulder to lean on if Dokuga decides that responsibility has become too heavy to bear alone. Hoping, wordlessly, that he can one day become the sort of person that Dokuga can rely on.)

 

“It’s gonna need stitching.” Tetsujo cautions.

 

Something close to a grimace spreads across Dokuga’s face, always at his most expressive when he’s on the wrong side of exhausted . “Is the stuff for it still in the bathroom?”

 

Tetsujo nods. Then, after a moment of hesitation; “I can go and wake Saji up, if you want. He’s got the steadiest hands, so-”

 

“It’s fine. I trust you.” Dokuga’s words aren’t loud or brilliant, but Tetsujo feels them hang around the kitchen ceiling like smoke, like magic. Clinging echo-like long after Dokuga has left to collect the first aid kit from beneath the bathroom sink. It’s fine. I trust you. It’s fine.  

 

There’s a distant awareness- a quiet, constant thought- that Dokuga would never agree so easily if he wasn’t barely awake enough to keep his eyes open. But, fleeting as it is, trust is trust. Tetsujo will not let it go to waste, scrubbing down his hands with water hot enough to burn while Dokuga lays out sterile thread and wound dressings in a neat line across the kitchen table.

 

“This’ll hurt,” Tetsujo cautions, a knee-jerk reflex which feels more than futile at the sight of the curved needle between his fingers. Of course it’s going to hurt.

 

The sound Dokuga makes in response is somewhere between a grimace and a laugh. “Pretty sure we’ve all survived worse.”

 

Ask Tetsujo afterwards, and he will think to himself that he learned something about trust there, found somewhere between broken skin and the sterile thread holding it together. A feeling that’s too large for the too-small kitchen they sit in, curling up inside Tetsujo’s lungs until he’s not sure how there’s enough room left for each quiet, focused breath he takes. 

 

Just for one night, Dokuga trusts Tetsujo with a needle and thread and a task that requires more depth perception than he’s possessed in months. And in return, Tetsujo trusts Dokuga to be careful, to sit close enough that he can see his eyelashes and the slow-drying blood in his hair with no fear of being poisoned. (As much as he’s never been scared of it, Tetsujo knows that Dokuga’s poison is anything but an empty threat- knows from experience the damage it can do.)

 

“I’m done.” Shattering the silence feels like breaking a rib clean in two, but Tetsujo would never linger any more than necessary. He can’t force Dokuga to bury an old habit that he’s carried with him as long as he can remember, but at least there’s other things he can do to help. Burying the weight that threatens to consume his heart, lungs, ribs; Tetsujo swats Dokuga’s hands lightly away from the bottle of rubbing alcohol. “I’ll clean up. Get some sleep already.”

 

There’s a three second gap where Dokuga looks ready to protest, before slowly, quietly, he nods. They might spend every day of their lives battling impossible odds just to survive, but even he can recognise a fight he shouldn’t start. 

 

“Thanks, Tetsujo,” Dokuga says on his way through the door. There’s a line of three wobbly stitches just visible beneath his hair, and Tetsujo decides that he would follow him to the end of the world.

 

-

 

Later, scrubbing dried blood from beneath his fingernails, Tetsujo thinks he’s always known.

 

Always , because he can’t remember much before their group of four became a group of five, before the arrival of that exhausted kid with brilliant ideas who Tetsujo swore they would never leave behind. From the very beginning, the way he’s felt towards Dokuga has been a sure truth, louder than the devil sleeping in his brain has ever been; you’re my best friend, rely on me, I want to be there for you. Something that’s desperate yet gentle, worlds apart from the steady, comfortable feelings he reserves for Ton, Saji, Ushishimada and all the camaraderie that comes with them.

 

(There is no more or less about it- Dokuga is just important in a different way to the rest of them.)

 

Maybe, if Tetsujo was a different person, he would feel sad about it; because Dokuga is in love with the boss and there’s not a devil in the world who could hide the way his eyes shine every time he looks his way. The Crosseye organisation’s worst-kept secret. Dokuga is in love with the boss, and as long as he’s walking in front, leading them to greater heights, Tetsujo will never stand a chance.

 

He dries his hands on the towel by the kitchen sink, and he doesn’t feel sad at all.

 

It’s never been about that, after all. Tetsujo will hold his feelings close, unspoken, nestled near to his heart because people have lived with blades and bullets buried in their bodies for years on end, flesh reshaping to accommodate the weight of them. If it means Tetsujo can keep fighting, hoping, surviving by Dokuga’s side, then nothing needs to change beyond his own skin and bone. 

 

(Tetsujo will be fine if Dokuga never looks back at him, if he’s always three steps ahead and five floors up. If Dokuga trusts, through learned experience, that Tetsujo will always be there to catch him if he falls- then he’ll never ask for anything more.)

 

-

 

Night arrives, and the world feels brighter than ever. 

 

They might not have the resources or the luxury to splash out on festivities- especially not when every sorcerer with a hint of common-sense knows what the crosses around their eyes mean- but that doesn’t stop them from celebrating from time to time. Birthdays, missions gone well, sometimes just for the sake of it. Even if no amount of seasoning can save their cheap dinners most of the time- sitting down for a meal together makes it feel important.

 

Things are different to when they were kids fighting white-knuckled to live another day, but Tetsujo is glad for the chance to lay down his sword, take off his helmet, and smack Ushishimada hard between the shoulderblades until he’s finished choking on his mouthful of rice.

 

“Did you never learn not to talk with your mouth full?” Saji jabs at him from the other side of the table, blatantly ignoring the food in his own mouth that he’s yet to swallow.

 

Ton, methodically picking his way through a chicken drumstick, grins at that. “Think of the embarrassment: one of the crosseye elites, taken out by a plate of badly cooked rice.”

 

Dokuga rarely speaks during dinner, but even he offers a half-amused shake of his head. “I’m not gonna be the one to break that news.”

 

Ushishimada’s smile tips into dangerous territory, the sort of look he always gets when he’s about to make a good-humoured jab that will derail any conversation into a friendly argument. “That’s a surprise- thought you’d jump at any opportunity to talk to the boss.”

 

And it’s not as if it’s a closely guarded secret between them- anyone with eyes can see the way Dokuga follows the boss in something that’s always been more than just respect, the source of many jokes and badly-done impersonations. Tetsujo still grimaces into his food at the sound of it spoken out loud, while Dokuga is still in the room to hear it. Saji seems equally as surprised, his turn to choke on his rice. Tetsujo isn’t sure if Ton was even listening, busy dismantling his way through another portion of food.

 

Awkward silence persists for a beat too long, before Dokuga puts down his bowl with pointed force, and Ton scrambles to salvage the conversation with something about a new bar he saw opening on the edge of town. All forgotten as soon as it began; you don’t grow up to trust someone with your life without learning along the way when to push, and when to stop.

 

Still, it weighs on Tetsujo’s mind, all the way through cleaning up his plate, tossing chicken bones on the disused vegetable patches outside, watching as Dokuga announces that he’s heading in for the night and the bathroom door closes behind him. He caves in the middle of Ushishimada’s dramatic retelling of a previous mission he went on, rising to his feet with an easy lie about needing to take a piss, then slipping off past the store room towards the wrong bathroom. 

 

There’s no sign of movement from inside. Tetsujo briefly entertains the thought that Dokuga might have actually turned in for the night; but the light creeping through the screen door says otherwise. Dokuga is a light sleeper- all of them are, by necessity- rising at the first sign of light or sound or danger. If the lights are on, then he’s sure to be awake.

 

“Tetsujo,” Dokuga’s voice comes muffled through the bathroom door, no sooner than Tetsujo’s fist falls once, twice against the wooden frame. “Do you need-”

 

“Just getting a bit of peace and quiet,” when Tetsujo slides open the door just wide enough to see inside, Dokuga is standing in the bathtub, staring through the torn bug screen that covers his tiny window. Moths flutter around the dim glow of the lightbulb overhead, and Dokuga’s expression is entirely unreadable even with Tetsujo’s years of experience. “D’you mind?”

 

Dokuga doesn’t ask him to leave, and that’s as good an invitation as any. Tetsujo takes it as a cue to close the door behind him, to sidestep around the stacks of paper and the mouldy patch where the pipes leak sometimes, to sit himself down on the edge of the bathtub with a sigh. For a long while there’s nothing but comfortable silence, punctuated by moth wings and the constant groan of the pipework. Then-

 

“I brought this, too,” Tetsujo holds up the plastic cup and can of cheap beer he took out of the cupboard on his way past, shaking it slightly like a shitty 200 nick trophy. He cracks it open, pours half into the cup for himself, then reaches out to tap the can against Dokuga’s arm lightly. “Here.”

 

“Thought we agreed to keep those for special occasions.” Finally, Dokuga turns away from the window- if only to fix Tetsujo with an even stare. (He accepts the can anyway.)

 

Grimacing at the aftertaste that the beer leaves in the back of his mouth, Tetsujo shrugs. “What the others don’t know can't hurt them.”

 

With a small shake of his head, Dokuga returns his line of sight to the dark skies beyond the window. “Are the guys still talking out there?”

 

Tetsujo hums an affirmative. “Ushishimada’s telling that story about the time he broke a guy’s arm with one hand again.”

 

“He always leaves out the part where he got knocked on his ass seconds afterwards.” The lift at the back of Dokuga’s voice betrays his amusement, and Tetsujo holds onto every second of it. Dokuga’s always played his emotions close to his chest, forcing them down out of necessity until it became second nature to hold back a laugh and sit aside during dinner. Even more so now that there’s a whole world looking at them with cross-marked eyes and hopes for the future. (Sometimes, Dokuga acts like his sole purpose in life is to play damage control. Tetsujo wants to tell him that caution can go both ways- that just here, just the two of them, he’s happy to be the careful one for a change.)

 

Instead, he takes another sip from his cup. Stares into it, vaguely regretting his decision. “This tastes like piss.” Tetsujo concludes with a frown. (It’s not like they can even get drunk off half a can of cheap beer, either. Not worth it at all.)

 

“I wouldn’t know,” Dokuga swirls the remaining liquid left in the can around contemplatively. “You were the one who brought it, anyway.”

 

“Something I’m realising was a mistake,” still not wanting to waste alcohol, regardless of how terrible it tastes, Tetsujo finishes the whole lot in one uncomfortable mouthful. With the cup placed beside him on the bathroom floor, he finds that he doesn’t know what to do with his hands any more- habitually drifting close to his side where he expects his sword to be like an extra limb, picking at a loose thread on the hem of his shirt. (Forcing down the selfish urge to tug at Dokuga’s sleeve, to ask him to turn around instead of staring into the night and the dark wild-eyed things beyond it.)

 

He settles for gripping awkwardly at the edge of the bathtub instead.

 

One of the moths collides with the overhead lamp and spirals heat-stunned away, as Dokuga starts; “About what Ushishimada said earlier-”

 

“It’s none of my business.” Tetsujo cuts him off, before he can do something terrible like try to explain himself. When he turns to face Dokuga’s back, he catches the half-second his shoulders visibly relax; not quite a weight off his back, but one less thing to keep him up at night. 

 

Perhaps there’s a self-destructive part of Tetsujo that does want Dokuga to explain, to tell him out loud that he’s in love with the boss so he can lay the tiny bit of hope lodged like a bullet in his heart gently to rest once and for all.

 

And perhaps there’s a selfish part of him; a tiny devil-made voice that wants Dokuga to look over his shoulder and meet him face to face, eye to cross-marked eye. 

 

But, more than anything, he wants Dokuga to understand that he doesn’t have to change a thing. That he’ll never need to turn around to know Tetsujo is always there, always waiting. That he’s never had to earn a second of his trust because Tetsujo decided long ago with blood beneath his nails that he’s never going to expect a single thing in return.

 

(That, if this is a trust fall, then it’s Tetsujo who chooses to live with his arms outstretched.)

 

-

 

They all know, by principle, not to stay up waiting for missions to finish and friends to return. 

 

None of them would ever get any sleep if they did; they’d spend their lives sat at the kitchen table with how often the boss sends them to far-flung corners seeking out newer, stronger magic. If someone does return in need of help, then it’s not as if any of them are heavy sleepers.

 

Still, Tetsujo sits awake. The sword laid out on the table in front of him is little more than an excuse; he hasn’t touched his cleaning supplies in hours, instead preoccupying himself with glances toward the clock that get more worried the longer he waits. Because something big is going on- has been going on since Dokuga picked up the phone a week ago and stood there like the world was ending on the other end of the line. Storms can’t happen on this side of smoke-made doors, but the following days passed like a huge one was about to break.

 

When Dokuga finally steps into the kitchen in the early hours of the morning, he’s holding the Boss’s knives to his chest and something is terribly wrong. Hanging overhead, curse-like.

 

Dokuga doesn’t say a word when he lays the knives on the table as if it’s an altar. He doesn’t say a word when he sits down and stares at the blade-scarred tips of his fingers like the world is slipping past them. He doesn’t say a word, and Tetsujo doesn’t ask him to.

 

(Tetsujo has known Dokuga for almost as long as he can remember, but even he doesn’t know what to do with this .)

 

Instead they sit- in that dark kitchen with that dark, unnameable curse hanging overhead- and they wait for a morning which never seems to come.

 

-

 

Without the boss, they do what they can to survive.

 

Hope is a fleeting thing; there one second and gone the next. The boss was a figure to chase- the one who picked them out of the dirt and made them something, even if he never extended that hand himself. He stood for everything people like them needed. A means to push back, a way to overcome their useless magic and clean off their bloodied knees. If they could never stand on equal footing with the elites of magic user society- then they could just learn to pull them down to their level instead.

 

He leaves in the same way he arrived; folding back into the mud and earth without a single command for them to follow.

 

In the first few months, as rumours spread and it becomes clear that the boss is not coming back- the organisation struggles like an animal with its head cut off; moving only through muscle spasms and leftover electricity. Then, a hopeless sort of equilibrium sets in. Most leave, and those that stay drop into hiding or are killed off because there’s not a single wall in this world that doesn’t have eyes. The nights have never felt so long.

 

Hope is not the only thing they lose either. Without the boss there’s no black powder, and with no black powder all they have to fall back on is part time jobs scattered across Berith’s wealth of tourism hotspots; shitty work under shitty elite magic users there to put their feet up and enjoy the good life their smoke grants them. Holding on is all they can do. Lying low, biding their time, waiting for news which never comes.

 

When Tetsujo arrives home late after unpaid overtime at one of the local inns, he hears the argument through the open door before he’s even made it all the way down the path. Just inside the doorway, Ushishimada looks seconds away from fuming, hand grasping at empty air like he’d be dragging Dokuga in by the front of his shirt if he wasn’t hesitant to get too close. Saji’s face is set into a grim expression, even Ton looks uncomfortable, and Dokuga- at first glance he seems just as unshakeable as ever- but it’s impossible to miss the downward tilt of his eyebrows, the stubborn-set corners of his mouth.

