The first time he had counted the hours, one second at a time, he had been seven and had been bored.
He had succeeded on his first try, decided it was boring and had given it up.
He missed those good times.
How long ago had it been since he last saw Byakuya?
He missed him.
He missed everyone actually.
Ah, barely on the lower thousands and he was already despairing, this won’t do.
But he was scared, he was uncomfortable and had been blindfolded since he woke up– hanging almost upside down on someone’s shoulder probably.
His hands were tied, his legs were tied, and Senkuu couldn’t fool himself into thinking that he would be able to outrun Homura, or manage to fight whichever goon was carrying him. He wasn’t sure he would be able to do such a thing even if he hadn’t had a hammering headache, or been tied up.
He was scared of what was to come.
It’s been roughly 21,600 seconds, or 6 hours, when they finally put him down and took the blindfold off again. It was still dark outside.
He was standing before Hyouga– he would have loved to pretend to be shocked if he didn’t have such a disgusting headache product of hypoxia.
He was dizzy.
His head was pounding to the beat of his heart.
Pounding to the beat of the seconds passing by.
“Will you join us, Senkuu-kun?” Hyouga had said cordially, gently even, and Senkuu had to wonder if this man suffered from some sort of antisocial personality disorder. He sat on his throne, towering over him without a care in the world, talking to Senkuu as if they were equals.
As if he hadn’t just barged into his house, in the middle of the night and stolen him away.
Senkuu was worried.
Joining a possible psychopath and definitively mass murderer was just not on the table but…
Would they know where he was?
Would they know where to look?
It’s been 21,970 seconds since he woke up. Dawn was beginning to lighten up the sky, so he had been unconscious a good half of the way here. Making a rough estimate, Senkuu would guess it has been two or three hours.
So in total, roughly 32,800 seconds.
Roughly 9 hours.
Since it was still a guesstimate at best, he chose not to modify his count.
But surely Kohaku would find him soon.
They would all figure out he was missing, and come look for him.
He just needed to stall.
So he put a cocky grin to his face as he stared at the cold eyes of Hyouga.
“You know; I don’t think that’s a proper way of inviting someone to your bizarre cult.” Senkuu said, standing tall. Standing firm.
He’s not sure what hurt more.
The surprise, the realization that he wasn’t even going to get a chance to talk.
Or the fact that they had so little care for him, his well-being, his continued existence, that at the smallest rejection, he was punched under the ribs, right in the kidney
He lost the ground under his feet– falling down hard, scraping his tied hands and spraining his wrists as he fell down on his back.
Senkuu wheezed in surprise, spit and maybe bile and blood clinging to his lip, cheek hot and burning as it was pressed against the uneven ground. His abdomen ached, it felt hot. Stupidly enough what hurt more was still his pounding head, made worse by his vision that just wouldn’t stop swimming and the metallic taste on his mouth. His breathing was fast, but he made sure not to let his panic show. Not to let the pain, the fear be showcased to them.
He hadn’t even said no.
“Sorry about that,” Hyouga had said, with a sigh. “I don’t have the patience for your little games. It’s a simple thing, Senkuu-kun. Will you join me, or will you die refusing me?”
“What does that mean?” Senkuu asked after spitting out a mouthful of blood– he had sliced clean through his lip, go figure. As soon as he said those words, he regretted and he tried not shivering as a spark of passion lit up in Hyouga’s dead eyes.
“I guess we’ll have time to find out, then.”
Senkuu saw the foot flying at his face– he didn’t get the chance to do more than close his eyes.
The world went dark.
His stomach hurt.
He couldn’t move.
He couldn’t see.
After a quick analysis of his current situation he could say that he was blindfolded and tied. His wrists hurt, as did his lip– all of the wounds he had caused himself.
Even Hyouga’s kick to the face was mostly a dull ache. His ribs hurt, but they weren’t broken.
So not a crime of passion, huh?
Senkuu smiled to himself, in his sightless void. If Hyouga was being controlled, and methodical…
Well wasn’t that just frightening?
Snark had always been his go-to defense mechanism, but Hyouga clearly did not care for it. Every time Senkuu so much as refused to submit, he would be punished accordingly.
This had been merely a warning. Senkuu was smart. He could take a hint.
That was all he was going to get out of him.
It was slightly more painful than initially planned, but he still needed to stall.
They would be coming for him.
Senkuu knew that the first night of a kidnapping was key to escape.
Even if it had been planned to the finest detail, entropy was always at work.
Everything was hasty, everyone was rushing and making small mistakes a victim could exploit.
If they were on the move, the faster you escaped, the faster you could get back home.
