Sometimes it was easier. Tatsumi couldn't quite find the words to explain, but knew better than most how much easier it was to hide. Hell, he'd been hiding so long that every now and again, he forgot why he was hiding in the first place.
That's when he got careless, let himself slip just enough to land back where he'd begun. The fear overwhelmed him, the fear and the guilt, writhing inside of him like the shadows that concealed him. For the most part, he refused to see. But then he opened his eyes and Tsuzuki's tears allowed him to remember his place.
He belonged in shadow, where no one but his memories could see.
There was a reason that kagetsu masters often weren't permitted to fight. While shadows served for decent shields and defense, they only protected for so long. A shadow shield can hold off many offenses – animals, shikigami, and nature to name a few – but Tatsumi knows that like all things, shields can weaken and break. It's only a matter of time and pressure, or some other nonsense that Watari had driven into his head.
"Time and pressure. Time and pressure can break anything, given enough of it. Even shields."
He knows. This was all expected. Nobody else could have done it, and the circumstances, they just weren't willing to comply. Nothing could have stayed strong there, nothing could have survived in that place. Not even shadows.
Is it over, Tatsumi? My head is cluttered… are the sirens still going?
Is it finally over?
"Time and pressure, Tatsumi. It wasn't your fault." Watari's hair is fool's gold in the light, eyes a tired caramel behind round lenses. Fake. Fake like a terrible fifty-year nightmare, fake like a promise to never leave, fake like a hollow smile or empty violet eyes.
"Tatsumi, it wasn't your fault. In those conditions, it was bound to give in."
Is it really over?
Tatsumi knows. He looks down at his blistered, trembling hands, and knows in his heart that it wasn't his fault. He closes his eyes and swallows the pain driving through his soul.
Watari doesn't speak as he dresses Tatsumi's wounds.
It certainly wasn't what he expected. JuOhCho's walls were sturdy, the windows clean and transparent for a beautiful view of springtime trees. Just looking out at the drifting sakura blossoms made him feel at peace with himself.
He turned to face the speaker, an older man whose every wrinkle added a layer of wisdom to his features. The old man walked like every step hurt, although all pain was only the phantom pain from life. "Yes, sir?" Tatsumi kept his voice from wavering as best he could.
"My name is Konoe," the man greeted, taking a seat on the windowsill. His eyes were just as old and wise as the rest of him. "I'm the chief of the Judgment Bureau. I know you've spoken to the other branch leaders and believe this to be the best placement for you."
Tatsumi listened intently. Konoe went over the restrictions and the "golden rule" of al shinigami working in pairs. He tried to listen harder, commit every word to memory as not to disappoint, but he kept looking at those old, tired eyes and arthritic hands, words trickling away like water cupped in trembling fingers.
All he could think as he noted how very old Konoe must be was, I could have looked like that someday.
Instead, he'd been forced to die young, twenty-nine years old for eternity. Perpetual youth should have been ideal, but Tatsumi felt as thought half of his life had been wasted in the second it had taken for the explosion to blow.
The shadows on Konoe's face softened significantly as if in sympathy. "I know it's hard," he said, reading Tatsumi's mind with those eyes. "Many of our employees have died young. But with time, you'll become accustomed." He adjusted his posture with difficulty, frail bones crackling.
"All shinigami are required time in the field to get a firsthand experience of how we work here. I'm pairing you with our best. He's been here longer than anyone besides myself. Perhaps he can show you the ropes."
As if on cue, the door was opened and a young man peered inside. "Chief? I heard we have a new arrival."
Tatsumi was instantly intrigued. The man looked so young, no older than twenty, hair brown and tousled over the prettiest eyes he'd ever seen. They were a deep lavender with long lashes, looking to Tatsumi with a childlike curiosity.
"Tatsumi-san," Konoe said. "Meet your partner, Tsuzuki Asato."
Tsuzuki smiled a small, genuine smile, and Tatsumi almost saw the years in those pretty violet eyes.
The office is strangely quiet for the first time in years. Watari leans against the wall, golden-brown eyes exhausted, coffee mug steaming but ignored. Terazuma takes long drags from his cigarette. Wakaba places a tray of cranberry muffins on the table, knowing full well that they'll go untouched.
Tatsumi stares blankly at the case file, but the words blur together. Building… Shion… fire…
His mind wanders distractedly. The phantom sound of a door closing. A dark coat rustling in a breeze. The ghost of a hollow smile.
The ring is like a scar on the desk. The mug of tea had been there only weeks ago, held in strong fingers. Touched by soft lips. Tatsumi traces it absently with a fingertip.
'Use a coaster,' he mouths to someone nonexistent, 'or you'll leave a water ring.'
You're so uptight.
There's a loud clatter as the muffin tray falls to the linoleum floor, scattering crumbs over the room. The muffins break into chunks of warm yellow pastry, cranberries staining red.
Wakaba trembles, leans to pick up the mess. Ruined dessert covers her palms.
Watari kneels to help. He steadies her hands with his own when Terazuma can't. "Kannuki…"
Thank youuu, Wakaba-chan!