 

He’s just as angry as Ushishimada is. (Angrier, even.)

 

“They’re just clothes ,” Ushishimada’s voice is raised to the roof as he aims a sweeping gesture at the bags piled behind him. Old stuff from the store room, covered in dust and cobwebs. “You can’t seriously tell me you’d rather hang onto some old rags than eat a decent fuckin’ meal once in a while.” 

 

Dokuga’s gaze darkens imperceptibly, something Ushishimada seems to notice too in the way he takes a half-step back. 

 

“They’re the boss’s clothes.” Dokuga reminds him, voice steady only out of necessity. It’s not unheard of for them to argue like this- raised voices, butting heads- but recently it’s been happening more often than ever before. Tetsujo lingers in the doorway, unnoticed.

 

“I know! Shit, I don’t want to pawn them either- none of us do,” Ushishimada turns, collecting a sweep of affirmatives from Saji and Ton. “But the boss clearly isn’t coming back any time soon so-”

 

With no clear sign of a resolution in sight- a stalemate in the middle of the kitchen- Tetsujo announces his presence by slamming the front door behind him a little louder than necessary. Four pairs of eyes turn to face him as he dumps his helmet on the table and announces that he managed to score some free soap samples from the inn while nobody was looking. A blatant distraction- he’s not fooling anyone- but it’s one that works.

 

The tension still clings to the rafters, but at least the air will be breathable until after dinner.

 

(Later that night, eyes closed and pretending to sleep, Tetsujo hears Ushishimada knock three times on the door to Dokuga’s bathroom. A slice of light cuts across the hallways as he steps inside, and the muffled apologies that fall barely audible through the paper-thin walls are enough for Tetsujo to sleep easier than he has done in a while. 

 

Arguments are common nowadays, but they never last until morning. The lights only come on in the dark- and so nighttime is always when they see each other best.)

 

-

 

They’ve survived without the boss before. And, even if they have to struggle, argue, crawl on their knees through the dirt; they will survive without him again.

 

-

 

One of Ton’s knives flies blade-first into the makeshift target he’s got set up against the wall outside. It joins the three others beside it in a neat line, moonlight catching bright on the metal edges.

 

Tetsujo, vegetables cooking on the grill in front of him, whistles appreciatively. Ton’s aim is no joke; it still catches him by surprise, no matter how many times he sees it in action. “The fact that you can manage that even in this lighting is terrifying.”

 

Ton grins under the praise, then lets loose another knife- the dull thud as it hits its mark punctuating the steady sound of the grill. “It just takes practice. I have offered to teach you before.”

 

“Think I’d better stick with this,” Patting the sword at his hip, never more than an arm’s length away from him, Tetsujo replies. “Don’t think my eyesight is exactly cut out for sharp flying objects.” As much as he’s long since learned to compensate, Tetsujo would rather walk across the room than catch food thrown in his direction, still keeps his bowl away from the table edge to save it from misplaced elbows. Hurling knives across the yard- regardless of how deserted the surrounding roads are- is not a risk he’d be thrilled to take.

 

Two more knives bury themselves in the target, before Ton goes to collect them and start over again.

 

“You’re probably the only one of us who isn’t arguing with Dokuga right now.” Ton says, and Tetsujo wonders just how badly he wears his heart on his sleeve for that segway to make sense . (His eye, the scar that stays stubbornly in place through it; it all leads back to Dokuga.)

 

“Dokuga is-” Tetsujo starts, pauses, tries again. “The boss meant a lot to him. I can understand why he doesn’t want to get rid of things so easily.” The night feels quieter than it should do. He turns over the vegetables on the grill again, just to disrupt the static. “I trust him.”

 

“You always do.” Ton says, and there’s a certain weight behind it. Something knowing; only added to by the deliberate smile Ton sends his way through the dark. It’s nights like this which remind Tetsujo that, easygoing as he is, Ton is exactly as perceptive as the rest of them.

 

Nothing changed that night, after Tetsujo looked down at the blood under his fingernails and decided that he would follow Dokuga to hell and back if that’s what it took to say I’m here for you. Nothing changed, because Tetsujo has always reserved a special kind of trust for Dokuga alone, and he supposes that it would be stranger if the others hadn’t noticed it by now.

 

Still, Tetsujo doesn’t reply out loud, just busies himself with the grill as Ton pulls back his arm to throw again. 

 

“You should trust yourself, too.” He says in the heartbeat before he lets go, so quickly that Tetsujo wonders if he imagined it in the first place.

 

The knife turns blade-over-handle, and embeds itself into the centre of the target. (Tetsujo isn’t quite sure what to think.)

 

-

 

Tetsujo does a double take as he passes the open bathroom door.

 

Dokuga is in there- trying to give himself a haircut in the broken mirror, if the stray hair in the sink is anything to go by- but it looks more like he’s attempting to cut his throat on the blunt kitchen scissors than anything else. All awkward angles and horrendous blade control for someone who works with knives on a daily basis. Tetsujo is almost unreasonably glad to see him struggling with something normal for once. An easy fix rather than a fight for survival.

 

“Tetsujo,” Dokuga catches sight of him in the bathroom mirror, turning to meet his eye. “Did you need something?”

 

Tetsujo shakes his head, then gestures towards the scissors. “Let me get the back for you.” 

 

Predictably, Dokuga dismisses the suggestion immediately. “I don’t think-”

 

“I’ll be behind you the whole time. Besides-” Tetsujo lets a smile slip into place, just on the edge of teasing. “You’re in more danger of cutting your neck with the scissors than I am of being poisoned.”

 

The jab wins a half-second of unsuppressed irritation from Dokuga, something Tetsujo holds onto like it’s all he has. Then, finally, he hands over the scissors with a dire warning that Tetsujo has heard a thousand times before, but could never keep him away regardless. (Poison is dangerous, but Tetsujo is no stranger to living carefully.)

 

In truth, he has no idea where to start with Dokuga’s hair. He’s always made do with clippers and razors, cropping his hair as short as he possibly can without looking entirely bald. The longer it takes for it to grow back, the more time he has before he needs to cut it again. He doesn’t think Dokuga would thank him for an impromptu buzz-cut, though, regardless of how efficient it might be. Tetsujo frowns at the scissors in his hand.

 

Dokuga’s reflection has started to give him strange looks through the mirror, though, so he takes a plunge off the deep end and crops a chunk off at the back. Hair falls down on the bathroom tiles, and Tetsujo thinks he might just be able to pull this off, against all the odds.

 

There’s something slightly overwhelming about the slide of the scissors and the electric buzz of the bathroom light- something that Tetsujo refuses to let himself dwell on for now. (He’s got a pair of dull-edged blades pressed up against the back of Dokuga’s neck, and all he’s worried about is accidentally poisoning him. Perhaps- like suturing skin at the kitchen table and a can of shitty beer shared in the bathtub- this is a form of trust too.)

 

Dokuga stands so still in front of him that Tetsujo isn’t sure if he’s even breathing, so he finishes up quickly; chopping away the last stray pieces and brushing them gently aside. His eye meets Dokuga’s in the mirror, past the spider-web cracks and the dirt that never comes off no matter how hard they scrub at it. Dokuga opens his mouth like he’s about to say something, when a loud theatrical cough startles Tetsujo into dropping the scissors- narrowly missing his foot and prompting a series of curses under his breath.

 

Peering at them from the hallway, Saji steeples his fingers under his chin; looking distinctly like he’s about to scam Tetsujo out of his few material possessions.

 

“So,” He starts. Tetsujo can feel a headache coming on. “Where do we queue to get a trim next?”

 

-

 

In retrospect, it probably wasn’t the best idea to let Tetsujo of all people cut someone’s hair. (Depth perception hasn’t been his strong suit for a very long time.)

 

Dokuga’s hair looks- for lack of a better word- terrible . More uneven than usual, the back too short compared to the rest, sticking out at strange angles. Tetsujo apologises profusely the moment he sees it outside of the dim bathroom lighting.

 

Running a hand through the too-short strands at the back, Dokuga just shakes his head. “It’ll grow back. Not as if I could’ve done a better job myself.”

 

Then, in the hallway as the rest of the house sleeps, Dokuga offers Tetsujo a rare smile. A real one- dampened down by years of caution- but a smile all the same.

 

And things might still be terrible- they’re barely scraping by, the crosseye organisation acts as if it doesn’t know which way is up with the boss gone, and some days it feels like they’re doing little more than surviving on empty promises that they’re too scared to say out loud.

 

But they’re alive. Just for tonight, Tetsujo doesn't need anything more.

 

-

 

In a rare moment of clarity, Tetsujo supposes it was Risu’s arrival that tipped everything off kilter. Risu- the tall crosseye with a messed-up hairstyle hanging around inside the general store, and Tetsujo- the one who brought him back to the hideaway, always a little too trusting for his own good.

 

It’s fitting, in a way, that he’s the one lying there in more pain than he’s certain he’s ever felt in his life- but he doesn’t have the time to chase that thought into darker places before he blinks and hours have slipped through his hands unnoticed. Telling day from night is difficult, as is keeping his eyes open, as is remembering whether it’s been days or weeks since a curse woke up around their rafters and Tetsujo was stupid enough to attack.

 

He paid for it with torn up muscle and shattered bone. Ton is no better off, and the rest are trying their best to scrape by in any way they can. More than anything, Tetsujo wants to apologise for inviting curses in and swinging his sword before he had the chance to just think - but stringing words together that mean something is out of the question when most days he can’t even sit up for long without losing the contents of his stomach. 

 

He tries, once, a short window of clear-headedness that coincides with Saji crouching by the makeshift bed and trying to coax him into eating something. Tetsujo cracks open his eye, the room spins around his head; and by the time it reaches equilibrium again, an entire day has passed. The nights bleed together, one after the other.

 

There’s always someone in the house, nowadays- normally Natsuki, fussing over wound dressings, helping them both to the table and back, fanning at them uselessly with a stack of old flyers whenever the heat climbs too high to bear. She’s a new addition to their group but she’s always got something to say, perched by Tetsujo’s side as she rambles about everything under the sun; from the underground markets back in Mastema, to the rude customers at her waitressing job, to the weird hairless cat she swears she saw eating out of a bin on the edge of town. Even when it feels like there’s a weight on Tetsujo’s chest crushing his ribs into his lungs into his spine, or when Ton coughs up blood onto the covers and they have to change the sheets inside out again, Natsuki never dulls for a second. 

 

(She’s hopeful, in a way Tetsujo didn’t know people still could be hopeful. He needs to survive long enough to tell her clear-headedly how much he appreciates that.)

 

Some nights, Tetsujo thinks Dokuga might be there. A quiet shadow by the side of the bed that doesn’t move or speak. Possibly Dokuga, possibly just Tetsujo’s own wishful thinking. Sometimes a pair of cold, careful hands wipe the sweat from his forehead or rearrange the moth-eaten sheets like they don’t know how else to help, but they’re gone no sooner than he reaches out to catch them.

 

Time passes on like a drawn out fever dream, and the seconds of clarity that become more sparse by the day are quickly consumed by the thought that he’s going to die here. Tetsujo doesn’t need to look at the wounds on his leg to tell that they’ve gone septic- the smell is indication enough. Something that no amount of bandages or C-grade healing smoke or clinging stubbornly to life will fix. He’s going to die, incoherent and useless from a stupid mistake that put a mirror image of his own sword clean through his leg, and the devils are probably laughing down at him because of it. ( The boss never came back, the house only just became theirs, he never told Dokuga- )

 

Then Natsuki settles down beside him on the floor and launches into a long-winded retelling of her day. Then Saji helps him over to the table so he can sit up for ten minutes and feel like a person again. Then Ushishimada makes a haphazard attempt at changing the dressing on his leg. Then Ton shifts so his elbow bumps against Tetsujo’s own and it’s a reminder that, somehow, he’s still alive too. 

 

He still can’t tell if it’s really Dokuga sitting there, keeping watch long after the rest of the house sleeps, but the thought is comforting enough.

 

One night bleeds into the next, and none of them can afford to die just yet.

 

-

 

Tetsujo doesn’t ask how Dokuga gets the healing smoke that ultimately saves his and Ton’s lives. The sight of him sat out on the front step, washing long-dried blood off his knives- that’s enough of an answer. He settles on the ground beside him, toeing at the concrete with a leg that’s no longer shattered in three places. When Dokuga asks Tetsujo to pass the cloth he left hung over the door handle, the brush of his hand is cold, familiar.

 

(Not just a fever dream after all.)

 

“Thanks,” Tetsujo says into the night, Dokuga’s hands pausing momentarily around the blade he’s cleaning. “Not just for the healing smoke.”

 

There’s stillness for a while; not uncomfortable at all, just nothing more that needs to be said. 

 

It breaks no sooner than it arrives, when Natsuki yells something down the hallway about how they’re letting all the bugs inside, close the door please and thank you . Tetsujo laughs, tells Dokuga not to stay out too late, and follows the liveliness back indoors.

 

-

 

The boss returns in the same way he left: suddenly, with only a phone call to announce that the world is about to change all over again. 

 

First it’s the news; Ton almost flinging the front door off its hinges as he drags them all halfway across Berith to stare at a TV screen announcing En’s death in stereo sound. Then it’s the car, because who else but the boss could even get into En’s estate, never mind see him off in one fell strike, and if the boss is truly back then they don’t have to hide any more. Then it’s- everything else. (The hope in Dokuga’s eyes as he holds out the knives he clung onto through their years in the dark. The rush of walking in the Boss’s footsteps again, ready to send the whole world running scared. Sharpening swords and knives in preparation for something more than empty promises.)

 

The organisation hauls itself up from the dirt like an animal regrowing a missing limb, a missing head- and Tetsujo watches as the scales tip further than they ever have before.

 

-

 

Tetsujo can’t remember the last time he slept without at least three other bodies in close proximity, snoring next to his ear, tossing and turning all night. The bed he takes in En’s mansion might be the most comfortable thing he’s ever experienced, but it’s also unsettlingly still - almost too quiet to sleep.

 

The overhanging knowledge that the boss is gone again- not for good, this time, but no amount of telling himself that will shift the sick pit of worry deep in Tetsujo’s stomach- that doesn’t make sleep come any easier. 

 

And then, deeper still, there’s the sight of Dokuga’s unsteady reflection looking up from pools of black mud, as he reveals that it’s not just the blood of elite magic users that stains the boss’s hands. Risu- Curse- is a crosseye just like them, but that didn’t save him.

 

Come nightfall, it serves as a cold reminder of exactly where they stand.

