Shindou opened his eyes to...he didn't know what this place was. It reminded him of Kado, but it was ten times bigger--and as soon as he thought that, it was a hundred times, a thousand times, ten thousand times bigger.
Pressing a hand to his head, he tried to stop thinking about it. Standing there, he felt as if there were a million of himself. Felt as if he were floating, and swimming, and sitting, and rolling, and running, and sleeping, and--ugh. Better stop thinking about that, too.
Shindou concentrated very hard on stepping forward on the feet he could see, rather than the other feet he knew were there, on other versions of himself, in other places.
This space was endless and shimmering, it was fascinating and stunning.
It was empty.
Hit by the strong impression that something was missing, Shindou sat down, alarmed when the ground rose to form a chair around him.
He rubbed a hand over his face, and wished zaShunina was there.
Then his last moments came rushing back to his memory: the standoff with zaShunina. The prison he never had any intention of trapping him in. zaShunina attacking him, embracing him, and the fury and need and agony in his gaze. Then the disbelief. The distress.
Shindou remembered the pain.
And then nothing.
And now he was here, and amidst all the weirdness had only one certainty: he'd failed not only as a negotiator, but as a friend. In so many ways.
The voice, charming and familiar and heart-wrenching, came from all directions at once, but with a thud of his heart Shindou knew where to turn. He leapt to his feet and span around--and there he was.
Shindou beheld him with caution. Last time they met, zaShunina had tried to kill him.
...zaShunina had killed him, Shindou realised, with utmost certainty. Which meant zaShunina, too had-- But how?
"Shindou," zaShunina took a hesitant step forward. "You're...you're here..." His eyes glistened, and Shindou realised the anisotropic being was crying.
He hadn't known zaShunina could cry.
"Where are we?" he asked, the answer flooding his mind before the words had even finished leaving his lips. "...This is the anisotropic."
"Yes," zaShunina smiled, the expression bright amidst his tears. "I thought I had lost you, Shindou. I thought you would never see this."
Shindou frowned. "You tried to kill me, zaShunina."
The smile fell from zaShunina's face and he bowed his head. "I did."
"I--" zaShunina beheld Shindou, the agony of remorse clear in his gaze. "I didn't want to. I wanted to bring you here. I didn't want to lose you."
"So you killed me." Shindou stared, trying desperately to understand.
"I didn't want to," zaShunina repeated. He moved towards him, faltering when Shindou took a step back. "You were going to imprison me for eternity. I had to stop that. I only intended to stop you. If I made you drop my prison, I would have been safe. I could have healed any wound I inflicted..." he took a sharp breath, fresh tears springing forth. "I never intended to kill you. I wanted to negotiate. But you and Saraka..." zaShunina's expression soured briefly, then became serene. "Your daughter has your strong spirit, Shindou. And she served her purpose well. Hanamori served his, too."
"And I served mine." Shindou uttered the words bitterly, guilt creeping into his heart as he recalled the plan hatched with Saraka, the prison she had handed to him for zaShunina, the child she had borne him. Had he loved Saraka? The answer was shameful. Had she loved him? Shindou wasn't sure, but she loved the Earth. She loved humanity, for all its faults. She was Earth's protector, and had done her job to an admirable perfection.
They had all been a part of the plan. Yukika had been a backup plan. It was as if Saraka had known Shindou wouldn't go through with Plan A. As if she'd known that despite everything, Shindou was still fond of zaShunina. That he still considered him a...friend.
"I'm sorry, Shindou." zaShunina spoke quietly, meek and sincere. "I let myself become too attached. In my time on your world, I learnt too much of human emotions, and let them rule me. I didn't understand those feelings, and hadn't learnt to handle them. I acted rashly, and betrayed you. I don't expect your forgiveness, but know that I'd undo everything if I could. I wouldn't have fought you. I wouldn't have--"
"zaShunina, that's enough," Shindou's voice cut across the atmosphere more harshly than needed, causing zaShunina to flinch.
Shindou frowned, images of their last moments together flashing through his mind. "You can't undo what has been done."
"I know. I'm sorry."
zaShunina looked mournful, so much smaller than Shindou remembered. More fragile. More uncertain.
And Shindou remembered - the last thing he remembered, before he woke up here - how mortified that pale face had been, how grief had filled those charming crimson eyes.
"You didn't intend to kill me..." he murmured. He stepped forward, heart thudding, skin tingling as if he were full of static. "I understand now."
zaShunina smiled, but it was a smile overcome with sadness, with regret. "You let go of my prison before I reached you."
Shindou beheld the puzzlement in zaShunina's face, and smiled, fondness bubbling forth in his stomach. "Because we're friends."
"Friends..." zaShunina looked away, shoulders slumping. "And yet, Saraka..."
