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"What's this?"

Kantera brushed his thumb against the small spot at the inside of Russell's elbow. At first, Kantera had thought it was yet another bruise the boy had been inflicted with, but as he touched it, a gentle buzz of electricity shot up his hand. The tingle of magic. Not a wound at all, but a soulmark. Russell didn't draw back, so Kantera allowed himself a small examination.

Like most children's soulmarks, it was a rough, silhouetted shape that would develop into something more distinct as Russell grew older. Once he and his soulmate had reached adulthood, they would both have a unique mark on their bodies that only matched with each other. Kantera had seen all kinds in his work, ones as extravagant and fanciful as a crowned crane lifting off in flight, or as modest as a small, black-lined emblem. As of now, however, Russell's was a splotch that vaguely resembled a tailed animal lying in a ball. "A cat, perhaps?" he mused.

"A dragon." Russell's correction sounded uncharacteristically firm—until he quietly added, as if uncomfortable with that confidence, "...That's what it feels like to me."

Kantera squinted, turning his head slightly to mimic Russell's point of view. Ah, he could make it out now. The triangular points he'd mistaken as ears could easily be horns, the humped portion he'd thought of as a hind leg were instead wings, folded back in rest. And now that he looked closer, the tail was rather long and whip-like for a cat. "Hohoh, yes. I see it."

Russell pulled back his arm, glancing at his face out of the corner of his eye. Kantera said nothing, but prepared himself for the inevitable question, one even a shy boy like Russell wouldn't be able to resist. Before the silence between them ran too long, Russell ventured, "What does yours look like, doctor?"

Knowing the inevitable did little to help Kantera with his response. His mouth quirked slightly, and he touched his chin. "I haven't the foggiest idea. A long time has passed since I last bothered to look at it," he admitted. His mark had been slow to come in, and slower to distinguish itself. Its placement in between his shoulder blades made taking stock of it an endeavor that required at least one mirror, so Kantera had never checked it regularly. After the death of his grandfather, however, he'd intentionally stopped looking. The last he'd seen, it had still been a jagged, multicolored patch of skin the size of a silver-dollar.

An adult with an undeveloped mark could infer one of two things about their projected match: that their soulmark hadn't yet developed either, for reasons of illness or age, or that it would never develop, due to genetic anomaly or early death. In his earlier years, Kantera had worried it was the latter. Now, he hoped it.

The idea that there was someone out there made for him, one who would have to accept him and his crimes, who was supposed to share his fate... It irked him. He didn't want to accept it. More than that, Kantera didn't want to think he was denying someone else their own happy ending when he only wished to punish himself.

Russell's blond brows scrunched up and his lips pressed together in a sign of mild displeasure. He'd hoped to learn more, of course, and was bothered by what little Kantera could offer up to him. Russell wasn't the type to push—therefore, it utterly surprised Kantera when those blue eyes raised to meet his, and he said, neither requesting permission or favor: "Let me see it." Kantera was suddenly aware of his heartbeat as the smile slipped from his face. His reluctance was so clearly apparent that Russell took note of it. "I won't tell you what it is," he said. Though not emotionally perceptive, Russell was still an intelligent child. If Kantera truly had no idea what his mark looked like after all this time, he must have not wanted to know.

"Hah..." Kantera let out a soft chuckle. It was unusual for Russell to be persistent about something, so he didn't feel right refusing him. At least he was sure to keep his word. Kantera pushed his fingers into the knot of his obi, carefully pulling it and the rest of his kimono apart. He slid the dark fabric off his shoulders, exposing the pale skin of his chest and back. "'Tis on my back. Take a look, if you insist."

Russell nodded, and moved behind him. Anyone else might have been concerned, showing their vulnerable back to someone who admitted to the things Russell did. Then again, Kantera supposed that sentiment went both ways. The press of Russell's cool fingers on the mark sent another jolt of electricity through him, though this one had nothing to do with magic. Kantera calmed himself quickly, somewhat amused that he'd become so unaccustomed to the touch of another. Russell kept his fingers there for several seconds. The strange sensation must have fascinated him—it was, after all, unlikely that Russell would have touched someone else's mark before.