 

For the En family and the smoke in their veins, huge, looming threats like death and fear are inconsequential- an inconvenience at their worst. If the friends they keep pictures of all over their bedroom walls die, then they’ve got smoke for that, an easy fix. But for people like them- even if they stand in this big empty house with its big empty halls- they’re still just as close to the ground as they’ve ever been.

 

Tetsujo doesn’t dare entertain the thought that, if the boss kills one of them too, then there’s not a thing in the world he could do to stop it.

 

(“But,” Dokuga had said, through a smile that crossed the thin line between hope and desperation. “We need the boss to stay alive.” 

 

And if Dokuga still chooses to trust the boss wherever that may lead him- then all Tetsujo can do is follow .)

 

-

 

Tetsujo can smell burning.

 

He’s doing a final patrol around the mansion’s tangle of corridors before turning in for the night when he catches it- the taste of smoke and ash at the back of his throat. His immediate conclusion is that they’re being attacked; all senses hyperalert as he unsheathes his sword, runs down the corridor, kicks open the door and-

 

Natsuki shrieks, the tray of incinerated food in her hands clattering to the ground.

 

The sad, burned up remains of what was probably once a potato rolls to a halt at Tetsujo’s foot, and it doesn’t take him long to put two and two together. The trail of wreckage across the kitchen, the smoke still billowing out of the oven door, the charred vegetables now scattered all over the tiles.

 

He puts his sword away with an awkward cough. “Were you-” he starts.

 

“In my defence,” Natsuki cuts him off, with a despairing wave of her mushroom-print oven gloves. “ No stove should have that many dials on it.”

 

Panic over, able to breathe right once again, Tetsujo picks up the potato and offers a hum of agreement. With its maze-like corridors, hidden rooms and bizarre decorations, En’s mansion is the very definition of excessive . Across the room, Natsuki cracks open a window to fan some of the smoke away, then turns back to a recipe book laid out on the bench, half-covered in vegetable peel.

 

“So, what’s the occasion?” Tetsujo asks after a while, adding an incinerated carrot to the steadily growing pile of vegetables in his arms. It can’t be anyone’s birthday- he has all of those memorised- and nothing of note has changed recently, so-

 

“This is the first free time we’ve had together in ages,” Natsuki explains, previous embarrassment replaced by a bright, sheepish smile. “I haven’t been pulling my weight all that much compared to you guys, so I thought I could help out by making a meal instead,” she rubs awkwardly at the back of her neck. “It didn’t exactly go to plan.”

 

“Need a hand, then?” Tetsujo offers. He’d almost finished his patrol anyway, and he could do with something simple to occupy himself with; instead of the boss, the curse hanging over him, the blood on all of their hands. Besides, Natsuki is right. It has been ages since they’ve all sat down for a meal together.

 

Over by the stove, Natsuki’s entire face lights up. “I literally owe you my life.”

 

“No pressure then,” Tetsujo laughs, before laying down his sword.

 

Tetsujo likes to think of himself as one of the better cooks in their group- although that’s not saying much. It’s more than a little overwhelming to work with so many ingredients at his disposal, but he does what he can. He shows Natsuki how to safely chop vegetables without the risk of slicing her own fingers off in the process, how to cook rice without it adhering itself to the bottom of the pan, stops her before she can crank up the stove temperature ridiculously high again. (The incinerated vegetables now piled up on the bench suddenly make a lot more sense.)

 

It’s fun. Lighthearted in a way that Tetsujo isn’t even sure people like them are allowed - taking hands that sever necks for the boss’s unnamed goal and using them to stir hotpot instead. Natsuki jabs him in the side with her sharp elbows and he can set anything beyond the kitchen door aside, just for a while.

 

“How d’you know what sort of stuff to put in?” Natsuki asks, craning her neck to watch over Tetsujo’s shoulder as he squints at the label on a pack of what looks like dried mushrooms, then tosses them in the pan anyway.

 

“Guesswork, mostly,” Tetsujo admits. “I know there’s meant to be a whole science behind what flavours pair well together and all- but as long as it’s edible then I don’t think that matters too much.”

 

(It’s not as if the hand life dealt them left much room for things like that.)

 

“Maybe you’ll be able to learn some day,” Natsuki replies, sounding wise beyond her years in the few seconds before she dips a spoon into the pan and scalds her tongue before Tetsujo can tell her no. 

 

Tetsujo lets Natsuki parade the steaming hotpot into the dining area they’ve commandeered for the night, watching her grin to herself as she slams it down in the center of the table- almost hard enough to break the legs out from underneath it. Ton’s eyes practically shine out of his head when he ruffles Natsuki’s hair on her way past, and even Dokuga looks pleased when she crosses the room to fill up his bowl- he might not be able to taste any of it, but sitting down for a meal together has never just been about the food.

 

“This looks great,” Ushishimada says as he fills his bowl, working around the bruised knuckles on his hands left behind from days of violence. “Should’ve made you help out with meal prep more often!”

 

“Actually-” Natsuki starts.

 

Tetsujo kicks her ankle under the table, not hard enough to hurt, just enough to catch her attention. He sends her a look out of the corner of his eye; one he hopes she can tell says you take all the credit. 

 

( Compared to you guys- she had told him earlier, because Tetsujo might be more perceptive than most, but it doesn’t take a genius to notice that Natsuki is worried about not doing enough, about not making a difference. She needs something like this; to let her know that she helps out in her own way, at her own pace.)

 

Later, when everyone is busy eating and talking and the night falls gently for once, Tetsujo leans over to Natsuki and tells her that it can be their secret, just for the two of them.  

 

After all, if they never find out- then what the others don’t know can’t hurt them.

 

-

 

A lifetime ago, Ton called the boss’s arrival fate. Saji called it dumb luck- just the right place at the right time.

 

Now- Tetsujo learns in the worst possible way that it was neither.

 

-

 

They’re the only two left.

 

The first time Tetsujo realises it- feels it slam into his chest and shatter his ribs as he stops for a second just to breathe- it almost sweeps the legs out from beneath him. The only thing stopping him from sinking to his knees in Hole’s filthy side streets is Dokuga; lighter than he should be, barely awake, the only thing Tetsujo has left. He can’t afford to stop, or breathe, or think - or grief will rip into his throat and swallow him whole.

 

All they can do is run. (From the moment the world grew to see them as little more than the dirt beneath its feet, that’s all they’ve ever done. Running, surviving, and-)

 

And now they’re the only two left. They’re the only two left, and even that’s not a guarantee with the state Dokuga is in. Hiding beneath the unsteady pulse of a broken streetlamp, Tetsujo tries to assess his injuries for the first time and quickly, helplessly discovers that he doesn’t even know where to begin. (The missing arm, the missing eye, the torn clothes and- now is no time to stop. )

 

There’s barely any blood, but Tetsujo finds his spine bent close to breaking under the realisation that he almost wishes there was. He knows how to stop a bleed and how to patch up a wound; learned an entire lifetime ago out of necessity, taught by-

 

Open wounds are familiar territory. This- (rotting skin, the world collapsing in from all four sides, the fact that he can’t even think of their names without a sword made of grief and guilt sinking itself hilt-deep through his lungs)- this is something Tetsujo cannot fix.

 

So he does the only thing he can; and he runs.

 

-

 

The first night is the worst; a desperate scramble for medical supplies, clothes, shelter. Nobody spares them a second glance as Tetsujo stumbles through the wreckage of the city searching for anything resembling a hospital. It quickly becomes clear that moving is the only thing he can do to keep himself from falling.

 

It gets harder every time Tetsujo has to leave Dokuga behind, to force his way through crowded rubble-filled streets and hammer on doors because waiting for morning is not an option they have. It’s the fear that weighs heaviest, chipping away at his bones piece by piece- terrified that he will turn away from Dokuga for a heartbeat, and when he looks back he’ll be gone.

 

(“Just hold on,” Tetsujo tells him every time, whether Dokuga can hear him or not. Like if he says it enough times, then someone will listen, will make it true. But there’s no devils in Hole, and even if there were, they wouldn’t spare a thought for scum like them- and so all he’s doing is making useless, empty promises. “Just hold on.”)

 

The only thing that scares Tetsujo more than the thought of Dokuga dying is the idea of not being there if he does. He’s done so many things that are unforgivable, the guilt threatens to crush him alive if he stops moving for more than a second- but if he lets Dokuga die alone then Tetsujo doesn’t think he could survive under the weight of it. 

 

“Just hold on,” Tetsujo tells him again and again and again. “Please, just hold on.”

 

-

 

Tetsujo drops his plastic bag of bandages into the dirt at his feet when he returns to find Dokuga awake. 

 

In the five minutes Tetsujo has been gone- pleading at the closed doors of a ruined hospital for anything resembling medical supplies- Dokuga has hauled himself into something a fraction more upright than a lifeless sprawl, supporting his weight against the brickwork behind him. He looks up, glassy-eyed (awake, breathing, living )- and that’s all Tetsujo needs to start running.

 

He falls to his knees beside him, the bandages feeling suddenly like an afterthought as he braces a hand against Dokuga’s shoulder to make sure he doesn’t slip back down into the dirt. 

 

“Dokuga,” Tetsujo breathes, voice shaky with relief. “Sorry, I wasn’t there when you woke up. I got bandages though; couldn’t find us anything better, but it’ll-”

 

He cuts himself off before he can ramble further. Level-headedness is what he needs- what Dokuga needs- not trembling hands and a heart that pounds in the back of his throat. He reaches into the bag to pull out bandages and a half-empty bottle of antiseptic, barely able to read the label even with the street lamps flickering overhead and the dull glow of apartment windows three storeys above. 

 

“I’m sorry,” it’s a long while before Dokuga finally speaks, voice rough at the edges as Tetsujo wraps bandages around the places where flesh and limbs should exist. The back of his head is pressed against the wall and he’s staring into the concrete opposite- through it- like he’s trying to speak to people who can’t answer any more. “This is all-”

 

“Don’t-” Grip tightening around the roll of bandages Tetsujo doesn’t let Dokuga continue. The only time he hasn’t wanted to cling to every word Dokuga shares with him- because this is all my fault sounds too much like giving up and Tetsujo wants him to live. Wants it more than anything, the only thing keeping him upright and moving. “Don’t think about that. Just hold on, you can’t-”

 

You can’t die. You can’t die. Please don’t die.

 

Maybe neither of them deserve to live. The boss- the thing he turned out to be- may have dealt the final blow, but Dokuga was the one who saw hope where nothing but rot remained, and Tetsujo was the one who followed just as close behind. The world ends with rotten flesh and sightless eyes and maybe they all brought this upon themselves; just another byproduct of hopelessly clinging to a world that’s never wanted them to survive. 

 

But Dokuga stares through the concrete wall towards the retreating backs of friends they’ll never be able to save, and Tetsujo cannot blame him. (He doesn’t think he could, even if he wanted to try.)

 

Maybe neither of them deserve to live, but the world has been telling them that since they were old enough to understand what useless smoke is worth. 

 

“You didn’t plan for things to happen like this. Nobody could have known that it would-” Tetsujo forces his hands to stop shaking. “That this is how it would turn out.”

 

If Dokuga wants to shoulder the blame, if the world turns to them and tells them that they don’t deserve to survive; then all Tetsujo can do is make sure Dokuga doesn’t carry that weight alone. (If trusting someone no matter the cost is unforgivable- then they’re both as guilty as each other.)

 

The silence that swallows the alleyway is suffocating, but Tetsujo can’t think of a single word that’s large enough to fill it with. Brickwork protrudes like bones into his spine as he ties off Dokuga’s bandages and props himself up against the wall beside him. Overhead, the streetlamp stutters one final electric breath, then dies- plunging everything into darkness.

 

(Tetsujo is back in the lake again, falling, grasping, fingertips slipping past everything he failed to save and-)

 

“What do we do now?” Dokuga echoes.

 

It drags Tetsujo back to the ruined alleyway, so jarringly that he almost forgets how to breathe.

 

“We survive until morning.” Tetsujo replies. It feels more like a plea than an answer. ( Hold on and please don’t die and this is all we have left. )

 

(And after that- he doesn’t know what more they can do.) 

 

-

 

Dokuga is by no means weak- more stubborn than the rest of them put together- but it takes a whole eight days before he can sway to his feet, even with Tetsujo’s shoulder and a wall to lean on. He grits his teeth, sinks his fingernails into Tetsujo’s arm to keep himself steady, almost stumbles on his first unbalanced step. Tetsujo refuses to let him fall.

 

We only have each other is the desperate thought that keeps Tetsujo moving during the day.

 

Despite the feelings of superiority that most sorcerers seemed to hold over humans, Hole isn’t all that different to what lies on the other side of smoke-made doors. It’s just as dirty, just as crowded; but in many ways it’s kinder to them than the magic users’ world has ever been. People turn a blind eye to the sight of them huddled under store-fronts, so long as they’re gone by opening time. Tetsujo can’t find a hospital willing to look at Dokuga’s injuries that isn’t in ruins, but most places will toss him some medical supplies if he asks persistently enough. A vendor at the market catches him sizing up whether he can grab a moth-eaten blanket on the edge and run, then tells him offhand that nobody is going to miss the ugly thing, anyway.

 

Perhaps it's because none of them understand what cross-marked eyes and useless magic means. Perhaps it’s just pity. Either way, it keeps Tetsujo moving, and it keeps him and Dokuga alive.

 

Come nightfall, it’s not the uncomfortable locations that make sleep hard to come by.

 

They’ve both slept in worse places than the awning of shopfronts and dingy passageways under low-lying bridges. Hole is cold once it gets dark and the mildew creeping down the walls of most sidestreets makes for damp, uncomfortable nights- but any shelter is welcome when the alternative is freezing to death. In the absence of direction, a lead to follow, they resort to what they know best: surviving, no matter what. 

 

The dull edge of hunger is not an unfamiliar feeling, neither is the cold, or the dark, or the damp.

 

It’s the silence that makes the nights unbearable.

 

Night falls, broken streetlamps are commonplace, and Tetsujo keeps expecting to hear snores, loud breathing, sounds that he’s spent most of his life learning as well as the pattern of his own heartbeat. Busy hands are enough to keep him steady during daylight, but nightfall has nothing to offer aside from dreadful, hopeless quiet .

 

It’s there, in the uncertain gap between sundown and daybreak, that the guilt tries to eat Tetsujo alive.

 

-

 

“It bothers you.” Dokuga says one night, pushing an old bottle cap around in the dirt like an afterthought as Tetsujo helps him change the bandage around what remains of his eye. Tetsujo’s hands falter, only for a second.

 

“What do you mean?” 

