Oneshot; set 18 years in the past, and two years in the future; a little precious, because, you know, 5 year old Takaba... Written Sept 2008
His mother's voice soon faded into the distance as his short legs carried him away from home and toward the playground. He was making a break for it. There was probably going to be a spanking in his future, but he just had to go back.
He patted his pockets to make sure everything was there. He wasn't sure what puppies ate, so he'd snuck a bunch of things off the table during dinner. Grandpa had caught him putting a pickle in his pocket, but he hadn't said anything, just winked.
Grandpa was his favorite person in the whole world. His room was full of treasures and he had stories to go with all of them. Akihito had never known his grandpa was so famous around the world until he started hearing his heroic adventures. He'd saved millions of people from ships sinking and earthquakes and wild animals and bad guys.
His favorite story though was the one where Grandpa rescued the Chinese princess from a dragon; but even though she asked him to stay and be her emperor he came home with Grandma and got married. Grandma must have been pretty special with Grandpa giving up all that for her. Akihito told Grandpa that once and he just laughed and said he liked the dragon better, winking at Grandma, who smacked him for telling such stories to a five year old. Akihito thought Grandma was kind of scary sometimes.
He stopped suddenly and looked around, a little unsure that he was headed the right way, never having been so far from home on his own. But he saw a big house that he recognized around a corner and happily set off down that street, deciding he'd get to where he wanted sooner or later as long as he was brave and kept going. His legs were starting to get tired though. It didn't seem as far when he came with his mom.
But nothing would stop him, not with the puppy waiting ahead. It would be awfully hungry by now. The little black and white dog had whimpered when he'd been dragged away earlier that day, and he'd felt so bad while he was eating when he knew the dog was not. He knew Mom would say no if he asked to come back, so he'd made a Plan. He was going to do what Grandpa would do and be a hero.
And, well, if the puppy happened to follow him home after that, he wouldn't be able to stop it. He giggled. The spanking would be worth it.
He finally spotted the park up ahead and his legs started pumping as he ran the last few meters into the quiet, darkening playground. There weren't any families there at that time of the day. A cool breeze blew through, making him shiver because he hadn't thought of bringing a coat.
"Puppy!? Where are you?" His high-pitched voice echoed a little through the empty lot. He stood in the middle, turning in circles. "Puppy? I brought you some dinner...." The yard was still. He ran around the swings and the sandbox, calling out, but no one was there. Dreams of the answering happy barks he'd wanted to hear faded to a sad reality. The puppy was gone.
Dejected, he squatted on the ground and started drawing pictures in the sand of a little boy and his dog, playing with balls and kites and having fun with each other. He sniffed and rubbed his eyes. Maybe someone found it and took it home and it had a happy full belly. That was probably it. It was probably happy and not lonely at all. A drop fell onto his picture. He wiped his eyes again, thinking a tear had fallen, but it wasn't him. Rain started pattering across the sand, erasing all his stories. When he looked up a big black cloud was just moving overhead. Lighting cracked down out of the sky with a burst of thunder and hit a nearby lamppost, sending him scrambling.
That was when he heard a noise off to the right, a loud clatter from the direction of a small shed on the corner of the grounds. Suddenly the cold grey park didn't seem so friendly. He started to back away when his imagination took over. What if it was a monster? He knew they were real because Grandpa had fought so many. But then what if it was the puppy and it was trapped? It could die in there. It was probably scared.
Akihito stood frozen, his fear warring with his need to help. He kept trying to make his feet move forward but they didn't want to go. A new noise reached his ears, a moan. It sounded like it was hurt. Concern broke whatever hold the fear had and he raced forward. If it was something bad, he'd just run the other way as fast as he could. He burst through the door prepared for battle and stopped in shock.
A boy lay curled on the dirt floor, surrounded by scattered yard tools and playground equipment. Akihito looked him over, uncertain. He looked kind of scruffy, and there were bruises on his face. He knew only bad boys fought, but then Grandpa fought too, to save people. Maybe what mattered was why you were fighting.
He took a hesitant step forward. "Hey," he said in almost a whisper, "are you okay?" There was no answer. It made him even more nervous. Maybe he should leave. Maybe get someone who could help. "I'll get a grownup, okay?" He turned, eager to get away, but a hand grabbed his ankle. Just like a monster would. His legs felt like gummy candies, barely holding him up.
"No. Don't get anyone. Grownups don't help. Grownups just..." The voice dropped away as the boy raised his head and looked at him through one eye. The other was black and swollen practically shut. Akihito looked closer. Not a monster. Someone a monster had hurt. His heart was lost.
"Just don't get anyone." The boy struggled a little, trying to sit up. Akihito ran over and took hold of his arm, trying to help, the other shooting him a look of surprise. "You're pretty strong for such a little guy."
"I'm scrappy for my age," he said, parroting what his grandpa had told him.
The answering chuckle was followed by a wince. "Are you? I think you are. What's your name?"