Kantera had hardly thought about it over the last five years, yet all those ignored and buried feelings were surging forth, swirling in his chest. His soulmark. What had become of it? Kantera was seized with curiosity, and dread. "...Has it formed?" The question tumbling through his mind somehow broke free, spilling into the open air. Kantera stiffened. If Russell told him it had... he wasn't sure what he'd do.

There was a long moment of silence wherein Russell was possibly trying to figure out if the blotch had any distinguishable shape. Or deciding whether he should tell Kantera the truth. In the end, he said, "No."

The tension in Kantera's shoulders evaporated with the word. Part of him was hurt, crushed that there really was no one he could call his own. But a much larger part gleefully drank in that disappointment and whispered that it was exactly what he deserved.

Once Russell returned to his previous spot on the floor, Kantera retied his kimono, and that was that. Seemingly satisfied, Russell let the subject of soulmarks fade entirely and before long, decided it was time to leave.

That night, as Kantera stripped himself for a lukewarm shower, he paused in front of the mirror. There would, of course, be no harm in looking at an undeveloped mark. There was nothing that could be deigned from it, even if he did gaze upon it. Perhaps it was habit, or the irrational fear that things had managed to change in the last few hours—Kantera kept his face turned away.

Instead, he focused on the answer Russell had given him. Beside his relief, something else grew. Comfort, certainty... and conviction. If his match was long gone, there really wasn't any other decision to make, was there?

Indeed, every lingering thread between him and this world had been cut. His family, his soulmate, his homeland... but such things were easier said than done.

A manjuu laced with poison was the most fitting way to go. Kantera had prepared just one. It was from a local shop he quite liked, filled with a nostalgic flavor that almost brought him back to his home. He washed well, styled his hair as though intending to meet an old friend, and dressed in his darkest grey kimono. A long sip of the imported green tea he could afford to special order once a year, and then, he sank his teeth into the soft white bun.

The second the filling touched his tongue, Kantera blanched. Sharp bitterness edged out any sweet taste. Kantera chewed mechanically, ignoring the metallic tingling on the inside of his cheeks, and tried to swallow. Instead, he gagged. There was no way his grandfather could have missed it. Even if the taste of his favorite manjuu had faded from memory, one normally wouldn't chew and swallow the entire bun, or lie and say it tasted delicious afterward.

A drop of poison never made it into his stomach, yet all the projected effects came over him instantly. His skin grew feverish and he felt dizzy enough to pass out. Nausea stirred in his gut as distorted figures swam at the edges of his vision like coiling snakes. Kantera wretched onto the floor piteously, emptying what little contents of his stomach there were.

Cruder methods were equally as ineffective, tentative. Slashes only deep enough to draw blood, stabs that left holes in his clothing and nothing else. Was it cowardice that stayed his hand? Kantera had never feared death, had always thought of it as a gentle transition from this world to the next. The act of dying was something else entirely. There were complications. There was pain, side-effects, the terrible potential of failure.

There was also the sneering voice that told him he couldn't run away. That he hadn't yet paid back what he owed, the price of taking his grandfather's life. How could he escape to the afterlife when he was supposed to live in agony, bearing the brunt of his guilt and despair? He was doomed to suffer until his life ended by the whim of some force of nature.

Ah...

In that instant, Kantera had the answer. It came to him as easily as the day he'd decided to kill Grandfather, and with as much finality.

It was an incredibly cruel thought.

There was someone he could rely on, perhaps, with solemn blue eyes, that barely wavered no matter what horrible things were piled onto his small frame.

A force of nature.

Someone Kantera considered just that.