 

“You avoid looking at this side,” there’s an uncomfortable weight at the back of Dokuga’s voice, one that tells Tetsujo he’s just grasping at loose ends to fill the silence that sinks into the alleyway like a curse. “I can deal with the wound dressings myself, if you-”

 

“It’s not that.” Tetsujo sits back on his knees, swallowing past the places where guilt tries to block up his throat, airway, lungs. “Dokuga, when I first saw what had happened to you, I thought-” he pauses, because even the memory of it is almost enough to swallow him; a muddy pit of ice-cold dread that cracked open when he saw Dokuga hanging there, and never quite closed again. Lodged next to his heart, just another thing for flesh and bone to reshape themselves around. “I thought I’d lost you too. It still scares me every time I look at it, that one day I might wake up and-”

 

Tetsujo shakes his head, before that thought can spiral into something all-consuming. 

 

“I’m just not used to it, yet,” he says with finality. It sounds like the bathroom mirror in the old hideout, shoulder to shoulder as Dokuga’s reflection met his eye and saw new scar tissue, new tattoos, new hope that would later become an impossible storm breaching the horizon. Adaptability is a necessity for survival, but this is one thing Tetsujo doesn’t want to grow accustomed to. “I wish you didn’t have to get used to it, but-”

 

He wants Dokuga to be healthy, just as he wants loud snoring to keep him up at night, food to split between too many mouths, scar tissue that has long-since healed.

 

All they’re left with is open wounds. Wishing has never helped anyone before, and as much as he’s never been any good at knowing his limits , Tetsujo is well aware that he can only accommodate so many foreign, painful objects. 

 

He doesn’t have enough room left to grow painfully accustomed to avoiding Dokuga’s face every time he speaks to him, so he raises his head and looks him in the eye. Fully, without avoiding the bandages or the creeping damage that their edges can’t quite cover. Dokuga’s clearly exhausted, weighed down by guilt and grief- but Tetsujo knows he probably doesn’t look much better himself. 

 

So he folds the spare bandages back into his bag and props himself up against the wall alongside him. His undamaged left to Dokuga’s undamaged right, so all it takes is one glance to the side to see that they’re not quite alone, not just yet. “Let’s get some sleep.”

 

(There’s nothing they can do to put back together what’s already been broken beyond repair. All that’s left is to remedy the few things they can.)

 

-

 

Tetsujo takes the job of keeping inventory. 

 

He gets his hands on a thin-paged notebook, and his meticulous records of what they’re using and what they need fall apart within a week because maths has never been Tetsujo’s strong point. Saji was always the one who kept their budgets in line; because numbers came easily to him and he understood the difference between saving money and saving money effectively- his words, not Tetsujo’s. (He can think of their names now without drowning in the process. It still hurts, almost too much to breathe past- but survive any wound long enough, and the pain will become liveable.)

 

By the light of an illuminated shop sign that blinks on and off like a sleepy eye, Tetsujo pens down how much antiseptic they have left, counts the packs of dirt-cheap energy snacks they managed to get with some money tossed at them on the street, makes a note that they’re running out of bandages again. He counts the small change they’ve got left over. Then counts it again, because he’s certain he messed something up, then Dokuga shifts against the metal shutter like he wants to say something.

 

“I overheard someone talking earlier,” he starts. “About the guy with the lizard head.”

 

One of the tiny coins escapes from between Tetsujo’s fingers. The lizard-headed guy. The one who-

 

“That’s-” when Tetsujo speaks, it’s little more than a knee-jerk reaction; anything to fill the dreadful quiet that settles over Hole’s empty sidestreets. A muddy sort of silence, one that sets in with the intent to suffocate.

 

“He was Aikawa,” Dokuga’s always been able to breathe easier under pressure than Tetsujo has. “And Aikawa was the boss, somehow.”

 

For what feels like the first time in his life, Tetsujo doesn’t lift his eye to meet Dokuga’s own. The statement rings in the air like a gunshot and Tetsujo isn’t sure what he’s so afraid to find looking back at him. That same spark of disastrous hope, perhaps. (The knowledge that, if Dokuga asked him to, Tetsujo would do anything. Regardless of what the boss did, regardless of how much they’ve lost because of the trust they put in him; if Dokuga wanted to chase after him once more, then Tetsujo would ask nothing more than when and how. )

 

“He didn’t care about any of us,” Tetsujo says eventually, leaving the contents of the bag spilled out on the ground in front of him as he settles back against the shutter. It’s the first time he’s said it out loud and he doesn’t want to know the sort of expression he must be wearing, an open wound as he stares down at his fingertips. “He didn’t care about anything aside from his own goal. I think-” knees to his chest, back to the wall; Tetsujo doesn’t know how to put words to the knowledge that’s followed him long before they found themselves in Hole’s dimly lit streets. “I think we all just wanted to find meaning where there wasn’t anything at all.”

 

Dokuga is still for a painfully long time. Then, finally; “I don’t want him back.”

 

When Tetsujo finally turns to look at him, Dokuga doesn’t need words to say; not now. Not after everything. His shoulders and spine bend under the weight of it. 

 

“All of the hope he gave us,” Dokuga continues, in some terrible mix of betrayal and anger and all-consuming grief. “All of the ways he taught us to fight back, the cause we had because of him- none of it was real. He took everything and I hate that I still miss the way following him felt.”

 

It’s an awful confession; broken at the edges, painful like he’s just ripped out a vital organ and held it for Tetsujo to examine. You should hate me, now- every part of Dokuga’s face that isn’t hidden by bandages says- and in a way, Tetsujo understands.

 

“I never trusted him like you did,” he starts, trying to look past the way Dokuga flinches imperceptibly. “But walking behind the boss made me feel powerful. Like I belonged to something bigger than myself. He- turned out to be a monster. Was always one- probably. But the way we all managed to do something other than barely surviving because of him- that was all real.”

 

Dokuga lets out a bitter laugh; a quiet, terrible thing that's barely a laugh at all. Tetsujo is almost glad when the shop sign overhead blinks off again, and he can’t see Dokuga’s face when he continues. “That’s not the same. I always knew that the boss would kill anyone if it meant he could get what he wanted, but I still-”

 

Still loved him- goes unsaid. Written all over the painful expression that Tetsujo sees like an oncoming storm the moment the light returns. Rainfall in this world is real and dangerous and for all the years Tetsujo’s spent waiting five steps behind to catch Dokuga if he falls- he doesn’t know how to tell him that it’ll be okay. Not without it sounding like a lie, because he doesn’t know if okay is something they can reach with outstretched hands ever again.

 

“When he killed Risu, I didn’t say anything. When he killed Natsuki I didn’t say anything either. I knew from the start that something like this could happen, but I-” The sign blinks out again, and Dokuga’s voice gets carried away with it.

 

Dokuga has always been the most composed out of all of them. Where Tetsujo attacked before thinking whenever his home was threatened, where Ushishimada was quick to anger and quick to forgive- Dokuga has always been calm. Through necessity, because the knowledge that laughter, anger, calling a greeting across a crowded room could kill someone standing nearby is a terrible burden to live with. Tetsujo had always hoped Dokuga would one day learn that living carefully isn’t such a hardship when the weight is carried by more than one pair of hands- but he never wanted it to happen like this . A dark sidestreet in a corner of Hole that they’ve yet to learn by heart, their bag disemboweled on the ground in front of them, contents practically asking to get stolen. Dokuga, seconds away from drowning under mud-black guilt, and Tetsujo- for all the years he’s spent waiting with arms outstretched- still completely unaware of how to help him shoulder it.

 

“I knew, when you told me about Risu- but I never did anything to stop him either,” It’s a futile attempt, but Tetsujo would be long dead by now if he gave up every time something seemed impossible. “I think we all knew, when the boss had us killing off any magic user we could get our hands on without explaining why. But we all still followed him.”

 

Dokuga folds himself further into the shutter, like he plans to break himself against it. “I told you not to say a word about it. It was my idea to lead the boss to Hole, and to-”

 

Dokuga ,” Tetsujo’s hands curl into angry, hopeless fists at his side. “You might’ve made the wrong decision, but you didn’t kill them.”

 

His voice echoes too-loud off the shop wall. Dokuga sits, stunned momentarily into silence.

 

When the light plunges them into darkness once more, it allows Tetsujo to finally dredge up some of the feelings he’d planned with bloodstained nails to live and die alongside.

 

“That night- before we got thrown into Hole- it was my choice to jump in front of those scissors for you, so I never regretted it. It was my choice to follow you when you asked me to believe in the boss one more time, and so I don’t regret it, either,” Choices are not something people like them can often afford. Tetsujo doesn’t have room to hate the ones he’s made- not when betraying the boss meant betraying Dokuga in the process. “Maybe things could have turned out differently. Maybe we both made a mistake. But I could never regret trusting you.”

 

Silence falls again- not quite as heavy as listening to Dokuga tear himself apart for mistakes that both of them carry the blame for, but it’s still a close thing.

 

Then, quietly, Dokuga replies; “I don’t think I’ll ever be able to forgive myself.”

 

(Regret and guilt are two very different things. Even if one leaves, the other rarely follows with it.) 

 

“Me neither,” Tetsujo lifts his head, looking to the side where Dokuga sits obscured by the dark. “But- I think they would. We don’t have to forgive ourselves to survive.”

 

Even if the guilt follows them like a curse for the rest of their lives- they can’t die now.

 

Dokuga doesn’t thank him out loud. But, when the lights come back on; his expression says everything that Tetsujo needs to hear.

 

-

 

It’s hardest when it rains.

 

Like a reminder that Hole wants even useless sorcerers like them dead, the muddy water drives them under cover, folding limbs into uncomfortable angles just to keep themselves safe and dry. They huddle under a ledge jutting from a block of apartments- relying on the flying carpet thrown over their heads to keep the rain from seeping into their bones. (It’s threadbare, full of holes- but better than nothing is the best they have.)

 

All Tetsujo can do is squeeze his eye shut against the ache that creeps from the top of his skull to the base of his spine, and will the storm to pass.

 

The rain beats a tandem into the rooftops; a dark, constant pulse, the heartbeat of the city itself. Heavy clouds shaped by smoke and anger only make the night darker. (The headache is not the only reason Tetsujo keeps his eye firmly shut; if he opens them to the thrum of a heartbeat and sludge-black water, then he’ll be back in the lake again. Always falling, always grasping hopelessly at things just beyond his reach, always-)

 

Dokuga shifts at Tetsujo’s side, momentarily leaning close while he repositions himself and- something isn’t right. 

 

One of the worst things about the rain is the cold. A bitter chill that works its way in and settles deep into bone and muscle like creeping mould. Just another side effect conjured up by a lake made from countless lifetimes of hatred. But, beside Tetsujo, Dokuga is warm. Too warm for someone frequently accused of ice-cold hands, for someone who’s been sitting curled up against rain-damp concrete for the better part of three hours.

 

Ever since someone- a magic victim with open blisters creeping up their left arm- stopped on the street to show Dokuga a way to wrap bandages one-handed, he hasn’t let Tetsujo look at his injuries. A sense of dread steals its way in and makes itself at home alongside the water pooling sludge-like on the ground by Tetsujo’s feet. Getting fresh bandages is manageable, but if an infection sets in now, then-

 

Tetsujo cuts that thought off, before it can grow deeper roots. 

 

“We can sell the carpet, if we need to. You know-” he says out loud, like a reminder. “You don’t have to sit there and bear it, if it’s bad.” 

 

Rely on me, for once- adds that desperate voice, the one that Tetsujo keeps under lock and key because it’s never been about that, about receiving anything in return. ( You should trust yourself too- Ton told him a lifetime ago, and Tetsujo still doesn’t know what he meant by that.)

 

“Dokuga-” Tetsujo tries again, when he only receives silence as an answer.

 

Shifting his feet to avoid the puddle of water slowly creeping under the carpet, Dokuga doesn’t look at him. “We’ll only do that as a last resort.”

 

As much as patience is a lesson that they all learned young, it’s not something they can afford, now. If holding out for a last resort means losing the only person he has left, then Tetsujo doesn’t want to wait.

 

“I just don’t want to lose anything else.” He admits, defeated.

 

Outside their fragile shelter, the rain keeps falling.

 

-

 

Change rarely happens overnight. But, after a bottle of healing smoke is thrown at their feet by someone who doesn’t move or talk like the boss at all- it’s an uphill climb.

 

( That’s the good thing about rock bottom- Natsuki had told them once, cross-legged at the table, still in her waitress uniform. You can only go up. Ushishimada had messed up her hair and accused her of sounding like a walking self-help book- but her awkward, hopeful smile is something Tetsujo still clings on to. It’s better than thinking about other things; black mud and sightless eyes.)

 

Life catches up to them in quick succession; with Dokuga back on his feet, they both set about applying to as many jobs as they can. Working all times of the day and sleeping for a scarce few hours each night- until they’ve got enough for the deposit on a tiny apartment in the cheapest area they could find. The top floor of a run-down block, with flickering lights and a broken elevator that Tetsujo gets stuck in for an hour on the day they move in. 

 

It’s not home- home will always be a house on the outskirts of Berith, too small for six people, with a kitchen table that tipped when anyone leaned on it wrong and not enough windows to let the heat out in summer. The apartment isn’t home, but they buy a blanket that Dokuga piles into the tiny bathtub, Tetsujo finds a sword that’s not quite as sharp as his old one in a pawn shop window that he keeps propped by the doorway and- it’s somewhere to live. Somewhere Tetsujo could get used to.

 

There’s something that’s still painfully familiar about slipping into the bathroom come nightfall and sitting on the edge of the tub while Dokuga stares up at the cracks in the ceiling. The people living downstairs argue late into the night and it’s no substitute for the comfortable chatter they once lived alongside- but it’s not silent any more. When Dokuga looks up at Tetsujo and tells him wordlessly that he’s grateful- grateful that he’s still there, that they’re not alone just yet- it’s with both eyes. When he reaches to pull himself out of the bathtub and clean the dishes left after dinner- it’s with both hands. 

 

(“You’ve always been there,” Dokuga says when Tetsujo follows him out, already testing the water temperature with the back of his hand. I don’t know why- goes unspoken.

 

Tetsujo bumps his elbow against Dokuga’s own, nudging him to the side so he can get at the plates to dry them. Where else would I be? He lets it say in return.)

 

With a roof over their heads, it’s easier to focus on finding a more stable job, rather than just scraping by on part time vacancies and one-off roles. Dokuga finds himself a job in a warehouse shifting furniture and appliances- one that starts early, finishes late, and leaves him looking exhausted in ways that can’t be helped by curling up in a too-small bathtub to sleep every night. (Asking Dokuga to swap- even just for a few nights a week- is nothing more than a wasted effort.)