"Takaba Akihito. Block 5, Lot 3, Building—"
"Easy, I don't need name, rank and serial number."
He knew what that was from Grandpa's stories. "I know that," he scoffed. "You only give that when you're a prisoner of war. That happened to my Grandpa a lot. He's Takaba Hoshiro." That last was said a little proudly, because it wasn't every boy who could claim a grandpa like his.
"Is he?" The other boy's golden eyes glowed with amusement. "Well, that explains a lot." He shifted, groaning a little.
Akihito saw that he was still hurting and felt bad for standing there bragging. "Why don't you go home and let your mom take care of you?"
A shutter fell across the other's eyes. "Is that what your mom would do? Lucky kid. I don't have a mom."
Oh. No mom? He thought about what that would be like. No hugs in the morning and before he went to sleep. No one making his favorite pudding. No one making sure he wore his coat. No one to worry about him being lost somewhere. A guilty feeling crept up. His mom would be upset right now.
And this boy didn't even have a mom. He inched his way forward and cautiously stretched his arm out, petting the boy's shoulder, trying not to look at the eyes that were fixed on him. He felt like he was at the zoo and reaching between the bars of the tiger cage.
The soft voice startled him. "You're a brave one, Takaba Akihito."
The boy was wrong. He was very afraid.
A short sniff from the other made him jump. "Why do I smell pickles?"
"Pickles...? Oh! It's puppy food."
"Puppy? What the hell kind of dog eats pickles?"
"Mine would have!" Not that it mattered. His fierceness left him and his shoulders fell. "Only it's not mine. It's gone. I hope it went home with someone who loves it." Though in his heart he actually hated the little boy he imagined had taken his puppy.
"I doubt it did."
What? It wasn't safe?
Tears filled his eyes as the boy casually continued. "It probably..."
"Probably what?" he demanded, his voice rising a little.
But the other had stopped speaking and was looking at him. The older boy reached out with a large hand and ruffled his hair, then brushed at his cheek. "You're right. Now that I think about it, I heard someone come to pick it up."
"You did? Are you sure? 'Cause if he's not safe we've got to help him!"
"You would, wouldn't you? But there's no need. I'm sure."
He couldn't help the big smile that burst across his face. Sure, he'd wanted the puppy, but knowing it was happy was more important.
There was a glimmer of an answering smile in the growing darkness. "Yeah. So if you're not eating that puppy food, would you mind sharing it?"
Thunder boomed outside the shed again. He turned and glanced out into the nearly dark yard. Rain was pouring down and it was completely muddy now. There was no way he was going home through it.
He looked back at the bigger boy. It wasn't so scary with him smiling. Maybe he was like the puppy, and just needed some food and love.
"I have a hamburger too," he offered shyly.
"In your pocket?" The smile he liked turned into a laugh. "Do you have a soda in there too?"
He shook his head in dismay, only to have the boy laugh again and pat his head. "That's alright, kid. You're a lifesaver. If we want a drink there's plenty of water falling."
The burger was a little fuzzy but he brushed it off and gave it to the boy who wolfed it down, not minding. It was like he hadn't eaten in a while. Akihito emptied his pockets of all the food he'd brought for the dog, and watched as it disappeared. An idea started to form in his head.
"We have more at home." Maybe instead of a puppy he could have an older brother. "If you wanted, maybe you could come home with me."
"I have the feeling your family wouldn't like that too much." The last pickle was munched and swallowed. The dinner roll disappeared in two bites.
They probably wouldn't, but Grandpa would. "My grandpa would help. He's a hero." His eyes wandered back outside. Grandpa was probably worried too now. He gnawed at his lip. It wouldn't be so easy to get home. Everything looked strange in the dark. Kind of scary.
"Come here, Akihito."
He turned his eyes back to the boy, who was holding out a hand and simply looking at him, command in his gaze. He wasn't afraid of him anymore, and walked forward without hesitation.
"Trust me, do you?" He was pulled down onto a warm lap.
"You shouldn't. If you meet me again, don't." Arms pulled him against a warm chest. "But for tonight, you can. Once it stops raining, I'll see that you get home."
He sagged in relief against the older boy. "You're like Grandpa. You're a hero too."
"Am I?" The voice over his head was soft. "You'd be the first person who thought that."
He snuggled in closer. This was way nicer than a puppy. "Grandpa says it doesn't matter what everyone else thinks. You just have to believe in yourself."
"Just like that, huh?"
"You can do it. I believe in you." He yawned. It was probably past his bedtime. The arms around him tightened.
As he fell asleep he felt a kiss on his forehead, and heard the quiet words, "Thank you, Akihito."
The next morning he woke up at home, in his own bed, sunlight streaming through the window. He thought maybe what he remembered was a dream, vague memories of being carried through the streets, trying to get home.
At least, that's what he thought until his mother spanked him and said no ice cream for a week. Luckily, after he'd told his grandpa what happened, he got puddings smuggled to him every night.