-

Kantera was calmer than he imagined, when he invited Russell in for tea. Gone was the anxious patter of his heart. His mouth wasn't the least bit dry. Russell was unlikely to judge him or call him a coward. He wouldn't press him for answers or insist that Kantera could be cured of his torment. The absolute worst he could do was refuse him (or maybe, agree to it).

After he'd finished his first cup of tea, he poured himself another and took a long, slow sip. Russell was watching him closely. Waiting. Kantera delayed no longer. "I must admit I've asked you here for a favor, Russell."

Russell's back straightened and his jaw tightened, suppressing any visible reaction. "Would you kill me, Russell?" The words came out smoothly, like he was asking Russell to pass him the teapot. "I've wished to do it by my own hands for... some time now." Kantera felt his smile falter, and pressed it back into place as well as he could. "But it seems I'm only able to ask you."

Russell blinked three times, breathing in and out. His face didn't change. Strangely enough, Kantera thought Russell would be surprised. Not that there was much reason. Kantera had told him about the murder. The nightmares, self-loathing, and unsubstantiated plots to end his life. Maybe since the day Kantera had first invited him back after finding out what he'd done, Russell had been expecting him to ask. Maybe since that day, Kantera had been hoping his wishes would be answered. Surely... he hadn't taken Russell in on ulterior motives alone? He could hear those voices again, the quiet buzz he did his best to tune out flaring into discordant laughter.

Russell stood. And nodded. Kantera let out the breath he'd been holding. When Russell disappeared behind him, he focused on the sound of Russell's light footsteps receding, then meeting the linoleum in his small kitchen. The trill of metal clashing in an opened drawer, and something heavy being pulled out. Kantera could see it out of the corner of eye, the headless statue he'd broken all those years ago. It wasn't laughing any longer. Soon, it would disappear for good, along with him.

Russell returned to him, steps slowing as he came closer. For a moment, Kantera was worried that Russell had decided against it, until he caught the glint of the kitchen knife in his hand. A good choice. Kantera had honed it just the day before. Kantera smiled softly, and closed his eyes.

But nothing came.

Russell didn't shift forward. He didn't force the knife into Kantera's chest with cold indifference. In fact, he didn't move at all. Russell's gaze stayed on the knife's edge, like he was weighing something incredibly important on it.

Kantera had expected him to remain quiet to the very end, but those expectations were shattered with the silence. "Doctor..." he said, "I need to tell you something."

A lump formed in Kantera's throat.

"I wasn't entirely truthful before."

Somehow, Kantera knew exactly what he was referring to without the need for clarification. Russell had seen something after all, and decided not to disclose it. And, fool that he was, Kantera never bothered to check it for sure. So there was someone. He felt sick. "Whatever do you mean?" Kantera asked. His voice wavered despite himself.

"It was unformed," Russell said, a defense against the unspoken accusation that he lied. "...But I could tell what it was anyway." He glanced up, unsure, in an attempt to gauge Kantera without watching too intently. "It was a dragon."

Kantera's eyes widened, mind going blank. That... explained what had distracted Russell so thoroughly during his examination. Somehow, the possibility had been the furthest thought from his mind, that Russell would wind up seeing the very mark he'd shown Kantera minutes before. It was so ridiculous that Kantera wanted to laugh.

When Russell raised his face, any remaining vulnerability had been erased. His hand tightened around the wooden handle. He spoke, in a tone so bored it had to be intentional, "I'm ready when you are."

The resolve Kantera had managed to gather was already cracking from the revelation that he had a soulmate. Now, it crumbled entirely to dust. Kantera could hear it clearly somehow, the near-silent question that must have nagged at Russell day in and day out, no matter how much he tried to smother it: Am I not worth living for?

The reason for telling Kantera at this juncture had nothing to do with clearing a conscience, or letting him know the truth before he died. Russell had simply wished that the knowledge would change his mind.

A wry smirk came to Kantera's lips. "I am certain you are, Russell. As for me, however... 'tis another story." Russell swallowed, and set the knife on the table between them. He seemed to want to speak, but was waiting for something else. Kantera inclined his head to the left, and beckoned him. "Come here, young one."