 

Tetsujo signs up for the repurposed initiative to clean up Hole’s streets, shifting wreckage left by the monster that rose from the lake that day, so many months ago. It feels almost wrong- in a way that’s beyond words, a bone-deep sort of feeling- to make a living cleaning up the messes that, in a way, he helped create. But the pay isn’t terrible and the hours line up well with Dokuga’s own, and it’s not as if he’s ever had the luxury of being particular about things. If nothing else, the job keeps him busy. Some days clearing debris off the streets, some days helping with repairs to damaged buildings, some days running supplies to and from the construction sites popping up all across the city to replace the old department store. (He avoids sites around the lake of refuse, not yet ready to face the ghosts that place will always hold.)

 

Cleaning up bodies comes hand in hand as part of the job. Even without Magic user doors spilling smoke into the streets, Hole is still far from a safe place to live, and magic or not, humans and sorcerers alike are equally capable of ruin. Bodies left rotting away down sidestreets will just hinder the rejuvenation process; claims the creased pamphlet in Tetsujo’s hands.

 

On his third day of the job, he stumbles across a corpse with its head severed from its body in three ragged cuts, and the sight alone is enough to stir nausea deep in Tetsujuo’s gut. Very quickly, he finds that he can’t even bring himself to look; forehead pressed against the grimy concrete wall, trying to keep a hold of his lunch because he can’t see severed heads without thinking of them- empty-eyed, slipping out of reach, all-

 

A palm lands heavily between Tetsujo’s shoulder blades; telling him to get a move on. That this job isn’t for him if he can’t handle a bit of gore.

 

Tetsujo has waded past enough dead bodies to last a lifetime- but work is work. 

 

(If Dokuga can tell that something is wrong when he finally returns late that night- then he seems to realise just as fast that talking about it is the last thing that Tetsujo needs.)

 

-

 

Old habits are hard to break.

 

Tetsujo still keeps his new sword within arms reach, Dokuga still insists on sleeping in the bath so as not to risk anything aside from a bad back, they both make an effort to eat dinner together every night regardless of how late they finish work. (The table is too quiet and Tetsujo hates that Dokuga can’t even taste the food that he’s eating- but it’d feel like turning their backs on their friends if they started to treat eating together as something less than important.)

 

Smaller habits stick too. A strip of fabric gets torn off the bottom of Dokuga’s trouser leg at work, and he still insists on wearing them despite one side now barely covering his ankle. There’s a horrendous crack in the kitchen wall that needs filling, but Tetsujo just covers it with tape and hopes for the best. When their schedules align just right, they spend an hour after work scouring the few vending machines nearby for spare change, anything to add to their savings.

 

Tetsujo sticks his hand into the tray of a vending machine round the back of the market, resurfaces with a 5 yen coin, and feels his voice die in the back of his throat.

 

It feels wrong to shout his find up to where Dokuga stands guard, when they’ve got nobody else to share their spoils with. No jokes or cheerful comments or quips about how small change won’t cover their rent. Grief might not swallow Tetsujo alive every second of the day any more, but he’s not sure how much of that is just long days keeping his hands busy and his mind elsewhere. Here, in the quiet moments night brings, that wound hasn’t healed at all.

 

Still crouched by the vending machine, leaning on his sword to keep himself upright, Tetsujo lets the coin sit loosely in his palm.

 

“Tetsujo?” Dokuga picks up on the way the silence stretches too far between them. In the distance, voices can still be heard from the market- yelling and bartering long after night has fallen.

 

Tetsujo leans into his sword a little harder, and hates how small the words feel when he opens his eye and tells Dokuga that he misses everyone. It’s not the sort of feeling that can be summed up in neat, tidy words; but not trying has never done much to help them before.

 

“I-” Dokuga starts, then pauses like he’s struggling to find the right thing to say. “Me too.” 

 

White noise from the vending machine and market chatter does little to dampen the silence when all around them there’s not a single person in sight. Tetsujo watches as Dokuga lowers himself to perch against the metal frame of an old bench, only one wooden plank left hanging in place. Quietly, Tetsujo slips the coin into his pocket and joins him.

 

“It’s not right,” Dokuga doesn’t turn to face him, an uncomfortable edge to his voice. “That they were the ones who didn’t survive.”

 

Tetsujo knows he should bury that thought six feet under before either of them can let it spiral further- but he can’t. Not when he thinks the exact thing, every time the night grows dark and everything is too still to stop his thoughts from settling. 

 

Tetsujo would tell Dokuga a thousand times over that he could never blame him even if he brought the world down around them- but he can’t run from how unfair it feels that they’re the only ones left. Ton, Ushishimada and Saji might have followed the boss just as closely, but they never knew the whole truth until it was seconds past too late. Natsuki was just a kid. (Nothing is fair- Tetsujo accepted this as sure truth before he even learned how to patch up a wound or double-knot his shoelaces- but that’s never made it hurt any less.)

 

“They wouldn’t hate you, for surviving.” Dokuga says, then. “But-”

 

Tetsujo shakes his head, because he doesn’t need magic to know what Dokuga is going to say. “They wouldn’t hate you , either. You never meant for something like this to happen- all you did was believe in someone you-” he stops himself, because now is not the time to dredge those feelings to the surface. “Someone you wanted to trust. None of us knew that this was where we’d end up.”

 

For a long while Dokuga stares down at the battered toes of his shoes, not lifting his head to meet Tetsujo’s eye. (Tetsujo doesn’t know if he wants him to- wondering if it’s obvious that a huge, unshakeable sense of guilt clings to every reassuring word he speaks, all things that he can’t quite believe. Just because everyone would forgive them- would probably get mad at them for assuming otherwise- that doesn’t mean Tetsujo is ready to forgive himself.)

 

He knows that there’s blood on his hands, long-lasting stains that won’t ever wash out from beneath his fingernails. Before the lake of refuse- killing magic users that spat on them and drenched them in smoke is not something Tetsujo has ever been consumed by guilt over. But  the weeks before the world ended were nothing more than a trail of senseless violence, and thinking about it still keeps him up at night more often than not. 

 

Dokuga might have been at the heart of everything, standing at the boss’s right hand side- but Tetsujo is far from blameless. 

 

“I made all the wrong decisions,” Bitterly, Dokuga exchanges watching where his shoelaces trail on the concrete for staring straight into Tetsujo. “You always questioned what the boss was doing, but when I asked you to keep following him-”

 

“You wouldn’tve stopped me, if I’d actually chosen to leave,” Tetsujo says with confidence, because he’s known Dokuga almost as long as he can remember. Some forms of trust can only be learned through experience. “Dokuga, I chose to believe in the boss one more time because I trust you, not because you told me to do it.”

 

Who they believe in is the one thing they’ve always been able to choose. And, for Tetsujo, the decision has always been obvious. Backlit by the glow of the vending machine, Dokuga stares at him like someone’s just turned the lights on for the first time. (Tetsujo doesn’t know where to look- whether he should turn away because Dokuga’s thoughts are not something he should pry into, or whether he should meet him eye to eye, every step of the way. He settles for staring over his shoulder down the deserted street instead, the silhouette of the apartment blocks and industrial complexes only just darker than the night around them.)

 

Barely a second passes before Dokuga blinks, and that odd look is gone again- just as suddenly as it arrived. “I never thanked you properly for that, did I?”

 

“For trusting you?” Tetsujo asks, bemused. 

 

Dokuga nods. “You always do. Even if I haven’t exactly done anything to prove that it’s the right choice.” Underneath: even if I don’t deserve it. (Sometimes Tetsujo wants to grab Dokuga by the shoulders and shake him until he just opens his eyes and looks- so he’ll finally understand that missing their friends to the marrow of his bones does not mean that Tetsujo holds him responsible. Hardly a secret he plays close to his chest. It’s nighttime and so the lights are on- all Dokuga has to do is turn around and see .)

 

“Dokuga,” Tetsujo tells him, instead. “If you blame yourself for choosing who to follow- then I’m just as guilty as you are.”

 

They both chose, for better or for worse. Tetsujo chose to put his faith in things he’s never understood because he’s always trusted Dokuga more than he ever trusted the boss. Neither of them knew how it would turn out, both of them have to struggle and suffer and survive through the consequences. This guilt will follow them for the rest of their lives- all that’s left is for them to learn how to live with it.

 

“It’s-” Dokuga tugs at a thread pulled from the lopped-off edge of his trouser leg. “Hard to believe it when you say that this isn’t my fault. But-” Slowly, he lifts his head, and offers something that isn’t a smile yet, but it’s the closest thing to one that Tetsujo has seen in what feels like a lifetime. “Thank you.”

 

The loss of their friends still hurts like a missing limb; a weight Tetsujo never thought he’d have to live without. There’s not enough room left in his chest alongside the guilt and the grief, but Tetsujo still clings onto that strange little half-smile Dokuga offers him through the dark; carves it a place, nestles it deep. 

 

Tetsujo offers a smile of his own in return, and the 5 yen coin in his pocket feels just a little bit lighter. 

 

(When Tetsujo finally attempts to rise to his feet again because the cold has started to seep in and they’ve been sitting there far too long, his knees crack something awful. The way he curses out loud doesn’t do anything to lessen the weight of the choices they’ve made, but- it clears just enough room for his lungs to expand.

 

Because Hole isn’t a second chance. Neither of them deserve that. 

 

Instead; it’s an opportunity for them to keep on living.)

 

-

 

Tetsujo wakes up to the feeling of water landing in his hair.

 

The headache that follows crashes in on a three second delay- wiping out any remaining hopes that it’s just leaky pipes or a very realistic dream. It’s raining- inside , no less- and Tetsujo has had furniture thrown at him that hurt less. With a half-incoherent thought that, really, the mould creeping across the ceiling should have served as a warning- Tetsujo rolls himself out of bed and directly onto the floor. 

 

Without the rain dripping straight onto him, Tetsujo’s head clears just enough for him to tell that the bedcovers are soaked through; as is his hair, as are his clothes. The whole room smells of damp as the rain pulses against the window like a distant, angry heartbeat. Tetsujo untangles himself from the wet bedsheets, and lasts less than five minutes on the cold floor before the rainwater in his hair becomes unbearable again.

 

Quietly, miserably, he slips into the bathroom. Waking at the first sign of movement is a habit that neither of them will ever shift, so Dokuga is already sat upright in the bathtub by the time Tetsujo manages to grab weakly at the towel hanging on the wall. 

 

“Ceiling’s leaking,” Stringing coherent words together is no easy task. Tetsujo all but collapses onto the closed toilet lid; scrubbing at his hair to get as much water out as he can and leaving black, muddy stains all over the bath towel. Another thing they’ll have to wash come morning, alongside the bedsheets and Tetsujo’s clothes that suffered the worst of the water damage. “Right over the bed.”

 

Dokuga curses to himself and runs a hand through his sleep-messy hair like he’s trying to squash the headache out; achieving nothing aside from making his hair stick up even worse than it already was. If a full-body chill wasn’t trying to burrow its way into his bones, Tetsujo would almost find the sight amusing.

 

Then, Dokuga suppresses a shiver, and starts climbing out of the tub. “You can use the bath for tonight.”

 

With the towel still draped over his head, Tetsujo gets one foot in the bath before stopping in his tracks. “Where are you gonna sleep?”

 

It’s impossible to tell whether Dokuga’s grim expression is from the rain-induced headache, or from the inconvenience of the whole situation. “One night on the floor won’t kill me.”

 

“Dokuga, you’re not sleeping on the floor.” Spending every night in a too-small bathtub is one thing- Tetsujo fully understands why Dokuga lives the way he does- but sometimes a line has to be drawn across the bathroom tiles. “The rain is shitty enough as it is.”

 

Dokuga’s mouth sets itself into a firm, stubborn line. Not taking no for an answer. “It’s fine.”

 

“No,” Tetsujo presses the heel of his palm into his eye, a futile attempt to collect his thoughts enough to argue back. Outside, the rain only falls heavier. “No, it’s not.”

 

“It’s only a few hours until morning anyway,” Dokuga settles himself down on the cold bathroom floor. 

 

“Dokuga, you’re not-”

 

“We can come up with a better idea once the rain stops, but-”

 

“Dokuga, stop!” Tetsujo’s voice rings out too-loud over the rainfall, and he winces at the sound of it. It doesn’t do his headache any favours. “We’ve shared smaller spaces before, just- come here.”

 

Predictably, Dokuga shakes his head. “Not worth the risk.”

 

“Hurting yourself by sleeping on the floor isn’t worth the risk either,” the statement comes out more terse than Tetsujo plans it to. “You always do so much to keep people safe- a bit of trust is the least I can offer in return.”

 

When Dokuga stares down at the tiles, thinking too hard for a rainy night, it feels a little bit like progress. “You sure you’re fine-”

 

“The only reason I wouldn’t be fine is if you think you’re gonna sleep badly ‘cause you’re too busy worrying about drooling on me in your sleep or something.” Through the dark, Tetsujo can just about catch the way Dokuga’s nose wrinkles up at that. But, at the very least, it gets him off the bathroom floor. Tetsujo doesn’t stop to question how much of Dokuga’s compliance is the result of mud-stained rainfall and exhaustion, and instead just shifts to make some room.

 

Really, the bathtub is too small for one person, nevermind two, but they’ve slept in worse places before. At the very least, it’s dry.

 

“Just-” Dokuga’s voice comes muffled against the wall of the tub, somewhere from around Tetsujo’s side. “Wake me up if I move around too much.”

 

It’s cramped, the blanket covering the bottom of the bathtub is hardly big enough for two, and the downpour outside is just another reminder that there’s not a single place on either side of smoke-built doors that they belong in. Tetsujo just tells Dokuga to go to sleep, already- and closes his eye.

 

(He wakes before the sun to find that the rain has cleared, and that Dokuga’s knee is sticking right into the base of his spine. It’s ridiculously uncomfortable- and Tetsujo doesn’t think he ever wants to move.)

 

-

 

The following night, Tetsujo catches Dokuga with a toothbrush hanging out of his mouth, on his way to turn in for the night. 

 

He pats the bed beside him, covers just about dried, frame shifted elsewhere in the room, the ceiling haphazardly patched up to the best of their abilities. “You don’t have to go back to the bathtub, y’know.”

 

Tetsujo thinks he could grow painfully accustomed to the idea of waking up with Dokuga’s elbows sticking him in the side. Far from the biggest risk he’s ever taken; neither of them are very good at being careless, there’s a wall to one side of the mattress that Dokuga can press himself up against if he feels like he’s taking too much of a chance, and it’s not as if either of them are a stranger to nightmares about empty eyes and dark water. (Both of them are light sleepers- if Tetsujo wakes up to the phantom sensation of falling, then it’s going to disturb Dokuga regardless of where he sleeps. Neither of them talk about what follows them by night, but company doesn’t always have to be loud.)

 

He shifts again to make some more room; another open invitation.

 

Dokuga doesn’t reply- retreating back into the bathroom. He spends so long in there that Tetsujo is starting to wonder if he should drop the subject completely- when Dokuga finally resurfaces and slips wordlessly under the covers beside him.