She takes a deep gasping breath and cries into the thickness of Watari's lab coat. Watari holds her silently although he's shaking as well.
Everything breaks with time.
The familiar voice interrupted his trance. Tatsumi turned away from the window to look at his partner, whose face looked even more effeminate in the soft café light. Tsuzuki was looking at him, just like he always did, with those strange yet beautiful eyes.
"You're awfully quiet," Tsuzuki said, concern playing on that mouth. "Is something wrong?"
Tatsumi gave a small smile. "No. I'm just… tired, I guess. I didn't get much sleep."
Tsuzuki watched him. It wasn't unnerving, like it should've been. Rather, it comforted him in a way he couldn't explain. "You only died a month ago, Tatsumi-san. No one expects you to recover that fast."
The man brought his Ujiri green tea to his lips again, looking out the window at the gorgeous Kyoto evening lights. Tsuzuki liked Kyoto. That's why they came here so often lately, to this small warm café during long breaks. The city reflected beautifully in the violet eyes, lit the profile to perfectly shaped shadows, and Tatsumi had to admit that the city paled in comparison to his partner.
"Tsuzuki?" Tatsumi whispered. The man turned back to him with questioning eyes. It caused his throat to close up to see that look. Questioning, expecting… like another expression from so long ago.
Tatsumi swallowed. How could this partnership last when he was panicking every twenty minutes?
"…We should go back."
Tsuzuki blinked at him slowly, and then smiled.
Those are Hisoka's first words as he wakes only days after Kyoto. The green eyes are wide and darting from bed to bed as though expecting to find the answer there. Tatsumi sits on the mattress and ignores the way it squeaks under his weight.
"Tatsumi-san?" Hisoka's voice is on the verge of panic, reaching out like fingers for a mess of brown hair or a perfect laugh. "Where's Tsuzuki?"
He tries to breathe. The scream rings through his cluttered head like an air raid siren, empty and agonizing.
Tatsumi… just now… what did you say?
Hisoka's eyes shine with panic. "Tatsumi-san…?" Breathing erratic, pale skin entwined in those horrible red scars, the only thing that had kept him alive in that place.
That scream… not one of pain or fear, but one of relief, of finally.
I can handle this one myself. I'll see you next time, then.
"Please… Tell me…"
Emptiness. It rings so hollowly and obviously within him, like a shadow without a caster. He understands so perfectly now, why it broke, why it had to happen. It wasn't under any weakness of the shield. The shield was strong and impenetrable. It was weakness in himself.
No… It's fine. I heard you. Loud and clear. I get it.
'You really don't.'
"Where's Tsuzuki?" Hisoka trembles like a leaf in autumn wind, and Tatsumi allows himself to fall into his own shadows.
"There was nothing I could do."
Hisoka blinks at him a moment disbelievingly. It hurts to watch, the slow emotional cracking that the boy undergoes. He doesn't move for a long time, then finally he shakes his head and laughs, but it's not a joke, it's not funny, and tears trace the thin face. He sobs like the child he really is, kicking, denying…
"He promised me! He promised he wouldn't….!"
Tatsumi only looks away.
Sorry for making your life hell, Tatsumi.
"Mother?" His voice was small and wavering, eyes a melancholy blue behind his lenses. He plucked her sleeve impatiently. Her shoulders trembled, dark hair like a veil over her pretty face.
He persisted. "Mother, why are you crying?" He feared for her, had been fearing for her happiness since Father was executed. But she wouldn't look at him, not even when he begged. How could she? He'd been such a disappointment, hadn't tried hard enough to make her smile.
"Please look at me."
She did. Turned her face to him, but it wasn't his mother at all. Brown hair and sad violet eyes that bore into his very soul.
"Tatsumi… I love you, did you know that?"
His eyes flew open in the darkness, breath slow and heavy, heart thundering in his ears. He hadn't dreamt of his mother in a long time. Tatsumi tried to calm down but felt himself trembling. He looked over to the next bed in the dark hotel room, where Tsuzuki lay under the mess of sheets in a deep sleep.
Tatsumi didn't like to show weakness, especially not when it came to work. He'd seen how strong Tsuzuki really way, how angry he could get, but he also saw how easily the man could break down. He understood why his previous partners had left; they'd been intimidated by the lack of control.
And Tatsumi longed to fix him, like that woman in his nightmares. But the last phrase in his dream… why had it affected him so? He cared deeply for Tsuzuki, yes, but… love?
Uneasy, he stood and walked to the other bed, pulling the blankets back and slipping in beside his partner. It was a childish act but he felt so young right now, so young and so afraid. Tsuzuki stirred and cracked his eyes open blearily.
"Tatsumi…? What are you…?"
"It's all right. I'm just cold," Tatsumi lied, craving Tsuzuki's comfort like nothing else at the moment. He moved closer and tenderly put his arms around Tsuzuki's waist, watching Tsuzuki sleepily comply. "You're warm."
