Every person is born with a seed in their chest that begins to grow when they meet their soulmate. How fast it grows depends on the strength of their feelings, how much they want to connect with their soulmate. For soulmates who are equally invested in being together, there is never any danger: when soulmates connect, the plants growing from their seeds manifest harmlessly as a tattoo on their chest. When one wants it so much more than the other, however …
Jesse McCree steps into the upscale izakaya, pausing to scan the room for first impressions as he always does when he intends to write about an establishment. The architecture is modern, an interesting contrast to the traditional decor, and the lights are low. It’s busy but not overly so, the patrons mostly local businessmen with a smattering of tourists. The place is quiet, as bars go.
It’s Jesse’s last week in Hanamura, the final stop in his three-month tour of Japan. His blog is already filled with new articles about destinations in large cities - Tokyo, Kyoto, Osaka - as well as lesser-known treasures like Kawagoe and Takayama. He’s looking forward to adding some more lesser-known treasures to that list.
Carefully making his way to the bar counter, Jesse finds himself a seat. He’s found over the years that the bar is the best spot in the house to collect material for his articles: he has the opportunity to see more of the room, talk to more people. His camera remains stowed in his bag, resting against his hip where it hangs from its shoulder strap.
He orders a beer in Japanese; his command of the language has gotten much better over the course of the trip although he is still by no means fluent. Sips it while he looks at the menu, asks for the bartender’s favorite sake and some kushiaki to go with it.
Someone sits next to him a moment later as his drink is set on the counter. The unfiltered sake is smooth, with some definite floral notes; not what he would have chosen but still very good.
The stranger next to him orders a top-shelf sake without even looking at the menu, his voice like good whiskey and silk. Jesse has to talk to him. He turns.
“So how is the Masumi Sanka? I haven’t gotten the chance to sample that one yet.”
Jesse smiles, and something hitches in his chest, bright and hard but not unpleasant, as the other man turns as if to answer. He’s beautiful, but that’s not what steals Jesse’s breath and renders him unable to speak: this man has to be his soulmate.
This man also looks terror-stricken.
They stare at each other for a moment, Jesse with delighted wonder and his soulmate with undisguised panic. They both clutch at their chests.
Jesse remembers to breathe, registers the other man’s distress, lets his hand fall to the counter. He clears his throat and nods to where the bartender is setting down a serving of sake. “Your drink,” he says, hoping the small distraction will shake his soulmate from his stupor.
It seems to work.
“Yes,” he answers distractedly, and it looks like he is forcing himself to relax his posture, school his features. “Thank you.”
“Jesse McCree.” Jesse is sure that his face is going to break he’s beaming so hard, but something feels off.
“Hanzo Shimada.” Hanzo’s smile doesn’t reach his eyes.
“This is somethin I’ve always dreamed of, y’know? Just to meet my soulmate. To share that kind of connection to somebody, that kind of seamless, unconditional love.” Jesse’s eyes light up as he speaks and his whole self shows his enthusiasm, face open and honest, hands speaking as much as his lips. “I went into the field I did so I could travel around, give myself the best chance of findin’ ya, and now, just … wow …”
Hanzo is quiet while Jesse speaks, clutching his drink so that his knuckles are white. He clears his throat when Jesse trails off, eyes full of sincerity and brows furrowed slightly at the stoic expression on Hanzo’s face. The kushiaki that Jesse had ordered earlier sits between them where he had nudged it to indicate he intended to share, untouched.
“I must admit that I have not anticipated this meeting with the kind of fervor that you have,” Hanzo begins slowly. Jesse leans in a little, one arm on the counter next to him as he focuses intently on what Hanzo is trying to say. “Finding one’s soulmate has never been considered a good thing among my family and our peers. Soulmates are usually associated with gruesome deaths, suffering, bad luck, and families being torn apart.” He sighs. “My brother found his soulmate ten years ago and disappeared -- I have not heard from him since. All of the stories I know are of people choking to death on petals or driven to suicide.”
“Oh darlin’ … believe me, all that stuff is the last thing I want for ya.” Jesse’s voice is soft, eyes compassionate. “I just wanna get to know ya better. Get a chance to learn about ya. About where ya came from an where ya wanna go an what ya need. To love ya the best I can, if you’ll let me.”
“I am terrified.” Hanzo looks Jesse straight in the eye.
