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Kissing Santa

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Aftermath of the Nonary Game and Tenmyouji felt as if he’d left something behind in Rhizome 9. He’d been through similar situations in the past: the same concepts with different executions, and he hoped this was the last one. A body could get used to anything, but this he could do without. He felt unanchored, like waking up to realise he couldn't remember his own name: nothing life threatening, but it still gave him a vague feeling of discomfort.

He wondered if this was what closure meant, but he doubted he'd recognise closure if it waddled up to him and bit him in the arse.

'Grandpa?' Quark hid a yawn behind a small hand.

Tenmyouji nodded, frowning at the thin slice of light visible from under the door of their flat.

‘What is it?' Quark sidled closer to Tenmyouji. He was too tired and sleepy to fully understand what was going on, but cautious nevertheless. One didn't survive the Nonary Game without learning a thing or two and Quark--out of necessity--was smart for his age.

Tenmyouji didn't answer, one hand resting on Quark's shoulder in what he hoped was a reassuring gesture. In the pocket of his trousers, his other hand tightened around the keys Akane had returned him before he and Quark had gone back to earth.

Unvoiced questions had lain heavy in his stomach, but he'd said nothing. And she'd offered him nothing more than a sad smile.

Taking the keys out of his pocket now, Tenmyouji wondered if he should have at least said goodbye.

The door opened before Tenmyouji could touch the knob, light spilling from inside the flat and Tenmyouji squinted against the brightness. He could make out the silhouette of a slim figure standing by the threshold and he had no idea who the hell it could be. His mind, tired as it was, tried to go through the possibilities.

The neighbours wouldn’t have barged inside Tenmyouji’s flat while he wasn’t there; he had three sturdy locks on the door, but it was also an issue of mutual respect. They wouldn’t want to start a precedent in which their privacy could be invaded. In an emergency they would have stayed outside and left a note.

Zero was done with them, Tenmyouji was sure of that. He’d left all of that behind and everyone he’d known in the past was either dead or unreachable.

Was this a thief then? Someone who had broken Tenmyouji’s complicated system of locks and possibly dangerous. Tenmyouji pulled Quark back, hoping the kid would have the sense to run away if things got serious.

'Who the fuck are you?' The voice was irritable, confused, and impossibly familiar. A fragment of the past after all, something Tenmyouji thought he'd lost and wasn't--couldn't--be prepared for. He took a deep breath, fighting the urge to step back into the shadows of the hallway.

Quark felt no such cowardly compulsions. 'What are you doing in our house?' he said, stepping forward so he was standing next to Tenmyouji again.

Not a projection of Tenmyouji's mind then; no apparition caused by the lingering traces of Radical-6 in his body or a side effect of the antidote. Not when Quark could see him too, Quark frowning at the man as if he were another puzzle that needed to be solved.

'Your house?' said the man.

'Mine and Grandpa's!' Sulkiness in Quark's tone now, childish impatience for this obstacle between him and a good night's sleep.

'Quark,' said Tenmyouji, hand tightening on Quark's shoulder. 'Let's go inside. You're dead on your feet.'

The man stepped aside to let them through, offering no defence or explanation for his presence. Tenmyouji was sure, he could feel the man's gaze on him and Quark although he couldn't check--not if it meant meeting the man's eyes--Tenmyouji was sure they were being scrutinised, and judged as harmless.

'Hey,' said the man, as Tenmyouji straightened up from removing his shoes. He realised that until then the man had only seen glimpses of his face, the darkness outside making for an effective mask. But the same light that had betrayed the man's presence inside the flat did the same for Tenmyouji's face now. He tried not to flinch as the man stepped closer, head tilted to one side and his eyes narrowed.

'You look familiar.'

'Go to bed, Quark,' said Tenmyouji. 'You need to rest.'

'But--'

'I'll take care of it.' Tenmyouji sighed and ran a hand through his hair. Take care of it, he thought, and he still couldn't meet the man's eyes.

'Do you know this man, Grandpa?'

The man folded his arms over his chest and nodded in Quark's direction. 'Well?' he said. 'Do you know me?'

'In the Biblical sense?' said Tenmyouji. This made Quark frown, but the man gave a surprised little laugh, like it was the last thing he expected to hear from a dried-up old man. Tenmyouji found himself getting red in the face. Feeling like a teenager again wasn't a bad thing in his book, but this wasn't the sort of experience he was aiming for.