(Maybe that was why that first night, Senkuu laid awake, gasping and shaking–terrified– as the seconds crawled by. It was impossible today. There had been no mistakes he could exploit. Hyouga had made sure of that.)
(It was difficult to win at chess, if both players could plan ten billion steps ahead.)
After the first night, the probability of going free dropped dramatically.
But any percentage was better than 0.
That’s what Taiju always said.
“Senkuu-kun, good morning.” Hyouga said, drawling his words as if this was a mere pleasantry and not him violating Senkuu ’s privacy, and waking him up and dragging him back to a world he couldn’t see, in a body he couldn’t move. “Have you reconsidered your decision?”
He breathed in, out.
“What do you even wish to accomplish, Hyouga?” Senkuu rasped out, trying not to wince as his lower lip flared up with pain, the dry blood slurring his words. Somehow, it echoed in agony from deep within his gut. “Why do you need me?”
“Need you?” Hyouga replied, a smirk evident in his voice, from wherever he was speaking. “I do not need you, Senkuu -kun. You are not irreplaceable. But you are valuable.”
“How so?” Senkuu asked as casually as he dared, as if he wasn’t bound like a pig for the slaughter on the cold, cold floor.
“Your knowledge, Senkuu-kun. If only you could put your brain to use, we could wage war against Tsukasa-kun, against anyone else who opposes us and we could reign over the entire world.”
The statement was so absurd, he wasted precious seconds just trying to process it.
“You’re fucking insane.” Slipped from his lips, and Senkuu experienced a soul-shattering moment of terror as he realized.
“Ah, Senkuu-kun,” Hyouga sighed in disappointment, as he stepped uncomfortably closer and without fanfare closed his hand on the back of his shirt as he began dragging him outside– Senkuu could only grit his teeth together as all the small stones and debris stabbed him through his clothes. Rubbed his skin raw as all forces of friction attempted against him. His voice was disappointed. “You still have not learned.”
Senkuu bit down on his mangled lip and pretended he was okay.
“Has anyone seen Senkuu?”
“Chrome?” Kohaku looked away from the meal she was preparing for Ruri and herself. She cocked her head to a side as she thought. “I thought he was with you?”
“No, I haven’t seen him since he came to map nearby mines with me. I found some more mercury, but he said it’s dangerous to the touch, so I wanted to get his approval.” Chrome smiled sheepishly, balancing on the balls of his feet as he waited for her to put the knife away.
As always, the rock-talk slammed against a metaphorical wall of disinterest. Kohaku just arched her eyebrows at the scientist. “Why are you doing this again?”
“Hey!” Chrome exclaimed, but was without heat. “It’s for science!”
“Yeah, yeah.” She rolled her eyes, before dragging the conversation back on track. “But if he’s not with you, then where he could be?”
Chrome thought long and hard. “Could he have gone out to find something?”
“Like what? Was he in the middle of a project or something?”
Something didn’t feel quite right, the longer they talked.
“Did you check his hut?”
“You know he’s never there.”
Chrome and Kohaku shared a look.
Where was Senkuu?
“Hey, Mentalist. Do you know where Senkuu is?”
Gen looked up from his newest blood pouches he was replacing with an irritable scowl and a frigid smile for his unwelcome guest. “Chrome-chan, how would I know? I’m not his handler, and he’s free to do whatever he wants.”
He wasn’t the world’s best mentalist, however, if he didn’t pick up on the unease just underneath his skin.
“Chrome-chan?” He asked, something like dread settling against his stomach as he stood up. His hand upset his container of fake blood, but right now he couldn’t be bothered to care. “Where is Senkuu?”
The red liquid spread over his worktable and began dripping down to the floor.
Gen has a theory, Chrome thought as he followed the man to Senkuu ’s hut– hurried steps, and cagey behavior. They had already gone there earlier, and he hadn’t been in, but that’s not what he was looking for, was it?
He wanted to know, he wanted to learn, but Gen stopped him at the entrance, stopped anyone from entering as he slowly made his way inside. His steps were slow, measured– as if expecting an enemy to jump him from the shadows.
He eased his way into Senkuu ’s room.
It was spotless.
The nest of blankets in which he slept was neat and tidy, there were no clothes thrown around, no half-dismantled project anywhere.
There was no hint of an altercation, no sign of life either.
Cold sweat began beading on his forehead, as his brain tried making the connection his body had already guessed at.
His eyes landed on a speck of color by the bed.
A pair of nightshades, the petals broken and falling off, the stem flimsy and bruised by a cruel hand.
A pair of nightshades, like the ones Gen had used to guide Senkuu to him, so long ago.
Dread coalesced inside of him, sitting like lead in his stomach.