“That’s alright. We can start slow, let ya get used to --”
“I do not want this.”
Jesse startles and closes his mouth, swallowing the rest of his sentence. The little furrow appears between his brows once more, but he smiles anyway. His eyes no longer light up.
“I get ya. Wouldn’t want ta force ya into somethin’ ya don’t want. Couldn’t, really, if it came down to it. I won’t push ya.” He pauses, looks down at his hands. The smile falls from his lips and he closes his eyes for a moment. When he opens them once more to look up at Hanzo, they are pleading. “Can … can we talk though? Just in case ya change your mind? Please?”
Hanzo almost says no. Almost. He can’t quite bring himself to do it.
“We … we can talk. But I cannot promise you anything.”
That sad smile tugs on the corner of Jesse’s lips. “Alright sweetheart. Thanks for givin me that much, at least.”
“No more with the pet names.” Hanzo’s chest feels tight.
Jesse nods. “Do ya have time to stay a little longer? Talk a bit more?”
Hanzo hesitates. “No,” he says finally. “No, I … I have to go.”
He scribbles his number on a napkin, slams some money on the counter for the drink he didn’t even taste as it went down, and practically flees, unable to look back at Jesse’s face.
They meet a few more times. A walk in the park. Lunch during one of Hanzo’s breaks. Jesse calls, texts. Hanzo reluctantly returns the gesture, unable to help himself.
Conversation is hard when they want different things out of it, but they learn a little about each other.
Jesse learns how Hanzo enjoys tea but is secretly a coffee snob, loves classic movies though he never has the time to watch them anymore, would have competed professionally in archery if it weren’t for his family’s company. How his heart broke when his brother, the only person he really loved in the world, left him without a word.
Hanzo learns that Jesse loves animals but travels too much to keep a pet, plays guitar and was actually in a band in college, consumes novels as though they were water. That his parents had been soulmates, each with a tiny sprout branded over their hearts, and had filled his childhood with stories of the joy and completeness that connecting could bring.
Hanzo tells himself that he pangs he feels in his chest are guilt, and nothing more.
Jesse is desperate, pleading, as he grips the edge of the counter at the consulate. “C’mon, I know my ninety days are comin up, but I just met my soulmate a little bit ago an’ we haven’t connected yet, an I just need a little more time.”
The woman on the other side of the glass sighs, shakes her head. “I am sorry, sir. You have to leave the country to obtain a new visa type before re-entering.”
“I can’t just extend it for a little while? Just a few days? Please.” Jesse runs his fingers through his hair, tangling them at the base of his neck as he leans his elbows on the counter. His chest feels tight. There is a tickle in his throat. “Or can I get started on a different visa now then? Expedite it someh--” He clears his throat a few times, mumbling his apologies, then straightens and forces a cough to clear whatever it was.
A single white petal falls from his lips and floats serenely to the counter.
Both of them stare at it for a few beats. “I am so sorry, sir,” the woman says, and this time she looks like she means it.
Hanzo never meant to hurt Jesse.
They are standing under the awning of a cafe, cups of coffee in hand as they watch the rain. Jesse clears his throat between sips, turns away to cough into a tissue that is immediately shoved into the pocket of his jacket. It happens again a few minutes later.
“You really should consult a doctor,” Hanzo tells him with a furrowed brow. He doesn’t want to entertain the notion that the cough is anything more than Jesse having caught a cold.
“Nah, nothin’ the doctor’ll do about it,” Jesse answers with a sideways smile, and clears his throat again. “Not that I want them to, anyhow. It’s alright. Hopefully it’ll clear up in time.”
“We shall see.”
Hanzo presses his lips in a thin line -- he knows it is not a cold. There is an icy ball in his stomach to match the pang in his chest.
When Jesse emerges from the hotel, he has a backpack and a small rolling suitcase with him in addition to his usual camera case.
“You are leaving?” Hanzo asks, feeling as though he should be alarmed by this. He chooses not to acknowledge that maybe he is.
“Have to. Visa waiver is runnin’ out, an’ if I don’t leave, they’ll just deport me an’ I’ll have no chance of comin’ back.” Jesse chews his lip, searching Hanzo’s face. His voice lowers. “Guess you still haven’t changed your mind.”
Hanzo looks away, unable to answer or to face those eyes, beautiful and hopeful and on the verge of desperation. “Do you wish for me to take you to the airport?” he asks instead.