Tsuzuki paused a moment before putting his head under Tatsumi's chin, hands coming around Tatsumi's shoulders. "Mm… your heartbeat's fast. Did you have a bad dream?"
Disappointment, regret, sadness, cold.
He told himself he wasn't attracted to men. And he wasn't, not really. Just the pretty depths of those eyes and the long lashes, the lines of Tsuzuki's body perfectly suited to his face, the flatness of his chest pressing against his own.
Tsuzuki had his head tilted up, their faces barely apart in the darkness. "Liar." Tatsumi swallowed and felt Tsuzuki's breath toying across his face, and he felt all of the grief of his past well inside of him.
In the next moment, he'd leaned down and taken Tsuzuki's mouth with his own. Tsuzuki's mouth was soft and wet, mumbling something in incoherent confusion before it opened invitingly.
Everything felt right, like this was just how it should be, like they'd done it a million times before. The man was warm and sleepy and those hands made weak fists in Tatsumi's pajama top. "Mnn…?"
Tatsumi held him tight against his chest, tongue slipping easily into Tsuzuki's mouth as a shiver of pleasure made a home in his skin. Never had kissing been so completely attractive, not since his awkward teenage years with girls he hardly knew and hardly liked. And Tsuzuki's skin was so warm beneath the hem of his pajama top, hips angular and smooth and male, breath coming hot and shaky in his mouth.
How many other partners had fallen so completely head-over-heels? He saw that it could never last between them if he was getting so attached, so fixated with the gentle kisses and the longing tugging at him. Tsuzuki plucked at his heart with nimble fingers, toyed with his soul like nobody else before. Even in death, Tatsumi found himself too vulnerable and too simple for his own good.
They pulled apart, but only their faces, remaining wrapped around one another like the lovers they could never be. And Tsuzuki's eyes opened at the sound of an air raid siren splitting open the night air. Evacuation instructions echoed throughout Nagasaki. But Tsuzuki took a moment and leaned into him, burying his face in Tatsumi's neck.
"More people will die tonight."
Tatsumi wound his hands into the brown hair and listened to the silent sobs like he had his mother's so long ago, and ignored the hum of planes.
"Tell me when the sirens stop."
Over these days, Tatsumi pays close attention. Everything's disjointed, and his mind lapses between present and past like a nightmare. Wakaba has stopped baking those warmly golden pastries because she knows the effort is futile. He won't come back to eat them with that usual sugary smile.
Terazuma seems distracted, sometimes turning to shout angrily at passing leaves before silently dropping his archery equipment. Even annoyance, now, takes effort.
Watari tries to lighten the mood, but his gender experiment has long been neglected, and he focuses on his drinks more than his work. A smile is absent.
Did you have a bad dream?
Yes. A terrible nightmare of a fire and a loss too much to bear. And it will never end; he will never wake up.
Hisoka watches him sit blankly at his computer for over ten minutes. The green eyes shine with loss and vain doubt. 'He'll come back,' those eyes say. 'He's never a zero. He promised he'd live for me.'
And Tatsumi recalls it now, for the first time replaying in his mind, the way the two had held one another until that shield had broken and Tsuzuki screamed at the terrible relief of Touda's flame and was burned to death along with the entire lab. Leaving Hisoka, Watari, Terazuma, Wakaba, Saya, Yuma, Konoe, all the twelve shikigami, the Count, Tatsumi himself… leaving them all alone.
"Tatsumi-san." Hisoka's face is unchanging, and Tatsumi trembles because, God, he's so alone now, so very painfully alone… "Tatsumi-san, it's okay."
It's over, all over, he'll never see Tsuzuki again and it's all his fault because he hadn't made Tsuzuki happy when he'd had the chance… He swallows and tried to keep it together but he can't stop shaking, and his eyes sting. Tsuzuki.
"I don't blame you, Tatsumi."
More people will die tonight.
Tatsumi can't steady his hands on the keyboard so instead he brings them to his face, removing his glasses and rubbing his tired, sad eyes. Wise eyes, blue like an ocean's depths, yet so very naïve as of now. Hiding behind his coldness like a mask, because cold is what he strives to be. Unfeeling, unaffected by silly things like death.
Tell me when the sirens stop.
They would never stop. Never.
"It wasn't your fault." Hisoka reaches and lays a hand on Tatsumi's gently. Like the comforting Kyoto lights, or a sakura view, or a kiss shared out of spite. "I don't blame you."
And he recalls that single kiss and feels himself break down after three weeks of silent suffering. Tatsumi cries for the first time in decades and feels Hisoka's thin arms wrap around him in a forced comfort, two souls deserted by a common anchor. Tsuzuki is gone and he's realized that without him…
Your heartbeat's fast. Did you have a bad dream?
Tatsumi is nothing but the shadows he so cleverly hides behind.
He clings like a lost child to the boy's jacket, shamelessly choking back every confession he'd never gotten the chance to say.
"I know," Hisoka says softly. "I did too."
Tatsumi… I love you, did you know that?
The shadows, the shield keeping him together, crumble.
Everything breaks with time.