'I don't think,' said the man, still smiling, 'that's something I'd forget.’

'Guess not,' said Tenmyouji, thinking of what the man had said earlier: You look familiar. How could he, when he couldn't see Junpei in himself anymore? The face in the mirror when he shaved every morning--with its wrinkles and soft planes and angles--was the face of an old man. Tenmyouji's face. He was finding it harder to remember what Junpei looked like.

'Hey, old man? I asked you a question.'

Tenmyouji took another deep breath. 'What the fuck are you doing here, Santa?'

The choice of the name was deliberate and Tenmyouji felt a vague sense of satisfaction in seeing the man pale, hearing the sharp intake of breath.

Quark fidgeted beside him. Tenmyouji had always made a point not to curse in front of Quark; easier said than done in the tense, back-stabbing environment of Rhizome 9 but he’d managed it. Hearing him say ‘fuck’ now probably surprised Quark as much as the stranger’s presence in their flat. As if to apologise, Tenmyouji gave Quark a pat on the shoulder.

But Aoi wasn't paying attention, had stepped so close to Tenmyouji it was positively an invasion of privacy. And as if that wasn't enough, he was touching Tenmyouji, cool fingers on Tenmyouji's face, pulling him down as if for a kiss.

'Junpei?' said Aoi.

*

He'd promised Aoi they would talk later. For now, Quark needed to go to bed.

'But who's that guy, Grandpa?' said Quark, blinking at Tenmyouji from under the sheets that Tenmyouji had tucked around him. Quark was a restless sleeper and the sheets would like as not end up on the floor come morning, but it was the principle of the thing. 'Grandpa?'

Tenmyouji found himself blushing for the second time that night. Not a good habit to pick up; Aoi would never let him live it down.

'He's no one,' he said. 'A friend.'

Quark grinned. 'Your boyfriend, you mean?'

Tenmyouji wondered about that. Had Aoi been Junpei's boyfriend? They'd never talked about it. 'Of course not.'

'He was going to kiss you!' said Quark, indignantly.

'But he didn't,' said Tenmyouji, moving away from Quark's bed and heading for the door. 'I'm going to turn off the lights now, okay?' Quark didn't say anything and Tenmyouji sighed. 'I don't think he was going to do anything of the sort. He just wanted to get a good look at my face.'

'Because he wanted to kiss you.'

Great. He'd be wondering all night if Aoi did want to kiss him. Tenmyouji was sure Aoi didn't or he would have already, never mind Quark ogling at them like people in TV dramas. Aoi wasn't the affectionate type, especially in public, but he didn't care about propriety either.

‘Good night, Quark.'

'Don't forget to brush your teeth, Grandpa.'

'Good night.'

*

'What fucking year is it?' said Aoi, raising his eyebrow at the mug of tea Tenmyouji had set on the table in front of him. 'Did you just re-use that teabag?'

'Tea's hard to come by nowadays,' said Tenmyouji, sitting across Aoi and taking a sip from his own mug. The tea was no more than coloured water at this point, but he could still smell the faint scent of chamomile. 'Nearly everything's hard to come by these days.'

'What year, Junpei?'

He wasn't used to being called by that name. It's been a long time. There was Akane back in the moon base and Clover, who had echoed Akane in surprise and disbelief. But he'd never thought he'd hear Aoi call him anything again.

'Junpei?' Aoi's voice had lost the sharpness of impatience and Tenmyouji looked up by instinct; met Aoi's gaze for a brief moment, a fraction of a second before breaking eye contact. He didn't want to see the pity in Aoi's eyes; a pretty young man feeling bad for an old fart. And here Quark thought Aoi wanted to kiss him. The idea made Tenmyouji want to laugh, except Aoi would just wonder what was so fucking funny and get more pissed off.

Tenmyouji placed his mug back on the table and before Aoi could prompt him again said, ‘It’s 2074.’

'Fuck.' Aoi leaned away from the table, away from Tenmyouji, jumping when the back of his chair almost gave way.

'Careful. That chair's a bit wonky. Quark and I found a whole dining set in an abandoned house not far from here--'

'About that,' Aoi cut in. 'What's the deal with the kid? He your son?’ He frowned and waved that away. ‘Bit young for that, isn't he--grandson then?'

'Grandson, yes.'