Though the two had never been particularly physical, Russell tucked himself into Kantera's side as if it was his usual spot. Kantera curled an arm around him, cradling his reassuring warmth. How peculiar. He'd always thought the weight of another body against his would be suffocating.

"I'm sorry, doctor." Russell's eventual words were hesitant, tired, like they'd been mulled over again and again. "I wonder if I shouldn't have told you. You were ready, before."

"Indeed, I was." He could feel Russell twitch at his response, so he tightened his grip on Russell's waist and looked down at him. "However, you were not." When asking Russell to kill him, Kantera had never considered his opinion on the matter, only whether or not he'd do it. A cruel thing to do to a child. "I am the one who owes you an apology. I'm truly sorry I asked that of you."

"I would have done it. I just wanted you to know that..." Russell frowned as he trailed off. If Kantera didn't know better, he would have thought Russell was rambling. Even if he was, Kantera had no reason to stop him. The least he could do was to listen to what Russell had to say, now that he was talking. "I've heard that sometimes, if a person's soulmate dies young, before their marks start to develop... they have a chance of connecting to someone else. Someone who wouldn't normally have one." He turned his eyes upward, asking quietly, "Do you think that's what happened?"

"No," Kantera said. "My mark took a very long time to appear when I was a child, you see. It must have been waiting for you all along. And my, how you kept me waiting."

"...Sorry." Hearing Russell apologize earnestly for something beyond his control made Kantera stifle a chuckle. He raised a hand to the crook of Russell's elbow. Now, when his thumb brushed over the mark, a reverberating thrum ran up his arm. The intensity of it had nearly startled Kantera enough to pull away, thought it wasn't what he'd call unpleasant. Kantera didn't have to double-check the mark in the mirror later; that sensation told him all he needed to know.

Russell had been right.

Kantera considered his next words carefully. His life had been spared, yet again. There wasn't overflowing gratitude or frustration, just acceptance. He'd placed himself in Russell's hands and this was the result. Perhaps this was how things were meant to be. Maybe Russell was his guide on the path to repentance.

"As your soulmate... You are mine, and I, yours, yes?" He didn't wait for Russell to confirm what they both knew to be true. "Young one. Tell me what it is you need from me, and I shall do everything in my power to make it so."

Russell's eyebrows shot up. His lips parted, then fell shut once more.

"Well, Russell?" Kantera gently encouraged.

The voice that came next was strangely raw, as if it'd gotten lost finding its way out of the darkness for years. "...Help me."

A jittery laugh permeated the room. The smashed head of a stone statue rolled along the floor, stopping face-up beside the tea table. Even with it gouged beyond recognition, Kantera could feel it staring at him.

IsN't thaT FunNY? Jagged crooning rang in his ears.

HE wANts YOu to hELp hiM.

BuT YoU CAn'T sAve aNyONe.

AHAhahHAaHAha.

Kantera clenched his eyes tightly, tugging Russell closer as he willed the vision away. When he opened them back up, the ghosts had gone. But for how long?

Russell was watching him, waiting for a response—no, preparing for a refusal. Kantera inhaled deeply, and released a long breath to settle himself. Russell was certain to notice the wild beat of his heart as he leaned over, bumping their foreheads together. "Very well. I shall help you."

He began to pull away, but Russell's hands wound into the cloth of his kimono, holding him in place. "If you do..." he murmured, "I'll make sure you have a happy ending, doctor." Before Kantera could absorb the full brunt of his words, Russell tipped his head, catching Kantera's lips in a light, seeking kiss.

My, what a sweet line. It would have been a beautiful notion coming from any youth, but for Kantera, it was an ironic twist to the story of a killer. What he had hoped to receive from Russell was retribution, but instead he was being promised something he'd never allowed himself to consider. Happiness.

It was... entirely absurd.

Kantera couldn't help himself this time. He laughed, loudly, and kissed Russell back.