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between wrath and mercy

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A sickening crack echoes over S. Kaoru flies through the air.

Before he hits the ground, varied gasps and several shrill shouts of, “Cherry!” escape the crowd, but it might as well be an ocean away.

His body slides against the ground. “Kaoru,” Kojiro whispers, his strained fists draining the blood from his knuckles.

A firm hand grasps his shoulder, but Kojiro’s eyes don’t dare part the screen. “Joe,” Hiromi says, his tone low and sympathetic.

“Don’t touch me,” Kojiro says, shaking him off.

Adam approaches Kaoru’s unmoving form.

“Kaoru!” Kojiro shouts as he rips away from the crowd.

***

From the backseat of Hiromi’s car, holding Kaoru’s upper body in his lap, Kojiro yells, “Drive,” at Hiromi.

“I’m going,” Hiromi mumbles, shifting the car into gear. As he speeds his way out of S, Hiromi asks, “Is he awake?”

“No,” Kojiro replies as he gently caresses Kaoru’s face in his hand. “Hey, do me a favor, will you?” he asks Hiromi.

“Sure.”

“Can you turn on the radio? And don’t…don’t pay attention to us.”

Under different circumstances, Hiromi might have argued or made fun of him, but instead he says, “You got it,” and turns on a classic rock station loud enough to drown out any other noise.

Kojiro succumbs to the tears he’s been holding onto since he lifted Kaoru from the ground. Shaky fingers pull down Kaoru’s tattered mask, carefully peeling it from the tiny scrapes imbedding his skin.

When Kaoru’s face is free of fabric, Kojiro whispers, “Hey, there he is,” through his tears, through the overwhelming urge to crumble. “Kaoru,” he says, stifling a sob as his fingers graze Kaoru’s jawline.

“You’re okay,” Kojiro tells him, laying an arm flat across his chest and holding his shoulder in his palm. With his other hand, he brushes through Kaoru’s hair with his fingers, marveling at how soft it is even after a brutal fall. “You’re gonna be just fine,” he says, and lets go of Kaoru’s hair to cradle his cheek once more.

The incessant voice in his head whispering, You don’t know that, finally contorts his face into a sob. Kojiro blinks and his eyes remain closed, his body rigid in a silent weep. When he can’t breathe, he hunches over and ever-so-gently touches his forehead to Kaoru’s, mindful of the injured portion of his forehead. Where Adam—

No. Kojiro can’t think about Adam right now. I’ll deal with him when— if— I need to.

Kojiro pulls away to speak directly to Kaoru again. “You’re gonna wake up, Four-Eyes,” he rasps and breathes a humorless laugh. “You’re gonna wake up, and I’m gonna be right there, and I’m gonna tell you…”

I love you.

Kojiro rests his neck against the headrest, breathing heavily. He glances out and sees Hiromi completely focused on the road. Noting their surroundings, Kojiro figures they’ll arrive at the hospital shortly.

Looking back down at Kaoru, Kojiro speaks again with desperation, “You’re gonna get better, and I’m gonna take you back to Italy, and that restaurant you were wrong about, and I’m gonna tell you…”

I never once stopped loving you.

The music lowers and Hiromi informs him, “I’m turning in now.”

Kojiro clears his throat. “Okay,” he replies. Hiromi dials the radio back up.

Kojiro spends the final moments before the car slows to a halt attempting to stop his tears.

With the car in park, Hiromi tells Kojiro to, “Wait here,” and jumps out, leaving them alone.

Moving his neck as little as possible, Kojiro maneuvers Kaoru so he’s cradling him in his arms with his head against Kojiro’s shoulder. One final attempt, Kojiro begs into Kaoru’s ear, “Please wake up, baby. Don’t leave me— not like this. Please wake up. Kaoru…”

The entrance to the hospital slides open as several orderlies push a gurney toward the car. When he notices them, Kojiro whispers, “I love you, Kaoru. I love you,” then the car door opens.

“Out of the car, sir,” one of the orderlies says.

“Okay,” he replies, his eyes still stuck on Kaoru. Kojiro presses a quick kiss between his eyebrows, then slips out of the car with Kaoru in his arms.

Someone tells Kojiro, “Lay him down and don’t move his head,” and he does his best.