 

“Night,” Tetsujo calls as he reaches to turn out the lights, ignoring the way his heart beats a little louder.

 

“Night.” Dokuga’s reply comes from right behind Tetsujo, instead of muffled through a layer of drywall and bathroom door. 

 

(Before he sleeps, Tetsujo thinks that this is another thing he could get used to.)

 

-

 

Searching for a new job is- well - mostly how Tetsujo expected to be spending the night.

 

The streets are still damp from the rainfall that morning, and Tetsujo plays an awkward game of weaving between puddles as he scours shop windows for hiring signs, searches every noticeboard for flyers. It’s not like losing his job was an unexpected thing- he’s been cautioned more than once about skipping shifts on rainy days, and it’s not as if he’s much use when he does manage to haul himself to work under a battered umbrella. It doesn’t rain often so playing it off as an occasional sickness has been simple so far, but when it rains twice in quick succession, for two days at a time- it just looks like laziness.

 

(Or, so the person divvying up tasks for the day told him when he showed up an hour late with a lingering headache. I’ve got someone else to cover your shift, this is a job you’re expected to commit to. )

 

There’s a wordless don’t bother coming back underneath it- and Tetsujo is quietly, ashamedly glad . He’ll need to find a new job fast and the overhanging knowledge that the rain will probably keep causing more problems than chills and bad memories is not a welcome one; but at least he won’t have to scrape long-dead bodies off the streets any more. 

 

Tetsujo turns the corner- one more street to search before heading back to the apartment- before toppling face first into the ground.

 

It’s one of those Hole statues, a massive one stood right in the doorway of the dive bar on the corner. If Tetsujo wasn’t completely immobilised in the middle of a busy street, he thinks he might’ve taken a slash at the thing with his sword, just another thing that isn’t going right, and-

 

“What the fuck ,” A voice to Tetsujo’s right groans, muffled against the concrete. Somehow, he’s not the only one knocked flat on their face into the pavement. “Why’d they put it right on the damn corner-”

 

Tetsujo recognises the person immediately, as soon as he’s dragged himself far enough down the road to haul himself back to his feet. Nikaido- he remembers her name being. She was halfway to devilhood one of the few times Tetsujo saw her previously, but now she looks just like any other human walking past, a bag of groceries in each hand and a battered skateboard tucked under one arm.

 

“Ah!” Her eyes light up with recognition when she catches him looking. “You’re one of those crosseye guys. Good to see you’re not dead.”

 

Nikaido’s grin might seem genuine, but Tetsujo can’t bring himself to trust her just yet. She’s an elite magic user if the horns that once grew from her head were anything to go by- not just anyone can become a devil- and a lifetime of experience has taught Tetsujo to be wary around those who can produce enough smoke to make life easier. The fact that she was walking alongside the guy with the lizard head- who might be the boss but equally might not be- that just makes it even harder to look her in the eye.

 

“We’re both fine now,” Tetsujo keeps his response non-hostile but ambiguous, playing it safe as he brushes off the dirt from his trousers and keeps walking. Behind him, there’s the sound of wheels against concrete as Nikaido cruises up beside him on her skateboard.

 

“That’s good to hear,” she keeps pace with Tetsujo as he walks, carving her way through a crowd where every other person seems to recognise her face. (Tetsujo wonders just how long she’s been living here, pretending to be human.) “Kaiman said you’d probably stick around, but I never spotted you in the area, so-”

 

Tetsujo doesn’t hear the rest of her sentence. Everything crushed under the sudden, jarring implication that Kaiman- the guy with the lizard head, who isn’t the boss now but was once and could be again- recognises them. That he didn’t just throw smoke at their feet out of some strange sense of pity. Sparks are more than enough to set an entire building alight; if there’s anything left of the boss, then it’s a disaster waiting to happen, a storm waiting to break. 

 

The sound of Nikaido hopping off the skateboard is what brings Tetsujo back from his thoughts, finding himself at the doorway of a small restaurant with patched up windows and a poorly-lit sign.

 

“I’m hiring, if you’re looking,” Nikaido calls from over by the door, with a knowing glance at the flyers sticking out of Tetsujo’s pocket. “I can’t promise any fancy wages, but I’ll throw in a free meal every once in a while. Won’t have to worry about making excuses for the rain either.”

 

The part of Tetsujo that knows he needs a job soon because Dokuga’s wages will barely cover their rent even if he takes on extra shifts- that part almost agrees immediately. The part of him that’s learned not to extend trust so easily- that part makes him bite his tongue before he can say a word. 

 

“I’m not expecting an answer immediately, of course,” Nikaido cuts in. “Just give it some thought.”

 

Before Tetsujo has the chance to think of a response- ( thank you or I can’t or why? )- Nikaido is already closing the door behind her.

 

It’s late by the time Tetsujo makes it back to the apartment, but Dokuga is still waiting at the table with his bowl unused on the shelf behind him.

 

“You could’ve eaten without me,” Tetsujo opens; propping his sword in the doorway, kicking off his shoes.

 

Dokuga doesn’t justify that with a response, instead nodding towards the muddied knees of Tetsujo’s trousers. “Run into trouble?”

 

“One of those fucking Hole statues,” Tetsujo’s correction is met with a grimace. “I was out job hunting- got fired earlier.”

 

The furtive glance Dokuga shoots in the direction of the fridge is all too telling- already formulating some sort of disaster plan. Nikaido’s offer hangs heavy over Tetsujo’s head, like a blessing and a threat rolled into one. 

 

(A paycheck and a free meal every once in a while. A chance for the past to come crawling back out from the mud they’ve struggled and fought to bury it under.)

 

But they talk about things more readily now- secrets are worthless when living is never a guarantee, and conversation is more important than ever with only two voices left to fill the space around them. Tetsujo admits to breaking Dokuga’s glass one morning while he was in a hurry to leave, Dokuga doesn’t keep it to himself that Tetsujo sometimes thrashes in his sleep and kicks him awake, Tetsujo scans the fridge for ingredients and prepares to tell Dokuga that the remains of what might still be the boss have come back to haunt them.

 

(Tetsujo’s pockets are full of stupid secrets that he never got to tell. The time he ruined one of Saji’s embroidery projects because he grabbed it instead of the cleaning cloth for his sword, the way he’d make sure Natsuki got the best portions when it was his turn to cook, the shitty beer he took from the store cupboard to share with Dokuga- offered with a smile and a what they don’t know won’t hurt them that’s long since shaped itself into one more regret. Too late is the worst time to start, but none of them have ever had the best timing.)

 

“I got an offer, though.” Tetsujo admits, settling on some leftovers from the day before. A long pause settles at the bottom of the bowls, alongside the cold rice, then- “From Nikaido. The one that’s friends with the lizard man.”

 

When Tetsujo places Dokuga’s bowl on the table, it’s alongside a wordless question; what should we do? It sits there in the middle of their tiny one-room apartment while they eat, waiting to be answered, until Dokuga lowers his bowl and-

 

“We don’t know if the lizard man is still the boss,” He picks his way through the sentence slowly, deliberately. Treading on shards of broken glass. “If he’s not, then it’s just a job offer.”

 

“But if he is-” Pursuing that line of thought further is not something Tetsujo wants to do. Instead, he returns to his food, clearing the last few mouthfuls before relocating to the sink. Keeping his hands busy has become as much of a necessity as food, water, a light in the dark.

 

“It’s up to you,” Dokuga tells him, then, a steady presence at Tetsujo’s side as he begins drying bowls and slotting them back neatly in place. The apartment is full of the sound of ceramic and running water and trust. (It’s up to you.)

 

“I want to make sure that he’s gone,” Tetsujo drains water from the sink, watches it spiral away. He no longer attempts to mask the distaste that cloys at the back of his throat- treading carefully around the boss’s name for Dokuga’s sake is not what trust means. “That there’s none of him left.”

 

Silhouetted by the dim lights of the city beyond the window, Dokuga nods. “Let’s do that, then.”

 

-

 

The trial day is nothing Tetsujo hasn’t experienced before.

 

He scrubs the dishes clean, mops the floors, chases some roaches with a can of raid and gets the distinct feeling that he’s being scammed into cheap labour when Nikaido refuses to pay for his work with anything aside from a plate of gyoza. 

 

He doesn’t even get to eat half of them, Kaiman sweeping in and swallowing them in one angry mouthful. The lack of customers despite the busy area suddenly makes a lot more sense.

 

Watching him swallow past half of his dinner, Tetsujo decides with finality that Kaiman is nothing like the boss. He’s loud, petulant as a child when Nikaido instructs him to clean the toilet, and a prolific food thief- despite the way his voice echoes too-familiar through the near-empty restaurant. If there’s anything left of the boss inside of that impossible head of his, then he’s doing a terrifyingly good job of hiding it. (The boss was always an open threat, an unavoidable disaster. If Kaiman is doing a good job of hiding something, then there’s probably nothing left of the boss in him at all.)

 

“I’m going to accept the job,” Tetsujo tells Dokuga on their way back, an early finish letting him call by the warehouse on his route to the apartment.

 

The nod Dokuga offers in return is all the reassurance Tetsujo needs.

 

-

 

“He’s hanging around outside again,” Kaiman announces, narrowly avoiding the dishcloth Nikaido tosses at his head for pausing his efforts to mop the floor.

 

Halfway through an attempt to scrub a stubborn stain off one of the tables, Tetsujo doesn’t need to look up to know it’s Dokuga standing there by the window. He’s made a habit out of it in the week since Tetsujo started working full-time at the Hungry Bug, waiting beside the doorway until Nikaido finally relents and the two of them can walk back to the apartment together.

 

“You can invite him in, y’know.” Nikaido’s voice comes muffled from where her head is stuck half inside the oven, trying to wipe grease off the back. A thinly veiled ‘you’re going to be here a while longer’ that she makes no effort to hide.

 

Dokuga looks horrendously awkward once he’s sat stiffly on one of the chairs, just two booths away from the fit Kaiman is about to throw over being made to mop the floor. Tetsujo shoots him an apologetic smile, before hurrying around the back when Nikaido shouts something about toilets that need to be cleaned.

 

It’s well into the night by the time Tetsujo is allowed to leave. Nikaido doesn’t thank him for his help- she never does- but the two sealed tupperwares of hot gyoza she hands to him on his way out don’t go unappreciated. 

 

“She offered me a job too.” Dokuga admits as they walk through the streets, the boxes of food held to his chest like a warm animal.

 

Tetsujo blinks, surprised. “You gonna take it?”

 

There’s someone yelling down one of the sidestreets to their left- and the two of them reach for their weapons simultaneously. Still sharp, even if there’s less people out to kill them, nowadays.

 

“Working together does make things easier.” Dokuga replies- before picking up the pace.

 

-

 

“I can’t work directly with food,” Dokuga announces on his trial day, when Nikaido tries to force a plate of gyoza into his unsuspecting hands. “My spit is poison.”

 

Nikaido fixes him with an even stare, Tetsujo watching as the gear turn in her head until-

 

“If you plan to spit in anyone’s food, then dead customers will be the least of your concerns.” She grins- all sharp-toothed and shaped like a threat. Tetsujo doesn’t doubt her for a second.

 

Still, she mainly keeps Dokuga occupied by the sink, cleaning dishes well away from any food. A job at the Hungry Bug might offer terrible wages and long hours, but Nikaido isn’t awful- as far as once-elite magic users are concerned.

 

“I’m quitting my job at the warehouse tomorrow,” Dokuga announces later, before Tetsujo even has the chance to ask.

 

-

 

Nighttime is as cold and dark as it’s ever been, and they’re walking back from the Hungry Bug when Dokuga announces into the gloom that Kaiman isn’t the boss.

 

It comes with little fanfare, right after a conversation about the human-sized roach Tetsujo swears he saw around the back of the restaurant- a sudden revelation that knocks him fully off kilter. Because Dokuga doesn’t fight it at all, he just states it like another true fact; Nikaido is a ruthless employer, rainfall hurts, Kaiman isn’t the boss.

 

“He’s not,” Tetsujo agrees. “He’s too-” a streetlamp flickers overhead as he tries to find the right words. “Childish. Loud.” 

 

“He’s fucking awful to work with,” Dokuga fills in the gaps with something that’s not quite a laugh. His voice sounds lighter, in a way- half hollow with loss, half weightless with relief. “But he’s not the boss.”

 

Tetsujo breathes warm air into his hands- stalling for time before he asks; “Is that okay?”

 

It’s a difficult question, one that hangs in the air.

 

“A while ago, it wouldn’tve been,” they turn off down a dark sidestreet, Dokuga leading them the long way back behind the marketplace, past the vending machines. “But it is now. I’m glad that he’s gone.”

 

The statement is another in a long line of open wounds- things that Tetsujo knows better than to touch. When Dokuga continues, it’s his choice alone.

 

“The boss was all I could think about for the longest time,” He admits. “Every decision I made was for him; I convinced myself that he was leading us to a better future, giving us something to live for. There were times when I even thought he might’ve cared .” 

 

“Any bit of personality he showed- they were probably just pieces of someone else that got through the cracks. You weren’t the only one that fell for it.” Tetsujo replies. The boss was never a person- just a thing seeking revenge, mud and smoke glued together by generations of hatred, then crammed into one human body. He peeled himself from the muddy spines of a distant city, and it was easy for five hopeless kids to fill in the gaps with wishful thinking when no other explanation was offered. Tetsujo also assigned worth where there was nothing at all; in a different way to Dokuga, but guilty all the same.

 

“Took me too long to notice,” The bitter tone of Dokuga’s voice rings sharp through the nighttime fog. “We weren’t anything to him, and I don’t want him back.”

 

And there, underneath the anger, the guilt, the open wounds that never quite healed- there’s something that almost sounds like relief

 

-

 

“We can live, now.” Dokuga says, as he drops his keys into the bowl by the apartment door. 

 

( Living has always been worth so much more than just surviving .)

 

-

 

Routine is a strange, painful thing. 

 

It creeps up on them piece by piece and suddenly Tetsujo is waking every morning to the feeling of Dokuga’s elbow sticking into his ribs, walking to the Hungry Bug through streets he could now travel with his eye closed, instinctively crossing the road mid-conversation to avoid the Hole statue by the dive bar entrance. Nights come and go; as do customers, as do the off-kilter legs on the kitchen table that Tetsujo finally got the time to fix.

 

Hole is not a nice place to live. They trek to work through rain that makes Tetsujo’s brain feel like it’s about to squeeze out the vertices of his skull, only for Nikaido to send them walking right back again. The ceiling won’t stop leaking no matter how many times they’ve tried to patch it up. Dokuga goes on an impromptu grocery run and comes back an hour later with blood in his hair that Nikaido just tells him to clean off in the bathroom. (“It’s not mine, of course.” Dokuga tells Tetsujo with his head bent over the sink, tap water running red down the drain. Tetsujo doesn’t doubt it for a second.)