He went back to the park with his grandpa, but the boy wasn't there. The shed was empty and neat. His parents hadn't even seen the guy that night. They'd just heard the intercom buzz and found Akihito sleeping on the porch.
It was starting to fade from his memory until one day his mother called him downstairs to the front porch with a scowl on her face. "What is the meaning of this, young man?" The family stood around as he opened the large cardboard box that had been addressed simply to Takaba Akihito. He squealed with delight as a cold wet nose poked his and a warm tongue licked his face all over.
He and the puppy were soon on the lawn, rolling all over each other in their eagerness to play.
"What's it say?" he heard his grandpa ask.
"It says the dog will protect him," his mother replied softly. "It says his name is Hero."
"You'll let him keep it then." It wasn't a question.
From the shadows across the street, he thought he saw the old man look straight at him and smile. He hurriedly pulled back, not wanting to get involved with a family so clean and happy. With a last glance at the laughing boy, he turned back to the dark he'd come from. He wasn't a nice person. He knew that. But he promised himself that he'd never forget that one night when he'd spent time on the other side. When he'd felt like a hero.
Twenty years later....
He sat on the couch in their apartment, relaxed, cigarette loose between his fingers, watching as Akihito excitedly pulled at the ties on the box. The jumping box. Which exploded into a little bundle of Shiba inu when the ties were removed. Akihito laughed under the onslaught, and looked up at Asami with confused but delighted eyes. "I love puppies! How did you guess?"
He shrugged, pleased inside but unwilling to show it. "Just lucky, I suppose. What will you call him?"
Akihito paused in his playing, considering the question as if it were a matter of great importance. "I think I'll call him Pickle."
"Pickle?" he asked, feigning disinterest. He remembered?
"Yeah. Ow! Bratty pup." The puppy was biting his fingers, demanding attention. He gently pushed him onto his back and rubbed his belly.
It amused Asami to no end that he used the same method on an angry Akihito to distract him.
He hadn't meant to find him again. The meeting had been by chance. But he'd warned him, long ago. He wasn't a nice man. He was a man who coveted what was rare and beautiful, and would have it at any cost. What was before him now was worth everything he owned.
"You're Pickle," Akihito crooned to the small dog, who was waving his feet in the air in delight. He raised his eyes to look at Asami. "Because I only need one hero at a time."
Asami covered his embarrassment at the confession the only way he knew how, sweeping the boy up into his arms, depositing the puppy back into the box. "He can wait."
Akihito was strangely still as he carried him into the bedroom, offering none of his usual fighting.
"What's wrong?" Asami asked, tossing him onto the bed, considering how best to tie up his prize so it wouldn't get away. He pulled off the silk at his neck, considering.
The young man propped himself up on his elbows and shook his head. "Nothing. I was just reminded of something that I can't quite place..." He shrugged. "Déjà vu I guess."
"Maybe." He crouched over him now, his boy, his Akihito. Dragged from his clean world into this dark one, an invisible collar and leash now at his throat.
"You really are, Asami. You know that, don't you?"
He blinked down at him, trying to figure out what he'd missed in his hunger.
He felt a tightening at his throat, and acknowledged it. "I know you see me that way." It was as deadly an addiction as when he'd walked away from it twenty years earlier. But now he was old enough to know that sometimes it was worth giving in to the craving. And that for treasure so rare, sometime the price was oneself.
Asami lowered his head, and as usual let his lips say what he was unable to voice, hoping that someday his lover would understand the language. The tie slipped through his fingers to the floor as he gathered Akihito close with both arms. What was the point anymore? Neither of them was going anywhere else.
Rain started falling in torrents outside the window, and the memories of that night made him stop for a moment and hold Akihito, remembering the small boy, so brave when it came to helping someone, not even thinking of the danger, gazing up in trust and awe at someone who could so easily have slit his throat for the food he'd carried. For he'd not been far from an animal in those days. That small hand had tamed him for a night, had changed something deep within.
Akihito had never known, never understood who the real hero had been that night. As he didn't understand now that he stood between a beast and the rest of the world.
I suppose I am a hero in his eyes, Asami thought. He'd never believe what he is to me.
He lowered his head to lick at part of an ear that poked out of Akihito's mop of hair. "A verrey parfait gentil knyght. And a tasty one."
"Huh? Was that English?" Akihito looked up from where he was snuggling into Asami's neck, trying to work the words out.
Asami didn't bother to answer. As the wind whipped and howled about the building he simply gave his passion free rein, knowing that Akihito was safe from the worst of it.
That one child, this young man, had instinctively held the weapon that had brought him down. He'd somehow known that monsters weren't defeated by finding their hearts and plunging blades into them. They were defeated by making them acknowledge they had hearts in the first place.
He bent to the one who had charmed him. The storm continued outside, forgotten.
*A verrey parfait gentil knyght. – A phrase from Chaucer's Canterbury Tales prologue in which he describes the knight as truly perfect and noble.