Once Kaoru is flat on the gurney, Kojiro grabs his hand and whispers, “Kaoru,” and thinks, He’s never looked so small. They begin wheeling him into the hospital, and their hands separate.

“Kaoru,” he calls after them, and Hiromi stops him from following with an arm around Kojiro’s shoulder. “Kaoru,” Kojiro whispers as he disappears into the hospital.

“They’re gonna take care of him,” Hiromi says in a low voice.

Kojiro nods and sniffles, crossing his arms over his chest. “Yeah,” he replies, staring at the doors like Kaoru might emerge from them good as new.

“Do you need a hug?” Hiromi asks, and Kojiro scoffs.

He says, “No,” but when Hiromi’s arm falls away, Kojiro turns and flings his arms around his shoulders.

Hiromi stays still for a stunned moment, then returns the hug and says, “It’s gonna be okay.”

Whether he believes it or not, Kojiro shudders, “I know,” then lets go and steps back from Hiromi with his hands shoved awkwardly in his pockets.

Hiromi glances around just as uncomfortably before announcing, “Well, I better get back to S and make sure the kids get home okay.”

“Yeah.”

“Do you want me to come back later? I can give you a ride home,” Hiromi offers, but Kojiro shakes his head.

“That’s okay. I’m gonna stay here.”

Hiromi nods and moves toward the car, but Kojiro says, “Hey, Hiromi?”

After staring at him for a moment, Hiromi asks, “You know my name?”

Kojiro chuckles and says, “Well, yeah. No one’s really named Shadow.”

Hiromi scoffs. “What is it?” he asks.

“Thank you, for everything. I don’t know what I would’ve done if…”

“Don’t mention it,” Hiromi says, then walks around to the driver’s side. “Joe?” he asks after opening the door.

“Yeah?”

“He’ll pull through; he’s tough. Just like you.”

Kojiro manages a smile, then says, “Thanks, man.” Hiromi ducks into the car, but when Kojiro shouts, “Hey,” his head pops out once more.

“What?” he asks.

“Call me Kojiro.”

Hiromi’s eyes widen, then he smiles and nods before entering the car and closing the door for good. After the pink car drives off, Kojiro stands alone in front of the hospital. He sighs, staring up at the huge building, wondering what’s happening to Kaoru right now, if he’s in pain, if he’s scared.

Kojiro begins walking toward the door. There’s only one way to find out.

***

The hospital coffee is bitter, even with an amount of cream and sugar Kaoru would berate him for. Kojiro forces it down, grimacing as he does. He sets the cup on Kaoru’s bedside table, crosses his legs, and waits.

The room’s only available armchair is almost too small for Kojiro, but it’s good enough. As the nurse adjusts something with Kaoru’s IV, he murmurs, “You know, I’m really not supposed to let you stay here if you’re not family.”

“And you know that I’m his boyfriend, because I told you, so either call security, or back off.” It’s not true, but it would’ve been a year ago, and it’s easier than saying, He’s my ex I’ve known since kindergarten who I’m still very much in love with.

The nurse sighs and writes something down on his clipboard. He says, “Okay, but if anyone asks, I’m not the one who let you.”

“Deal.”

He crosses to the other side of the bed and says, “Okay. He should be stable for the night. Just press the button if he wakes up.”

“Okay. Thanks.”

As the nurse walks out, Kojiro says, “Hey. Can I ask you something?” He only shrugs, so Kojiro asks, “Do you think he’s gonna be okay?”

“The doctor said—”

“I know what the doctor said.” A whole lot of, ‘We don’t know.’ “But what do you think?”

The nurse’s expression softens, then he says, “A lot depends on what he remembers when he wakes up. But I think he should make a full physical recovery either way.”

Kojiro releases a trapped breath and says, “Okay. Full physical recovery, that’s good.”

The nurse gives him a half-smile. “That’s not a guarantee, though. And he might not remember anything, or who you even are.”

Kojiro nods, staring at Kaoru. “That’s okay,” he replies, then reaches for Kaoru’s limp hand. “I’ve been through worse.”

A silence falls over the room, leaving only the whir of medical machinery. Then, the nurse says, “He’s lucky to have you.”

Kojiro smiles, first to himself, then to the nurse. “I hope so,” he says, and the nurse nods.