“Nah, thanks,” Jesse says quietly, heaving a sigh that stutters and ends in a cough. “Wasn’t sure you’d wanna meet me, so I already called a taxi.” He stuffs the fistful of petals, faintly pink, into his coat pocket, almost before Hanzo can see them.
The taxi pulls up then, and Jesse’s bags are stowed. He hesitates before getting in, reaches out as though he wants to touch Hanzo but stops himself. Instead, he rips his keys from his pocket and fumbles with a silver key on a leather fob.
“Here.” Jesse’s voice is rough as he takes Hanzo’s hand, presses they key into it and curls Hanzo’s fingers around it. The leather is warm. “My home is yours. Just in case you … just … just in case.”
Hanzo can’t answer, the terror in his heart matching the desperation he sees in Jesse’s eyes. He almost crumbles but it isn’t enough.
The taxi driver honks and Jesse coughs as he climbs into the cab.
The flight attendant leans across the empty aisle seat toward Jesse as he hacks and chokes, doubled over with a hand over his mouth.
“Are you ill, sir? I am afraid we cannot let you fly if you have a virulent …” her voice trails off as he straightens and clears his throat, petals pink like cherry blossoms fluttering from between his fingers to scatter in his lap and across the floor.
She doesn’t charge him for the little bottle of whiskey she sets on his tray table a few minutes later.
There is no one waiting at home for Jesse when he returns to Santa Fe, just a stuffy house that desperately needs to be dusted and three months’ worth of mail on hold at the post office.
He supposes his friends will come around sooner or later, but he’d rather they didn’t see him like this. It would probably just grow worse, with time.
It’s difficult to sit down and write the articles he meant to have written while still in Hanamura; Jesse had skipped seeing some of the things he had intended to, and had been so occupied with his soulmate that he didn’t remember much of what he had seen.
He should probably be upset; he has every right to be. But he couldn’t bring himself to be angry that his soulmate had grown up with a different experience than he had, was afraid of connecting. If Jesse were being honest with himself, he was afraid of not connecting. He had no illusions about how all of this ends.
Still, he held out hope that separation would do what proximity couldn’t, and that Hanzo would have a change of heart. He could wait.
Hanzo didn’t expect it to be so difficult to keep his mind on his work rather than his soulmate, especially now that his soulmate had gone away. He returns Jesse’s texts, initiates a few of his own. Neither of them acknowledge the cough.
His employees are confused by his inattention: he hadn’t told anyone about his and Jesse’s meeting. Most in his circle had had their seeds removed young, and the general assumption was that Hanzo had as well. He supposed that the revelation he had not would be something of a scandal had it been mentioned aloud, and wondered what his brother would have had to say to all of this.
Truth be told, Genji probably would have tried to knock some sense into him.
The house key on the leather fob sits warm in Hanzo’s pocket, and he finds himself rubbing his thumb over the stamped J.M. when his hand is not otherwise occupied. It scares him, and he begins to wonder whether his inaction was a mistake.
Whether it was cutting out the seed or connecting to his soulmate he should have done, he can’t decide.
The x-ray clipped to the lightboard was little more than a tangled mass in the vague shape of a human chest, and the doctor’s lips were a thin line.
“There is nothing that can be done here,” she says bluntly, not meeting Jesse’s gaze as he sits on the examination table, lips reddened and a bloody handkerchief clutched in one fist. “You would die on the operating table. If you do not think you can either connect or convince your soulmate to cut theirs out within the next week, I suggest you get your affairs in order.”
Jesse nods. He has already made his decision.
Putting his affairs in order is a simple task: he doesn’t own much. Doesn’t have an employer or a significant other or a pet to re-home. There’s the house and his truck, but that’s what a last will and testament is for - a nearby charity can have his truck, and even though he hasn’t seen his sister in almost a decade, Jesse is certain that the money she gets from selling his house could put both of her kids through college.
Not that he tells her this ahead of time: they rarely speak, and he’s not sure what he’d say.
Jesse plans out everything he wants to do over the next week, hopes he’ll have the energy to finish his list. He ponders how to make sure he isn’t lying dead in his house for two months before anyone finds him and doesn’t come to a conclusion.
He makes a phone call.
The call had gone to voicemail.
Jesse’s voice sounds raw and tired to Hanzo as he listens to the message, weaker than he remembered it. Full of resignation.
