Ashura. Ranmaru remembered the name following him at tournaments, a sibilant whisper beneath the drum of the crowd. He remembered how his shinai spoke the same name as it swooped through the air. Ashura: fierce, beautiful warrior god, protector of the faith. He saw its semblance once, at Kofuku-ji in Nara; the lacquer figure bore three red faces, six thin, graceful arms and a mien of fearlessness.
“Ashura,” he said softly, incredulously. He was down to one arm now, and one very red face, hectic with exertion. The sick-making snarl of fright deep in his belly was almost unbearable. Around him, the rehab centre was empty and dim. He raised his eyes with care to the clock, determined to maintain his uneasy balance, and a sob escaped him when he realised how late it was, and how long it had taken to force his body along the parallel bars. They were just three metres long.
The nurse would probably come for him soon; she would help him into his chair and wheel him back to his room where he would lie in bed all night, pitiful and broken. The thought spurred him, and he straightened his body slowly, raising himself to somewhere just shy of his full height. He could see his reflection in the mirror on the far wall; he looked like a shadow, dark and skewed.
Settling his weight hard on his left arm and leg, he dragged his eyes from his frail image to the deadweight of reality. His right wrist was slung across the bar, the fingers gnarled uselessly in sleep; his right leg trailed in his body’s wake. Drawing a deep breath, he pivotted on the ball of one sock-clad, overworked foot as the obedient half of his body flung its stubborn counterpart through an awkward, 180 degree arc. His right wrist almost missed its mark on the opposite bar, but he spared one finger from his left hand’s death grip to hook the pyjama cuff into place before it could slide off the end. He bent his left knee until the right arm was dangled over the bar to the elbow, and when he was sure he was secure, he switched his left hand rapidly from one bar to the other and performed the undignified little hippity hops on his left foot necessary to negotiate another three metre marathon.
He stared at the far end of the bars, panting and despairing; it was like being trapped in a perspective nightmare. “Ash-” he started to say again, then choked, his eyes filling and dropping from the near impossible distance to his poor, baffled feet. “Ashi sabaki.” This needed all the fancy footwork he could summon.
He struggled forward once more, muscles trembling and lungs heaving, until a crash startled him from his misery; he glanced up to see Enjouji standing tall in the doorway, looking so strong and beautiful, and he remembered why he was doing this.
Enjouji was sucking on Ranmaru’s earlobe when the nurse appeared; she caved quickly in the face of Enjouji’s relentless charm and left them alone.
Ranmaru smacked him for the hell of it, making Enjouji laugh and yelp, “Have mercy!”
It was like someone switched the sun on in rehab, injecting life and heat into his floundering body. “Just this once,” Ranmaru said, stroking Enjouji’s cheek where his palm had left a red mark. Enjouji’s skin felt unspeakably tender beneath his sweat-sticky fingertips. “Not that you deserve it.”
“No, I don’t,” Enjouji said, as he turned his head cat-like in Ranmaru’s hand. “But I need it.” He took Ranmaru’s wrist and lapped at his fingers, and fear rose again inside Ranmaru, stronger than desire, because his legs lay crumpled beneath him and his right hand lolled somewhere behind, and he was so very vulnerable. Then Enjouji spat his fingers out with a grin, saying, “You taste like foam rubber,” and the fear subsided, just a little.
“Lick my other hand if your tongue’s so bored,” Ranmaru said, twisting his shoulders until his right hand slid sluggishly across the floor mat. “It hasn’t done a thing all day, so it shouldn’t taste too bad.” Looking down, he couldn’t even see it; it was as if his right arm stopped at the wrist.
Enjouji anchored him, careful and close, before reaching down to draw the lagging hand to his lips. Ranmaru’s fingers were twisted with cramps he didn’t feel, and his skin looked raw and marked up with nicks, but the press of Enjouji’s mouth eased him somehow; Enjouji wouldn’t let him fall. “Do you hear the way Ran-chan speaks about you, poor hand?” Enjouji asked with an earnest expression. “Casting aspersions, when it’s obvious you’ve been in the wars. It’s about time he remembered you’re an important part of this body.”
“Whose body?” Ranmaru asked, unable to resist a smile. He must be making progress if Enjouji felt cocky enough to tease.
“My body, of course,” Enjouji said with a cheeky grin. He nuzzled the pads and grooves of Ranmaru’s palm with his lips; Ranmaru’s nails were too long, raking across the stark line of Enjouji’s jaw. “It’s all mine, and I love it more than you’ll know. And this hand?” He took Ranmaru’s wrist and brandished it high; the fingers relaxed and then curled unconsciously into a fist. “It’s the best. It shoved me out of the path of an oncoming car when it could’ve been saving its own skin. Should’ve been. You better believe this hand can do anything.”
“Yeah,” Ranmaru said, more for Enjouji’s sake than from any sense of conviction, although he had to admit his hand felt less a stranger when Enjouji held it like that, like something to be treasured and perhaps feared. Enjouji gathered him up with a soft, pleased grunt, and Ranmaru felt acutely aware of himself, held somewhere between substance and grace. He wasn’t some god to know how this struggle would end, but doubt only made the fight more interesting.