 

Hole is not a nice place to live, but neither was the magic users’ world. There’s no place on either side of smoke-made doors where people like them belong, so instead, they’ve carved one into the mud and dirt with their own hands. It’s got cracks in the walls, bloodstains that won’t come out- but they don’t just have to survive here.

 

The first time Tetsujo notices scar tissue in place of open wounds that once hurt too much to breathe past, it feels like a botched amputation. Like trying to sever the only thing tying him to the people he’s lost, the friends he’ll never get back. It’s impossible to tell when he stopped thinking about them every second of the day; almost shattering a plate into the kitchen sink under the realisation that he’s started sleeping dreamlessly a few nights a week again.

 

The second time he notices, Tetsujo reminds himself that his friends are more than just the grief they left behind. 

 

When he and Dokuga first talk about them over dinner and fog-dull city lights, it feels like the funeral they never got the luxury to hold. Then, over time- as if growing used to a missing limb, a missing eye- it gets easier. 

 

Tetsujo can walk past the market and laugh about the time they all got their hands on a carton of strawberries, only for Ushishimada to accidentally sit on them and spend the rest of the day with his pants stained violently red. Dokuga can glance at the cold wind sweeping past the window and talk about the times an off-season cold spell would sweep into Berith and the five of them would huddle in a pile to keep warm- because who cares about poison spit when the alternative is freezing to death. 

 

Routine hurts, the place they’ve carved for themselves wants them dead, neither of them deserve to move on, but-

 

( But . They’ve both come too far to die now.)

 

-

 

“You’re gonna fall,” Kaiman’s head sticks around the front door of the Hungry Bug, some sort of awful, smug expression on his face. Three metres up a dark, rickety ladder with vice grip on the lightbulb he’s changing, Tetsujo has never been less in the mood.

 

“I know how to climb a ladder,” he fires back through gritted teeth.

 

Kaiman ducks back inside, unconvinced, then hangs around by the window like a bad omen. 

 

So naturally, the next time he moves; Tetsujo’s foot slips off the ladder and he falls.

 

He doesn’t land flat on his back against solid concrete with a broken spine to show for his efforts. Instead; something breaks his fall, and the next thing Tetsujo knows he’s staring up at the flickering street lamps with Dokuga’s arm trapped beneath him and the air knocked out of his lungs. The trash bag Dokuga was carrying lies by the door, split at the seams from where he dropped it. 

 

Like an uninvited afterthought, the ladder comes crashing down on a five second delay, the flow of foot-traffic immediately reshaping itself around it.

 

All Tetsujo can focus on is the scrape of air in his throat as he heaves breath back into his lungs, and Dokuga; sprawled out on the ground, three points of contact between them. They sleep back-to-back every night but Tetsujo can still feel his skin burning where Dokuga attempts to extract his shoulder, wrist and elbow. 

 

“Shit,” Dokuga groans, once he’s struggled upright again. “You okay?”

 

Tetsujo hacks out a wet, disgusting cough as soon as he remembers how to breathe again. “I think so.”

 

He goes to apologise- for falling off the ladder, for somehow crashing into Dokuga and taking him down too- but Dokuga beats him to it.

 

“Just- look where you’re going next time. That could’ve been bad if I hadn’t been near enough to catch you.” He rolls his shoulder with a wince, then starts the process of scooping trash back in through the split sides of his bag. 

 

Tetsujo stays uselessly on the ground.

 

Cataloguing the damage is a quick process; some sore ribs, a bruised sense of pride and a shattered lightbulb that leaves him dreading the thought of going back indoors. More concerning is the jackhammer of his heart in his throat- half adrenaline and half near enough to catch you. 

 

Worlds away in a dimly lit bathroom; Tetsujo swore to himself that he would never wait for Dokuga to turn around, would always be happy to walk five steps behind if it meant he could hold onto the trust nestled like a bullet beside his heart. Now; Dokuga glances over his shoulder, tells Tetsujo that he’s going to get stood on if he lies there any longer, then offers out a hand- the same one that broke his fall.

 

(Maybe- just maybe - Dokuga’s been looking back more than Tetsujo realised.)

 

-

 

“So,” Tetsujo can’t quite fight the amusement out of his voice. “ Kaiko .”

 

From a few steps above, Dokuga shoots him a withering look. “Shut up.” 

 

Spending the day with two sorcerers- En family members, at that- is not something Tetsujo ever could’ve seen coming. Out of the blue; a door made of smoke unfolding itself in the corner of the Hungry Bug, and a familiar kid with a shock of purple hair hauling another magic user out by the straps of his backpack. Tetsujo knew of Ebisu in passing, and knew Fujita through an awful night in a cold dark lake- but he’d always assumed that a hasty escape on a flying carpet full of holes would be the point at which their paths diverged.

 

And then there they were- an hour before nightfall, a confused staredown in the middle of the restaurant, a promise from Nikaido that they could leave early even though she would dock the time off their wages. 

 

They’d cut through the sidestreets, talked about surviving, bought Ebisu the most expensive soda in the vending machine only for her to trip over her own feet and spill it right down Dokuga’s back. Everything Dokuga had once said about never knowing what to do around kids turned out to be a lie, when Ebisu tried to pull stray threads out of his sleeves until he gave up and carried her the rest of the way back. And, when they’d left, it was with an unspoken promise that they’d come back soon. 

 

“I wouldn’t mind it, if they showed up again,” Dokuga admits, halfway up the five flights of stairs to their apartment. Overhead, one of the lightbulbs gutters on the edge of dying. “They're- not bad.”

 

They’re En family, the same people who made sure that useless magic users like them could never rise above crawling in the dirt. Forgiveness is not something Tetsujo can offer lightly. Still, he finds himself agreeing. They’re En family, and they’re not bad. Perhaps Tetsujo is placated by the fact that Fujita has always been a few steps away from just like them. Perhaps he’s just glad to end the day exhausted from reasons other than sleepless nights and long work hours.

 

(Fujita is weak and if En wanted the two of them dead then it’d be one of the cleaners knocking on their door. Ebisu is just a kid, as much as she swears that she could beat them all into the ground with a flick of her finger. They don’t need forgiveness to live.)

 

The light above the apartment door is dead by the time they arrive, and Tetsujo fumbles with the keys in the lock. Wordlessly, Dokuga steps in to help- and it’s just unlocking a door but Tetsujo still feels something in his chest swell inconveniently like a faulty weather balloon. 

 

“We spent so much money on that stupid soda, just for her to spill it,” Dokuga sighs once they’re through the door, then shakes his head disbelievingly. “It should feel trivial, but I'm so mad about it.”

 

It puts words to the feeling Tetsujo has carried since night fell, and he hums in agreement. “It doesn’t feel right to worry about small stuff like that.”

 

Once, they carried the weight of a growing, shifting organisation on their shoulders. Now their biggest concerns are expensive soda, black mould on the ceiling and Nikaido acting like they don’t know she’s underpaying them.

 

“I don’t hate it, though.” Dokuga announces later, halfway through reapplying tape to the crack in the kitchen wall. The smog outside the window is as heavy as it’s ever been, but somehow the night feels just a little bit lighter.

 

-

 

Tetsujo isn’t sure when it was that Dokuga started looking; but once he notices, it’s impossible to stop. 

 

They’re the only two people in the 24-hour laundromat- Tetsujo perched on top of a vacant dryer stitching up a hole he burned into his sleeve earlier, while Dokuga loads his stained hoodie and a pile of bedsheets into the machine. (Soda stains are somehow harder to remove from clothing than blood- something Tetsujo never thought he’d find himself learning.)

 

When Tetsujo next looks up from his sewing job, Dokuga has half an arm in the washing machine and he’s looking again. Stuck somewhere, deep in thought, doing anything aside from the laundry. Tetsujo almost puts the needle through his finger. 

 

“Will one load be enough?” He asks to cover up his mistake, voice ringing loud as a gunshot in the early hours of the morning.

 

Dokuga blinks, then resumes shoving the remaining half of their bedsheet into the washer. “Should be.”

 

He hops up to join Tetsujo on the driers once he’s done, and the whole thing feels scarily domestic; sat shoulder to shoulder in a grimy laundromat, listening to the steady turn of the machines. (It verges on comfortable- guilt rising like nausea before Tetsujo can force it back down.)

 

Maybe comfortable isn’t something he deserves- something either of them deserve. Both of them have spent a lifetime putting their belief in all the wrong places; and will continue to spend a lifetime more dealing with the consequences. But, despite everything, Tetsujo knows he would do it over and over again if he had to. He’d lose another eye, make another lifetime of mistakes, if that meant he could keep trusting Dokuga.

 

(Dokuga sits on the dryer close enough for their knees to touch, tries to catch him when he falls three metres off the top rung of a ladder, keeps looking over his shoulder instead of staring hopelessly ahead. Perhaps, Tetsujo is allowed someone who trusts him too.)

 

Sealing the hole in his sleeve with a wobbly line of stitches, Tetsujo remembers the front yard of their house in Berith, Ton telling him you should trust yourself too. Slowly, over time, he’s starting to learn what that meant. 

 

From the moment the world ended with smoke-filled rain and a thousand pairs of sightless eyes, Tetsujo forgave Dokuga.  

 

Maybe one day, he’ll be able to forgive himself too.

 

-

 

“I got Kaiman to do that earlier,” Nikaido interrupts Tetsujo as he gathers the things to wipe down the tables; one last task before leaving for the night.

 

Tetsujo blinks, surprised, then wordlessly returns the surface cleaner to the cupboard. Across the room, Kaiman has already set himself up in one of the booths with a can of beer and a plate of gyoza, making a new mess of the tables he’s apparently just tidied.

 

“Look- it’s none of my business why the two of you don’t want to be anywhere near him,” (So long as they get their jobs finished on time, Nikaido doesn’t care about excuses or explanations- a ground rule she established early on.) “But I don’t have the time to keep playing middle-man. Try and sort out-” She gestures, from Tetsujo by the cupboard, to Dokuga by the sink, to Kaiman by the door. “Whatever this is.”

 

Then the kitchen timer lets out a mechanical shriek, and she’s gone again.

 

Avoiding Kaiman has become as much a part of working at the Hungry Bug as long hours and fighting roaches away from the food supplies. He’s not the boss but that doesn’t stop a visceral feeling of discomfort from settling in Tetsujo’s stomach every time he sees his back turned and his strange reptilian face hidden from view, every time a familiar hand reaches over his shoulder to steal some of his dinner. Tetsujo doesn’t need to ask to know that Dokuga feels the same- avoidance becoming an unspoken rule between them.

 

Kaiman might not be the boss- but there’s too many memories around him that neither of them are ready to look in the eye.

 

(It’s a complicated situation. Kaiman is the reason Dokuga is still alive, with a vial of healing smoke tossed at their feet that Tetsujo still can’t understand the meaning of. Kaiman isn’t the boss, but he’s got the same hands and the same voice even though it doesn’t sit the same around his words and he knew their names without them having to tell him first. Kaiman is loud, volatile, and a prolific food thief- and he’s also a permanent part of the Hungry Bug, both as an employee and a customer. As soon as Tetsujo steps through the door, it’s a guarantee that he’ll be there.)

 

“She’s right, though,” Dokuga admits once he’s done with the dishes, the towel still thrown over one shoulder. “It’s getting in the way of work.”

 

They’re both no strangers to uncomfortable tasks- so when Tetsujo asks if they should talk to Kaiman, just once, it doesn’t take Dokuga long to agree.

 

They catch him after closing time the following night, while Nikaido is busy sorting through the latest delivery of ingredients and Kaiman is defrosting some food to eat while the kitchen is clear.

 

He towers over both of them, as Dokuga plants his feet firmly against the tiles and says; “You were the boss, once.” Jarringly, like an accusation. It’s the first time they’ve acknowledged it out loud where Kaiman can hear it, and even the nightlife outside seems to hold its breath.

 

Kaiman’s surprise is short-lived but suffocating, before he leans into the countertop behind him. “Not exactly. I’ve got memories, sure, but they’re not really-” Not really mine- goes unspoken. He stares down at them, before adding; “So you can stop glaring at me like I’m gonna grow another head every time I walk past.”

 

Habits do not break easily, neither does gut instinct. Instead of replying, Tetsujo steps forward and tells Kaiman; “We don’t owe you anything.”

 

“I still don’t know why you decided to give that healing smoke to us,” Tetsujo doesn’t have to see through his right eye to know that Dokuga is standing directly beside him, his voice close to his side. “But that’s the only thing you’ve done for us. Nothing else.”

 

There’s a long stretch of silence, before Kaiman barks out a loud, harsh laugh. 

 

“I don’t owe you anything, either,” He replies eventually, picking up his plate. “Neither of you mean anything to me.”

 

When Kaiman takes his food and leaves, Tetsujo makes no effort to hide the sigh of relief he’d been holding.

 

Because Kaiman might have been the boss once, but he isn’t any more. Tetsujo and Dokuga aren’t the same people they were back then, either- their paths have long since diverged. Nothing can bury instinct; how Tetsujo knows he’ll never feel comfortable talking to Kaiman face to face, how Dokuga flinches imperceptibly every time he shouts, how it sounds wrong in a way that’s bone-deep and nauseating every time Kaiman laughs openly at his own stupid jokes. Instinct follows, old feelings won’t break; but they’ve made themselves new habits to live with alongside them. 

 

Fear and familiarity and long-dead feelings like love and respect aren’t the only things they have left.

 

(It almost feels like closure. Pulled taut, seconds away from snapping- but closure all the same.)

 

-

 

Magic users rarely visit Hole nowadays. Doors folding themselves out of thin air are few and far between, and the stupid few who decide to chance it are soon seen off by statues made from old bones and a newfound refusal to lie down and accept things like humans once did. 

 

Of course, like in most things, the Hungry Bug is an exception.

 

It wasn’t supposed to be a party- just Nikaido making good on her promise of a free meal every once in a while. But then Noi overheard on one of her increasingly frequent visits to spar with Nikaido on the Hungry Bug rooftop, then she mentioned it to Ebisu, and then Ebisu couldn’t come without Fujita in tow. Tetsujo sits awkwardly on the edge of the booth closest to the door, observing as Noi and Kaiman arm-wrestle over a plate of cold food, Nikaido spurring them on. Dokuga is still at the other side of the room, trying to haul Ebisu out from where she’s fallen asleep under one of the tables. As soon as he arrived Fujita plastered himself against the wall as far away as possible from Nikaido, Kaiman and the bad memories that come with them, and hasn’t moved since.

 

(A room full of people who once wanted to kill each other is a strange place to spend the night.)