"You wanted to take the world to the anisotropic, zaShunina. She is the world's administrator, and she loves the world. She couldn't let you do that."
Shindou nodded. "Love."
"I--" zaShunina shook his head. "I don't understand. Your human books suggested that loving someone means wanting the best for them. Why would she stop me?"
"The world wasn't ready," Shindou moved closer, noticing the way zaShunina remained rooted to the spot, as if he couldn't move. As if he were broken. "Taking the world to the anisotropic could have destroyed it, and everyone in it."
zaShunina shook his head again, rapidly, his eyes filling with tears. Shindou was close enough to reach out to him, but he didn't. He couldn't. The air felt too tense, there was too much still unsaid, and he too felt stuck in place, whilst a million other versions of himself danced and sang and laughed and yearned and--
"You are the world, Shindou," zaShunina took a shuddering breath. "And it hurts. Why does it hurt?" he stared at him imploringly, silently begging for an answer.
zaShunina felt as though his chest had been ripped open, and the feeling was so new to him that he didn't understand it. Shindou knew it, could feel it just by looking at him. It was agony, it was heartache and longing, it was sadness and desire and protectiveness, and Shindou knew the answer.
He just didn't think it the right time to say it.
But zaShunina was crying again, and that hurt too, hurt in such a way that Shindou knew it was his own heart, rather than a reflection of someone else's.
So he reached out and gently pulled him into an embrace.
As zaShunina melted against him, Shindou wondered how different things might have been if he'd done this to begin with.
Yet there was no undoing what had happened, no turning back time to a point before any harm had been done, before feelings had been learned and nurtured and given a name.
"It happens this way, sometimes," Shindou said. The tingling had grown so strong now, it felt like his entire being was vibrating. Shindou closed his eyes, held him tighter.
zaShunina let out a terse laugh, hands rising to grip the back of Shindou's jacket. "I was in your world too long, Shindou. Why does it still feel worth it, despite how it hurts?"
"That's how things work out sometimes..."
"How do you stop it?"
Shindou pulled back, gut clenching at the sight of his tear-streaked face. It looked so different on him. So human. "You can't stop it," he said. "You can only deal with it. Through resolution, or closure, or time..."
"Time has no meaning here, Shindou. This is the anisotropic. There is only eternity."
"Then you have eternity to come to terms with it. To learn and understand."
"Doesn't it ever stop hurting?"
"Sometimes, yes." Shindou wiped a tear from zaShunina's cheek, thumb brushing lightly over soft skin that flushed pink beneath his touch. "If feelings fade, or are realised."
zaShunina turned his head away. "In that case, I don't want these feelings."
"I like you more with them, zaShunina."
Eyes widening, zaShunina looked back at him. "...What is an appropriate reaction to that statement, Shindou?"
He was scared. Shindou could see it in his eyes. And he couldn't blame him. Last time zaShunina didn't understand how to react, things had escalated badly enough to lead them here.
"Most humans," Shindou began, voice softening. "React by confessing their feelings."
"I'm not human."
"It's too late for that."
"I thought you said we had eternity?"
zaShunina's brows rose.
Shindou smiled. For a being so advanced and intelligent, zaShunina was startlingly naive when it came to humans--human emotions, especially. He struggled with them, not knowing how to react, how to behave, how to deal with those feelings. He was struggling right at that moment, and now Shindou thought about it - memories rushing through his mind like a movie stuck on fast-forward - he understood that zaShunina had been struggling all along. zaShunina needed guidance, needed advice. The kind that Shindou had been there to provide at the start, before everything went wrong.
"zaShunina," he said quietly. "Usually people smile and express happiness at a statement like that."
"How can I, after what I did?" zaShunina pulled back and stared at him. "You shared your world with me, Shindou. I wanted to share mine with you. Finding you here pleases me, but I would rather you'd chosen this for yourself."
Shindou tilted his head, slowly comprehending what he was trying to say. "Are you telling me you're relieved? Regretful?"
"Is that what it is? Then yes. I'm sorry, Shindou. I intended for things to be different."
"I'm glad you could tell me that."
"I'm glad you're here, so that I could tell you."
"About that..." Shindou lifted his gaze, staring out across the blank space around them. "How did I get here?"
zaShunina shook his head. "Transporting yours and my essence here will have been one of the last operations Kado performed before its destruction."
"Kado was destroyed?"
"I was destroyed."
"But we're physical here." Shindou touched zaShunina's shoulder. "We're both solid."
A wry smile appeared on zaShunina's lips. "Because we want to be."
"How--" Shindou blinked. "I have a lot to learn about being here."
"You're the first human to enter the anisotropic. We have a lot to learn about you, too..." zaShunina spoke with regret, gazing out towards the endless horizon.
"We? There are more of you?"
"Infinite numbers, Shindou, if you let them in."
"If I let them in?"