'You got married?' Pardonable surprise on Aoi's face. And because it had been a long day--long week, long life, whatever--Tenmyouji allowed himself to imagine there'd been resentment in Aoi's expression as well; the downward set to his mouth and the narrow-eyed look he gave Tenmyouji. 'To a foreigner?'

'No. I found him. We're not related by blood.' Tenmyouji shrugged. 'It doesn't matter. He's my grandson.'

'I see.' Aoi smiled. 'Guess no one else'd have you, huh.'

'Not really,' said Tenmyouji, smiling back in spite of himself. 'Damaged goods. The last time didn't go too well.'

'You think?' Aoi finally took a sip from his mug. Nothing in his face betrayed what he thought of the watery tea, but knowing what a snob he could be, Tenmyouji was sure Aoi was judging a lot of things about it.

'What are you doing here, Aoi?'

'I woke up in this pod thing.' Aoi made a rectangular movement with his hands. 'And she gave me this address. Just the fucking address, mind you. No idea what's going on, but it was better than staying there to rot, so I legged it.'

'Gave?' Tenmyouji raised an eyebrow. 'Was she there when you woke up?'

'After what happened last time? No fucking way.' Aoi tapped a finger against one temple. 'Esper, remember?'

Years ago Junpei would never have dared, but now Tenmyouji reached across the table to cover Aoi's hand with his own. The gesture was something Junpei would never have been able to afford nor Aoi reciprocate, but too much time had passed for Tenmyouji to care about the boundaries they'd set between themselves as young men.

For a moment he thought Aoi would pull away, he was expecting Aoi to pull away, but Aoi looked at Tenmyouji's hand as if he had no idea how it got there, traces of his frown lingering between his eyebrows.

'You're different,' he said.

'Well yeah.' Tenmyouji laughed. 'I'm old.'

'Hm,' said Aoi. He did pull away this time, hand moving on top of Tenmyouji's so he could trace the veins and wrinkles on the back of Tenmyouji's hand with his fingertips. 'Is that the polite way of saying you're tired and can I bugger off?'

'I never bothered being polite with you,' said Tenmyouji, reclaiming his hand and stuffing it inside the pocket of his trousers. 'And I sure as hell won't start now, kid.'

'You know technically I'm still older than you, right?'

'I'm sixty eight, kid. You're twenty five. You do the maths.' Tenmyouji had felt the same when he'd seen Clover back in the moon base: she hadn't changed much from the girl she'd been when they first met. But this was Aoi, and Tenmyouji had never expected to see Aoi again.

'Don't call me that,' said Aoi. 'You might look like an old prune now but you're still just Junpei. Don't put on fucking airs.'

Tenmyouji scratched the back of his head. 'I thought you said I've changed.'

'A changed Junpei is still Junpei.' Aoi bared his teeth in what Tenmyouji was reluctant to call a smile. 'You'd still wag your tail and get off your old rump if she said “Jump” wouldn't you?'

'What's the view like in your glass house?' said Tenmyouji, trying to keep his voice light. Four decades and he'd almost forgotten how easily Aoi could get under his skin; time and loneliness painting his memories of Aoi a rosy hue that had little to do with the prickly bastard smirking at Tenmyouji right now.

'Right,' said Aoi, throwing his hands up in the air. 'Cranky ol' gramps needs to sleep his bad temper off.'

'Whatever,' said Tenmyouji, standing up. 'Good night, Aoi.'

*

It was past midnight when he felt someone pushing him to one side of the bed, all but rolling him down against the wall.

'Budge over.'

'Fuck off.' Tenmyouji pulled the sheets over his head, wondering why he hadn't locked the door to his room when he had the chance. Not that a lock would have stopped Aoi; he would just climb up from outside the building and break into Tenmyouji's flat through the window. Tenmyouji had lost count of all the times Aoi had pulled shit like that in the past and now he's back and looking like he's damned set on making Tenmyouji's life as miserable as possible again.

'C'mon,' said Aoi, voice softening. Ah, the Kurashikis. They always knew how to get what they wanted from people, even the ones that didn't like them very much. 'You're not making me sleep on that mangy old sofa.'

'You're welcome to the floor,' Tenmyouji suggested.

'Dude, I like it rough, but not that rough.' There was a pause, and then Aoi said, 'Junpei.'

Tenmyouji made a growling noise at the back of his throat, but he pulled the covers off his head as he scooted over to one side of the bed.

'Fuck you and your progeny.'