 

Prodding a sad, lukewarm gyoza around the edge of his plate, Fujita looks as if he’s wrestling with the urge to say something. He wears his heart on his sleeve in a way that probably should’ve gotten him killed by now- another thing that leaves Tetsujo almost glad that he made good on his promise to come back.

 

“Are you gonna ask, or-?” Tetsujo prompts.

 

Fujita startles, jumping like he’s just been electrocuted before falling right back into his corner again. “It’s a dumb question.” He prefaces. If Ebisu was anywhere other than passed out beneath one of the tables, she’d probably be reminding Fujita that all his questions are dumb questions. 

 

Tetsujo shrugs. Fujita resumes making circuits of the plate with his gyoza, before finally continuing.

 

“How can you stand living here?” He asks.

 

The question comes out of the blue, far from what Tetsujo expected. When he tries to piece together a response, he does so slowly, as if approaching a feral animal. “You mean because of the rain? Or-”

 

“No, not like that. I mean-” Fujita pauses, somehow flattening himself impossibly further into the wall. One of the chopsticks he’s holding slips and skewers through the sad leftover gyoza. “Hole. The things it’s built on. It killed your friends- how do you move on from that?”

 

His gaze shifts imperceptibly towards the seats near the kitchen where Nikaido and Kaiman are talking, and it doesn’t take Tetsujo long to understand what he’s really asking. (A friend named Matsumura- he’d mentioned the second time they visited. For people with smoke that verges too close to useless, loss has always been a promise rather than a threat.)

 

Instead of replying immediately, Tetsujo turns his attention back to Dokuga; buried half underneath the table as he tries to haul Ebisu out by her ankles. Startlingly similar to a night in Berith years ago, when a cat got in through an open window and Dokuga spent the better part of an hour struggling to lure it from beneath the furniture- Saji laughing from the nearest doorway, Ton insisting that they should've kept it. Memories that don’t hurt as much as they used to.

 

“You don’t move on,” Tetsujo concludes, finally. The words feel heavy in his chest, but also correct. “But you learn how to carry it, eventually.”

 

Fujita stares down at his hands, trying to weigh Tetsujo’s words in them- balancing it against the feelings Tetsujo knows from experience he must be carrying. Blame, guilt, remorse; all things that never quite subside.

 

(Guilt still follows Tetsujo every step of the way, but it doesn’t try to kill him as often any more. He’s survived it- just as he’s survived everything else.)

 

“It helps if you’re not alone, though.” Tetsujo adds; a quiet afterthought.

 

Like he’s been summoned by some form of smokeless magic, Dokuga reappears in the booth then, depositing a weary-looking Ebisu into the seat beside him. She perks up as soon as she sees the miserable expression on Fujita’s face, launching into a spiel of calling him a sad loser that somehow drags him out of his corner anyway.

 

“What did you do to him?” Dokuga asks once he’s removed himself from the risk zone of their argument, thinly veiled amusement hiding just below his voice.

 

Tetsujo shrugs- some conversations aren’t made to be repeated- then asks; “Do you remember that time a cat got into the house in Berith?”

 

There’s a pause while Dokuga thinks, filled by conversation from the other side of the restaurant, the clatter of glassware, Ebisu’s complaints as Fujita pulls on her earlobe (neither of them alone).

 

“I remember. Ton wanted to keep it, even after it wrecked the only good plates we had left.” Dokuga shakes his head. Then, because good memories are less painful than they used to be; he smiles.

 

-

 

Maybe you’ll be able to learn one day- Natsuki once said, a spoon poised and ready over a scalding hot pan and a meal cobbled together through little more than shoddy guesswork. One of the last good memories Tetsujo had before the rest became muddied by smoke and blood. 

 

So Tetsujo tells Dokuga to go on ahead, and hangs back to ask Nikaido if she can teach him how to cook. Properly, this time- not just throwing ingredients into a pan and hoping for the best. (Mealtimes are important, Natsuki’s hope is how Tetsujo chooses to remember her, and this feels like something he has to do.)

 

Predictably, Nikaido spends the next few days sending Tetsujo on a series of unreasonable errands- scrubbing grease off the ventilation fan, helping her haul boxes down the ladder leading to the attic, running to the store to haggle for some cheap ingredients she doesn’t need- before finally tossing him an apron and telling him to wash his hands thoroughly.

 

As Nikaido schools Tetsujo through flavour combinations, the correct way to fold gyoza, good technique for mincing meat, it feels like upholding his end of a promise. Nikaido never asks why he’s so eager to learn; instead settling for a sharp-toothed grin and a comment that she could use an extra pair of hands to help with meal prep from time to time. ( You’re not half bad at this- she tells him, a rare compliment.)

 

Dokuga’s confusion is nearly tangible when he steps out of the bathroom later and stares towards where Tetsujo is trying- (keyword: trying )- to throw together a good meal out of the scarce few ingredients left in their fridge.

 

It’s an exercise of trust when the two of them eat at the same table. Just as it’s an exercise of trust when Tetsujo admits that he’s learning to cook because Natsuki once hoped he’d get the chance. Just as it’s an exercise of trust when Dokuga tells him I’m sure it’s good even though he can’t taste a thing.

 

(Dokuga’s hair is swept to the side, and that wobbly line of scar tissue on his forehead from kitchen table sutures has long since faded with time. Wounds heal, scar over, and fade away; but the knowledge that Tetsujo would follow Dokuga to hell if that’s what it took to desperately say I’m still here, I trust you, rely on me- that’s as loud as it’s ever been.)

 

-

 

Tetsujo thinks about setting some money aside to finally buy some proper curtains for the apartment window, when the plate he’s washing slips out of his hands and shatters overdramatically against the edge of the sink. Shards of ceramic fly everywhere on impact; some into the sink, some onto the floor, some scattering across the countertop.

 

Pain kicks in on a three second delay, and Tetsujo curses to himself as a thick line of blood seeps across his palm, then down the side of his wrist. He makes an awkward grab for the tea towel right as Dokuga appears at his side- grocery list left abandoned on the table.

 

“I’m fine,” Tetsujo reassures him, before Dokuga can say a word. “I just wasn’t paying attention.”

 

“Let me take a look,” tugging to loosen Tetsujo’s grip on the tea towel, insistence has already set into Dokuga’s voice. Once again refusing to take no for an answer. With a second reassurance that he’s fine, that he’s dealt with far worse, Tetsujo relents and lets Dokuga wipe away blood and soap bubbles to get a proper view of the injury cut through the flesh of his palm. 

 

Dokuga’s stare can be unavoidably intense, at times. Tetsujo- for all the time he’s had to grow accustomed to it- still doesn’t know quite what to do with his hands underneath it. Gently, he tries to tug his wrist free. “It’s not even that deep- you can go back to what you were doing.”

 

“You wouldn’t let me walk around with it like that. Just-” Dokuga gestures again, grip tightening imperceptibly. “Let me help you, for once.”

 

When Dokuga looks at him like that- (open and insistent and do you trust me? )- Tetsujo can’t possibly hope to refuse.

 

He runs his hand under the tap to clean off the soap bubbles while Dokuga fetches the makeshift first aid kit they keep stowed in the bathroom. The night outside the window is dark and moonless as it's ever been; the swing of the overhead lamp making strange shadows out of the taped-up fissure in the wall and Dokuga as he shakes the near-empty bottle of rubbing alcohol to gauge how much is left.

 

It’s not as if Dokuga has never dealt with Tetsujo’s injuries before- patching up holes left in clothes and in other people were necessary skills to learn- but this time feels fundamentally different . Possibly the stillness of their fifth floor apartment, the only sound coming from the loud TV across the hall and bursts of activity at regular intervals on the street outside. Possibly the care that Dokuga takes, so much closer than his usual brand of careful distance, taking hands accustomed to wielding knives and instead using them to wipe blood quietly away. Or, possibly Dokuga’s words caught on loop somewhere in the forefront of Tetsujo’s mind; let me help you, for once.

 

There’s a bit of ceramic that scattered far enough to land near the table; Tetsujo nudges it dispiritedly with his foot, and almost laughs at how much things have changed for him to be worrying about broken plates, about Dokuga looking at him too much.

 

Taping down an awkwardly-shaped wound dressing, Dokuga announces that he’s finished, then makes no effort to return to his previous seat (somehow still looking ).

 

“Thanks,” Tetsujo starts. “You really didn’t have to-”

 

“I wanted to.” Dokuga cuts him off. “You’re always doing things to help me- it’s the least I could do in return.”

 

Something shifts in Tetsujo’s chest, right near the foreign body of feelings he reshaped his ribs around years ago, a world away. “I don’t need anything in return. If you’re here, then that’s enough.” 

 

( It helps if you’re not alone- Tetsujo said nights ago, because sometimes when the lights are off and phantom pains of black muddy water creep up to his knees, he’s forced to stare down the knowledge that Dokuga easily could’ve died, back then. Tetsujo isn’t sure if he could’ve survived- nevermind lived - if he’d been the only one left. If you’re here, then that’s enough - Tetsujo says now, and hopes that Dokuga understands just how much he’s already done.)

 

Instead of understanding, Dokuga’s expression sinks further into an awful frown. “It’s not, though. You’ve been there almost as long as I can remember, but I was always too busy looking- elsewhere- to appreciate it. I wish I’d noticed sooner-”

 

Clumsily, Tetsujo curls his hand into a fist around the bandage covering his palm. Some nights he wants to grab Dokuga by the shoulder, hold him in place and tell him look- look- the lights are on, just open your eyes and see- but the correct words are hard to find.

 

Instead, he meets Dokuga eye to eye, and tells him; “It’s never been about that.”

 

“It should be. You can’t just do so much without expecting anything in return,” Dokuga protests. ( I can- Tetsujo would tell him, if he could remember how to speak at all. I can and I have and I will. ) “You deserve more than that. I’m sorry it took me so long to realise it.”

 

The stray piece of ceramic cracks and breaks in two below Tetsujo’s foot. When he finally speaks, his voice comes out shaky at the edges. “What do you mean?”

 

“You’re-” The pause that stretches across the kitchen is long, deafening, full of unspoken feelings. “Important to me. You never left, despite everything, even when I didn’t deserve-”

 

“Dokuga-”

 

“-When I didn’t think I deserved it.” The open, grateful expression that Dokuga offers is worth a lifetime of half-smiles and buried frowns. “You’re worth a lot more than what I’ve given you, but-”

 

“I don’t care.” Tetsujo cuts in, unable to keep his words to himself any longer. Broken ceramic beneath his feet, heart trying to batter its way out of his ribcage and- if Dokuga is saying what he thinks ( hopes ) he’s saying- “I stay here because of you- not because I want anything in return. I’ll always be here, as long as you want me to be.”

 

Everything- missing eyes and cross tattoos and trust put in a figurehead that brought nothing but ruin- all of it has the same meaning. Living life with his arms outstretched.

 

It’s clear to see as realisation dawns on Dokuga slowly- piece by piece, muddy clouds parting to reveal the sky behind. “You-”

 

“It’s never been about you feeling the same,” Tetsujo clarifies, then- because he has held these feelings close for a lifetime, and will hold onto them for a lifetime more. Nothing needs to change. “You can just-”

 

“I think I do, though.” All around, even the traffic on the street below seems to hold its breath. “Even if it took me too long to notice it.”

 

They’re sitting close enough for their knees to touch, surrounded by broken ceramic and first aid supplies, and Dokuga’s voice rings open and clear and as genuine as it’s ever been. Like all his careful control has been torn down by his own two hands.

 

“Are you sure?” Tetsujo asks. (Hope is a foreign sensation, one he’s not sure he has the room behind his ribs for.)

 

“I’m sure.” Dokuga replies, with a rare sort of certainty. “It was obvious, once I finally started looking.”

 

(They meet again, eye to eye, across the kitchen table. Alongside grief, hope, forgiveness- this is another thing that Tetsujo could learn to live with.)

 

Hesitantly, Tetsujo opens his arms in an unspoken question, and they’ve hugged more than once before- briefly, in moments of weakness- but never so close. Never meaning so much. Tetsujo’s entire heart migrates into his throat as Dokuga’s forehead rests against his shoulder- right near the place where a shaky line of stitches and a lesson about trust once sat. Voice muffled against the fabric of his shirt, Dokuga doesn’t tell him to be careful, to take a step backwards, to watch what he’s doing. 

 

Instead, he just says; “I trust you.”

 

-

 

Some things haven’t changed at all.

 

It’s still nighttime. Tetsujo is still standing in front of broken mirrors held together by scraps of tape, still looking at the cross-eye tattoos on his skin, still thinking about what ink and scar tissue mean to him.

 

(It’s a feeling that has a great many names. Recently, Tetsujo has started to call it belonging. )

 

It’s the early hours of the morning when the door opens and Dokuga slots wordlessly in beside him; shoulder to shoulder, eyes meeting Tetsujo’s own in the tiny bathroom mirror. A comfortably silent greeting, because Dokuga still looks half asleep and the days when stretches of silence brought grief crashing down aren’t quite so common any more.

 

The quiet is still a difficult thing to live with; it clings like a permanent reminder of the gap where their friends should be, arguing over the toothpaste, fighting for space at the bathroom sink. Convincing himself that he deserves it when he gets to tug at Dokuga’s hair and tell him it’s getting long again is no easy feat, but Tetsujo would be long dead if he stopped every time something was difficult.

 

(“They’d be happy for us, I think,” he’d said earlier, seconds before turning out the lights. A tiny piece of forgiveness he’s allowed himself to hold onto.)

 

Instead of reaching for his toothbrush, Dokuga presses a fingertip into the cross-marked skin below his eye, and asks; “Do you think you’ll ever get them removed?”

 

It should be a difficult question- but Tetsujo finds that the answer is already clear.

 

The tattoos might have begun as a mark of loyalty- a pledge to a figure made of mud and sludge who never asked them to follow and always looked straight through them- but Tetsujo’s have always been more than that. Trust, belonging, a connection to the family he’s lost, and the family he still has. The finest grade healing smoke that Shaitan had to offer could never remove a scar he didn’t regret, and no amount of grief-filled memories about black, muddy water could make him see those tattoos as anything less than what they really mean.

 

Just as Tetsujo will always have half a field of vision and will always walk into the kitchen table more often than he should- the reflection that stares back at him in the mirror will always have cross-marked eyes. Sure truth, louder than the useless devil in his brain will ever be.

 

“Will you?” Tetsujo asks in response.

 

Dokuga shakes his head, without needing time to think. Then, like an afterthought, he reaches down to link their fingers together; cold palm pressed against the still-healing wound on Tetsujo’s own. (Not everything has stayed the same.)

 

Tetsujo smiles. “Me neither.”

 

Old habits stick. New routines fill in the cracks. Beyond the window of their tiny fifth floor apartment; morning finally breaks.

 

(The sun might be hidden behind layers of ash and dust and smoke- but it’s rising all the same.)