"This is..." zaShunina paused, thoughtful, and signalled around them. "Your personal space. Like one of your human apartments. You choose who comes in. Unless you allow them, no one can enter."
Shindou looked at him. "So how did you get here?"
zaShunina looked back, uncertainty flickering through his warm gaze. "You...wanted me, Shindou."
"I did," Shindou recalled how he'd wished for him to be there, right before he'd appeared. He cleared his throat, correcting himself. "I do."
zaShunina shook his head, perplexed. "I don't understand how you can say that after our conflict. After what I did."
"To relieve conflict, all involved parties get together for peace talks, to negotiate a resolution." Shindou smiled. "You wanted to negotiate. We're already talking, so we're a step closer to finding a resolution."
"What's the next step?" zaShunina asked. He leaned back as if sitting, and Shindou found the floor rising up to become chairs like earlier, a table forming between them.
Privately thinking that he'd need eternity to get used to this, Shindou clasped his hands atop the table and leaned forward.
"We both state what we want to achieve," he said.
"I achieved what I wanted. You're here." zaShunina peered wistfully across the table at him. "What do you want to achieve, Shindou?"
"I would like to achieve an understanding between us that allows for improved relations in the future."
"You want to be friends."
"Yes. It's a resolution that would be pleasing to us both, isn't it?" Shindou smiled. "You achieved what you wanted before, but what do you want now, zaShunina?"
zaShunina studied his hands, pink rising in his cheeks. "You," he murmured.
Shindou sat back, the tingling sensation returning tenfold. zaShunina's expression was unmistakable. His statement couldn't be misconstrued as anything else.
Gulping, Shindou chose his words carefully. "Then I think we're close to reaching a resolution. But it may take some time."
"Time..." zaShunina slumped. "We're eternal, Shindou."
"It won't take an eternity. May I make a proposal?" Shindou paused for zaShunina's nod, then continued. "We both have a lot to learn, zaShunina. Things we can teach each other. You wanted to learn more about humans and emotions. I can teach you that."
zaShunina tilted his head. "And in return?"
"In return, you can teach me about the anisotropic and how to do all I need to do here. How to exist here."
Shindou watched as zaShunina contemplated this. His features were tense, but softened as he considered the suggestion, regaining some of that appealing serenity that Shindou had seen when they first met.
"...Acceptable," zaShunina nodded, and the smile that formed upon his lips was uncharacteristically shy, tentative.
"Then we're in agreement." Shindou reached out a hand.
zaShunina's touch was delicate as they shook hands, and when they parted he stared at his palm for a long moment before closing his hand, as if he were holding onto something precious.
"What happens now, Shindou?" he asked.
"We begin work on the resolution."
"You want to learn about the anisotropic."
Shindou nodded, standing as the table between them faded away. "Is it always this...empty?"
"It's everything and nothing. It's what you make of it," zaShunina tilted his head. "You wanted a chair, and you got a chair. You wanted a table, you got a table. You wanted me here, and so I am here."
"All I have to do is want something?"
"Essentially. This can be anything you desire, Shindou. You merely have to want it. There are no limits."
That sounded simple enough. Shindou beheld the shimmering yet flat landscape around them, and thought of what he wanted most. He glanced at zaShunina, who stood there waiting, watching, wondering. He remembered a beautiful day in his youth, and what it had been like, and how much he'd wanted to show zaShunina that place, if only it still existed.
The ground pulsed, and sections began to rise up around them, colours changing and shapes forming, whilst overhead a blue sky took form.
Shindou remembered more details as other objects came into being--the mountains on the horizon, the cool air, the little teahouse in the distance.
The only thing missing from his memories was the people. But Shindou didn't want other people. zaShunina was already there, and that was all Shindou wanted.
Before long the scene was complete. Gnarled cherry trees rose up around them, casting shade across the lush grass. There were flowers underfoot, simple daisies pushing their way up through the grass and little patches of daffodils beneath the trees. A breeze blew, shaking loose a shower of pink petals.
"What do you think?" Shindou asked.
zaShunina stared at the scenery. "...you don't need me to teach you, Shindou. That's what I think. You already understand how the anisotropic works."
"Then I'd better uphold my side of the agreement."
Shindou paused, allowing himself a moment to think whilst a million other versions of himself worked, and rested, and relaxed. What did he want from this? What were the risks, the advantages, the possible outcomes?
None of this would effect the Earth. Earth was safe. He could likely never go back. He was here now, in the anisotropic. He was with zaShunina. Things could get better. All he needed to do was give him a helping hand, to talk and to listen.
To tell the truth, and remain truthful.
"...Let's walk to that teahouse," Shindou said softly.
"Shindou, you need only wish to be there."
"Right." he concentrated, and the beautiful scenery rushed past them until there they were, standing in front of the teahouse.