'Big words,' said Aoi, smirking as he made himself comfortable on the bed beside Tenmyouji. 'You think they mean shit?'

'What do you mean?' There was only one pillow on the bed and Aoi ignored that in favour of Tenmyouji's shoulder. Tenmyouji was sure he's going to wake up later half-choked and his circulation cut off, but that was Aoi for you. There was something almost cat-like about his happy disregard for other people's comfort in relation to his own.

'It's weird, sleeping off four decades, yeah? You kinda wonder what it does to your body.'

'They call it Cells Alive System for a reason, you know,' said Tenmyouji. 'Pretty sure everything's still in working order, or she'd never have risked you and the others.'

'Maybe,' said Aoi. 'Or maybe she weighs risks different from you, ever thought that?'

Tenmyouji didn't answer, but he did move so he could press his lips on the top of Aoi's head. Aoi hadn't bothered styling his hair, silvery strands soft and free of the usual sticky products. He also must have been using Quark's shampoo; something that smelled faintly of bubblegum. Innocent scent that didn’t fit Aoi’s image at all and made Tenmyouji smile.

Tenmyouji shouldn't have done this, like Aoi shouldn't be cuddling against him now, but habits were hard to break. Even ones that have fallen into forty years of disuse.

'How was she?'

'How'd you know?' Tenmyouji felt the annoyed rush of Aoi's breath against his neck before Aoi started poking him in the ribs. 'Stop that. Yeah, all right. Esper. I get it.'

'I'm nothing like her,' said Aoi. 'Or even you. But I'm pretty good at receiving information. You're harder to read, but that kid's emotions are all over the place.'

Tenmyouji almost sat up at that, Aoi making an irritated sound at this sudden shift in position and pushing Tenmyouji back on the bed. 'You mean Quark's--?'

'Nah. A bit, I guess. Not enough for it to matter,' said Aoi. 'Normally people can't access the morphogenetic field, yeah? Not in the way espers do. Some people are born with that ability, while some--well, their lives get shook up enough it just happens. Like with you. The kid's kinda similar. Emotions get strong enough and it's bound to leave a mark, no matter if you're an esper or not.'

Of course. And it was because of him that Quark experienced what he did in Rhizome 9. Tenmyouji bit his lower lip, physical tic that would make it easier for Aoi to pick up on what he was thinking, but he was sure Aoi wouldn't mention it. All those years and the words Aoi could have said that would cut deep, except he never did.

'Junpei?'

'She's doing fine,' said Tenmyouji. 'I don't know what I expected, to be honest. When Zero asked me to come to the moon, saying it was my chance to see her again, I agreed without thinking twice about it. Now that it's all over I'm not so sure.'

'Of what?'

'If I made the right decisions.' He sighed and closed his eyes. 'No, it's not that. I spent most of my life hanging on to this faint hope, and I don't even know what it means--what it meant. I might have changed too much. Or not enough.'

Aoi said nothing. Tenmyouji could feel Aoi playing with one of the buttons on his shirt, the silence between them stretching until Tenmyouji opened his eyes to meet Aoi's.

'It's never been easy,' said Aoi. 'Loving her. You know that.'

'Yeah,' said Tenmyouji. It was no more than a whisper; anything louder would have betrayed too much and while Aoi would understand, Tenmyouji didn't think it would be fair to him. Not when Akane was obviously still avoiding her older brother. Tenmyouji couldn’t blame her; Aoi would lose his shit if he knew what Akane had been up to in Rhizome 9. All that effort of getting her back just so she could gamble with her life against a misguided cult. 'Yeah. She's doing fine. Even had a go at playing family with Dr Klim and his son.' He laughed, although it could have also been a sigh. 'I resent that, actually. Before this I would have told you I just want her to be happy. Now? I hate that she could be happy without me.'

Aoi laughed, bobbing his head so that the top of it bumped against Tenmyouji's chin.

'Ow.'

'What do you want me to say?' said Aoi. 'That you're a lying selfish prick?'

'Maybe.'

'Okay. You're a lying selfish prick.'

'You really know how make a man feel better, don't you?'

Aoi moved so he was half-crouched over Tenmyouji, one arm braced against Tenmyouji's chest. 'You're smiling.'

Tenmyouji was. 'Because you're an idiot.'

'Junpei,' said Aoi. 'You do want her to be happy. That's why it hurts.'

*