He leaves the room as Kojiro brings Kaoru’s hand to his lips and gingerly kisses the back of it. Kojiro plants his elbows on the stiff mattress and places Kaoru’s palm on his forehead. His cold fingers are soothing against Kojiro’s hot skin, and he likes to think he’s helping warm Kaoru up.

Kojiro heaves a heavy sigh, then kisses each of Kaoru’s fingers and tells him, “You scared the hell out of me.”

He places Kaoru’s hand back at his side, then scoots the chair as close to the bed as he can. Kojiro rests his head on Kaoru’s shoulder, turned so he can see his face. “I don’t care if you remember me,” Kojiro whispers, running his fingers along Kaoru’s uninjured arm, “I just want you to wake up.”

And though Kojiro hasn’t prayed in years, when his eyes drift closed, he talks directly to God. Wake him up.

***

He awakens to a soft, but firm, “Kojiro,” and familiar fingers brushing his hair from his face.

Kojiro groans and sits up, rubbing his sore neck and blinking exhausted eyelids open. “Wha…?” he says as he catches his bearings, remembering where he is.

“Kaoru,” he whispers, standing from the chair.

Kaoru stares at him with his usual unimpressed expression, and Kojiro’s chest swells with optimism. “What are you doing here, ape?” Kaoru asks, but he doesn’t try to stop his smile as he says it.

“You remember?” Kojiro asks hopefully.

Kaoru scoffs. “You’re too annoying for me to forget. Trust me, I’ve tried.” He sits up a bit and winces.

“Are you okay?”

“Well, no,” Kaoru deadpans, holding up his bandaged arm. Kojiro rolls his eyes. “But yeah. I’m okay.”

“Okay, well, we should call the nurse,” Kojiro says, looking around for the button.

Kaoru says, “The only thing you should do is go home, Kojiro.”

“What? No way,” Kojiro dismisses as he bends down to study the mass of wires on the floor. “There should be a button somewhere, they told me there’s a button—”

“Kojiro,” Kaoru interrupts, pointing to the button attached to his bed.

“Oh,” Kojiro mumbles, and sits back on the armchair. “Well, go on. Press it.” Kaoru glares at him and notably does not press the button. “What?” Kojiro asks in annoyance.

“I told you to go home. You shouldn’t be sleeping like that with your back problems.”

Kojiro grins at him. Kaoru’s scowl intensifies. “You think you’re gonna get rid of me with a little back pain?”

“I’ll show you back pain,” Kaoru growls, reaching out for Kojiro, who leans away from him and howls a laugh.

“Oh, that’s priceless, princess.”

“Shut. Up.”

Kojiro laughs again, then scoots forward once more. Kaoru grabs his jacket in his fist and Kojiro flirtatiously says, “Okay, you got me. Now what?”

As Kaoru blinks, his indignation disappears. “Just…lay with me,” Kaoru says, and the simplicity in his voice hollows something in Kojiro.

“But you’re supposed to call the nurse—”

“I know,” Kaoru says, caressing Kojiro’s jacket between his fingers. “Lay with me anyway.”

Somehow, Kaoru manages to make just enough room for Kojiro to climb into the bed. After a lot of, “You’re on my arm, gorilla,” and, “You’re elbowing me, asshole,” they finally settle with Kaoru holding Kojiro’s head in his arms.

Kojiro closes his eyes and silently thanks every deity he can think of as he holds tightly to Kaoru’s waist. He sighs sleepily when Kaoru’s fingers twist through his hair and scratch lightly at his scalp.

“Are you tired?” Kaoru asks, and all Kojiro can do is nod. “Go back to sleep,” Kaoru tells him.

Kojiro nods again and allows Kaoru’s soothing fingers to lull him onto the outskirts of a dream. His eyes blink open again when Kaoru softly asks, “Kojiro?”

He looks up at Kaoru, who stares stoically back. “Yeah?”

Kaoru’s hand abandons Kojiro’s hair for his face, cradling it tenderly in his palm. “Thank you.”

Kojiro smiles at him. “For what?”

“For being here,” Kaoru replies, dipping his finger into one of Kojiro’s dimples. “For saving me.”

Kojiro’s palm encloses Kaoru’s hand and he replies, “No. Thank you.”

Kaoru half-smiles back. “For what?”

Slowly, deliberately, Kojiro brings Kaoru’s palm to his lips, where he presses a single kiss.

“For waking up.”