Shindou sat down on the veranda, and patted the space beside him in silent invitation. zaShunina settled there gracefully, and a moment of concentration produced a tray of tea, which Shindou served.
"You're talented at this," zaShunina remarked, curling his fingers around his teacup. "I never believed a human could find it so easy. Humans are too stuck in their ways..." he tilted his head, a soft smile upon his features. "Except you, Shindou. You're one of a kind. Shinawa has a great understanding of the anisotropic, but you have a greater spirit for it."
"You're unique yourself, zaShunina," Shindou smiled back and took a sip of tea, his body feeling as hot as the drink itself.
"There are an infinite number of anisotropic beings..." zaShunina gazed across the grass, to the edge of the trees where they'd been standing not so long ago.
"But you're the only one who came to Earth, and learnt about us..." Shindou paused, briefly questioning his own timing. But time meant nothing here, did it? "...you learnt to love," he added quietly.
"Love..." zaShunina's gaze became wistful. "I have yet to understand what that feeling is."
"I think you do. You just haven't put a name to it." Pushing the tray aside, Shindou shifted closer. "Love is that sense of longing. It's the desire to protect. It's...sometimes misguided, and leads to bad decisions."
zaShunina leaned back on his hands, thoughtful. "You're talking about your own experiences."
"My own experiences are all I have."
"I don't believe you ever made a bad decision, Shindou. You always consider every aspect of a situation, and choose what is best for everybody."
"That was logic. It was a bad decision to always let my head rule over my heart."
"Everybody loved you for that. It's an admirable quality."
"In the workplace, it was. But to stifle the will of the heart was foolish, and only led to pain."
"Is that what love is? The will of the heart?" zaShunina looked at his chest, gaze questioning. "Is that why it hurts, Shindou?"
"That's why it hurts..." Shindou sighed and raked a hand through his hair. This was far from easy.
"And it only stops if the feeling fades? Or is realised..."
"I don't want this." zaShunina pushed himself up, brow creased. He pressed a hand to his chest. "Your books taught me that love is an incredible feeling, that it's good and pure. This doesn't feel good, Shindou."
"It doesn't feel good for me, either. Being hurt by the one you love is something only time can heal. Time, and better understanding."
"Did that Saraka hurt you?" zaShunina scowled.
"I don't love her. She never did me harm." Shindou looked at him pointedly, heart thudding. "zaShunina--"
"You wished I was here..." A look of wonder formed on zaShunina's face as he comprehended what Shindou was saying. His eyes grew wide, his lips parting in a gasp.
Shindou tilted his head. "Does it feel better now?"
zaShunina shook his head rapidly, tears welling up in his eyes. "It feels worse! I hurt you. I committed the worst crime in your human world. It's illogical for you to feel that way."
"Love is illogical," Shindou traced the path of a tear with his fingertip, down the smooth contours of his face. "It hurts sometimes. It becomes almost unbearable. But in time, if that love is realised, if all hurts and wrongs are forgiven and forgotten, it can be beautiful."
zaShunina caught hold of Shindou's hand, intertwining their fingers. He rubbed his cheek against his palm, eyes heavy-lidded and regretful. "Surely some wrongs are too great to be forgiven, even with time."
Shindou cupped his chin. zaShunina's breath hitched, and Shindou smiled. His body felt tingly and warm, as if strong electricity coursed through his veins.
"You said it yourself," he murmured. "We have eternity."
"Shindou, I..." zaShunina blinked back tears. His face was innocent, awe-struck, angelic, and his voice was but a whisper. "I love you, Shindou."
"Does it feel good now?"
"Ah." Shindou's fingers wove into zaShunina's hair and he leaned in, lips brushing softly, chastely against his. The tingling grew even stronger, and Shindou pulled back in surprise and smiled at zaShunina's expression. "I believe we've found our true resolution."
zaShunina's cheeks were flushed pink, his eyes wide as he pressed his fingers to his lips. "Our true resolution...?"
The tingling hadn't subsided. Warm and gentle, it seemed to bloom outwards, beyond the physical limits of Shindou's body and into everything that lay around them. Their surroundings gleamed, and Shindou couldn't stop smiling.
"I wished you here. You want me. We have a mutual desire to be together."
A smile found its way onto zaShunina's face, sweet and tender. "A true resolution indeed."
"Then our negotiations are complete." Shindou said. "How does it feel now?"
"Your language has no fitting words for it, Shindou. I will have to settle for 'incredible'."
A soft laugh escaped Shindou's lips. "Incredible is a good start."
With that, he closed the space between them once more, claiming his lips in a kiss that was tender, and gentle, and sweet. And as eyes slid closed and kisses became deeper, as skin tingled and hearts pounded in unison, a million different versions of themselves smiled, and embraced, and fell in love.