“Hey sweetheart, I … sorry, I know ya don’t like the pet names, but it’s the last time, I promise … I just wanted t’say goodbye. And sorry. Things’ve gotten a little bad. Okay, maybe more than a little ‘cause at this point there’s nothin’ I can do about it an’ now I’m ramblin’, but anyway, doc suggested I oughta urge ya’ to cut your plant out, since I can’t do mine anymore. I’m ... not gonna even ask. Don’t wanna put ya through that. Couldn’t really imagine living without mine anyway.” His voice wavers here, as though he was trying hard to keep tears at bay. “I don’t want ya thinkin’ I’m angry with ya, or blame ya for how things went down, ‘cause I’m not an’ I don’t. I know ya have your reasons. I just … I just kinda’ wish we coulda’ had a chan-” the sentence is cut off by a fit of heavy, wet-sounding coughs, and the message ends.
Hanzo doesn’t understand at first why the message panics him, where the sudden pain in his chest comes from. He should have done something, made a choice. Taken action.
Cutting out the plant now would save Jesse’s life, but it would wound his soul irreparably.
On the other hand, Hanzo has a soulmate out there who had approached him with open arms, wanting nothing more than to love him.
Hanzo Shimada is a fool.
To Jesse: hang on. i will be there
To Jesse: please
He buys a ticket to Santa Fe on his way to the airport.
Hanzo doesn’t remember much of the trip, only that the border patrol agents made it far longer than it needed to be.
The taxi ride to Jesse’s address takes about twenty minutes, and Hanzo presses an entire hundred dollar bill, obtained at an atrocious exchange rate in the airport while waiting for his flight, into the driver’s hand before scrambling out of the car. He has delayed too long already to worry about change.
There is a red pickup truck, vintage and well cared-for, in the driveway of the small ranch-style house. Hanzo knocks on the door, then pounds on it when there is no answer, beginning to panic. Is he too late?
The pressure in Hanzo’s chest grows as he fumbles with the house key on its leather fob, leaves it in the lock as he stumbles over the threshold. Door still ajar, Hanzo calls Jesse’s name as he rushes through a living room he doesn’t really see, searching. The house is silent save for his own voice and frantic footsteps across the hardwood floor.
There is a different scene in the kitchen.
Jesse lies still on the kitchen floor, the pool of water from a shattered glass on the tile next to him a weak red. There are crimson petals everywhere, more than Hanzo could ever have thought possible, and blood on Jesse’s lips.
Falling to his knees in the mess of water and petals, glass and blood, Hanzo gathers Jesse into his lap, against his chest. Jesse’s breathing is shallow and labored, his cough weak, and Hanzo thinks he can feel a piece of branch issuing from Jesse’s throat as he clears his mouth of petals. What has he done?
He startles at the drops falling onto Jesse’s pale face, and it takes him a moment to realize they are his own tears.
Connecting is easier than Hanzo thought it would be, really: it isn’t painful, or complicated, or any of the other things he had feared. It’s more like reaching to take the hand that Jesse had been holding out for him since they had met, like twining their fingers together.
The heavy tightness that had been growing in Hanzo’s chest since he heard Jesse’s message eases, replaced by a gentle warmth, and having a soulmate no longer feels like a terrible burden.
At the same time, Jesse heaves a breath, taking in all of the air he couldn’t a mere moment ago. The image of what Jesse’s plant had been peeks out over the collar of his shirt and Hanzo heaves a sob at the destruction he has wrought. Branches wind up Jesse’s neck to disappear into his beard, blooming blood red.
How had Jesse managed to hold on this long?
Jesse is still not awake. Has Hanzo done him permanent damage? Does he need medical attention? Just as Hanzo is about to heft Jesse in his arms, frantic to get him to an emergency room, whiskey-brown eyes flutter open. Jesse’s forehead creases in confusion, then clears when he feels the difference in his chest, and he looks up at Hanzo in wonder.
“I am so sorry it took me this long,” Hanzo chokes, his vision blurred with tears. He will never deserve this man who suffered so patiently for him. Jesse’s voice is weak and tired, but certain, when he replies.
“It’s alright darlin’, I did my best ta hold on for ya, an’ ya came through.”
Hanzo presses their foreheads together, brushes his lips softly against Jesse’s despite the blood. “We have much to talk about.”
“Sure do. But now we got the time.”