Senkuu woke up again.
It hurt to breathe.
His skin felt on fire.
It hurt to breathe.
Senkuu sighed as deep as he dared, as he tried getting his mind back on track.
It hurt like a bitch, but he was pretty sure his ribs were still not broken.
It wasn’t a crime of passion after all.
It was pure, premeditated torture.
Senkuu breathed in, against the pain.
Oxygen for his brain so he could think clearly and not spiral.
He was not a veteran in psychological warfare, but it was obvious Hyouga wanted to break his spirit.
He would not give him that pleasure.
He still hadn’t seen an opening though.
He was a scientist. He was the brains not the brawn.
He couldn’t outperform any of these idiots in anything physical.
He was relying heavily on his friends.
He was relying on Chrome to go look for him for yet another science experiment.
He was counting on Gen to figure out the clues.
He was counting on Kohaku to rally up their forces.
Kohaku had always been fast.
Maybe she had already been tailing them.
Maybe she was bidding her time, so the rest could catch up.
Stealth hadn’t been her strength exactly. She would much rather prefer a frontal attack.
Gen could be arguing with her about it as well.
He could be telling her that sneaking Senkuu out would be the best outcome.
Senkuu might have agreed with him if his ribs didn’t creak dangerously as he breathed.
Whichever goon had been tasked to kick him this time, had loved going for the ribs.
He should complain to Hyouga about it. Show him Senkuu wasn’t scared of him.
He let his shoulders sag for what he wanted to be a brief second.
He was exhausted.
He licked his parched lips.
He just hoped they would give him water soon.
Humans could only survive 3 days without water. So 259,200 seconds.
It had been 199,999.
God, he could kill for some water.
“Bring enough water for several days, we still don’t know where Hyouga is settled.” Kohaku commanded, the scowl on her face fierce as Ginrou and Kinrou set to do as told.
They looked even more enraged than her somehow, as if personally offended Hyouga had managed to bypass them both.
Well tough for them, Gen sneered.
They didn’t know the man.
They had no blame on their shoulders
Gen should have known better.
“Gen?” A tiny tug to the hem of his coat brought him back to reality– letting his features soften before he looked down at Suika.
“Ah, yes, Great Detective Suika, did you find anything?” He said with a smile. He wondered why even ask at all, the answer evident on her crestfallen expression.
So Hyouga hadn’t been sloppy.
He had left those flowers merely to mock him.
“Gen? Do you think Senkuu is alright?”
He sighed, before bending down to scoop her into his arms. “He’s going to be just fine, Suika. We just need to find him.”
Suika didn’t answer, just wrapped her arms around his neck and buried her face.
“We’ll find him,” he mumbled for both their sakes. “He’ll be fine.”
The longer the numbers became, the weaker his hope.
They were coming right?
He was so going to punch Gen when he saw him again, Chrome too, He would pretend to refuse to teach them ever again, let them stew in their own guilt for a bit.
(They were coming… right?)
He would do that, when he was free.
(He tried ignoring the thought that there’s no way for him to escape on his own. Not with a shattered ankle.)
Taiju and Yuzuriha were livid, the second they came back from their scavenging hunt and found Senkuu missing.
The search parties had long since departed, but they had already lost Senkuu once. They refused to lose him a second time.
They both armed themselves, and disappeared into the forest.
The second time he had counted the seconds, Senkuu thought would be his last. As he laid paralyzed and immobile as time went on and on, he had done the only thing he could do in that situation.
He took solace in his numbers.
He began counting, reaching the thousands, ten thousands, hundred millions, never stopping, never quitting because he knew he was getting out. He knew he would find a way out.
And he had.
And he hadn’t been alone for long.
(After 3,700 years, what did a measly 6 months matter?)
(After 116,683,200,000 seconds, what did a measly 15,033,600 seconds matter?)
(What did a measly 315,333 seconds matter?)
He just needed to wait. And count. And not give up.
He could do it.
Yuzuriha had been so wound up she almost beat up Magma when the man stumbled on them by surprise. As it were, Magma was on his back, a mere second away from getting his head beaten in by her staff.
“Calm down, woman!” He screamed, trying to lift his pinned arms to protect his head. “Geez, we’re also looking for the kid, don’t kill me.”
“You still haven’t found him?” Yuzuriha mumbled, feeling her strength waning. It had been five days since they had gotten home. Nine days since Senkuu had disappeared.
Magma deflated and refused to look her in the eye.
“We’re going to find him, though.” Ever positive Taiju said, offering her a hand to get off Magma. His eyes were glassy, and his soul was hurt, but he still directed her a smile. “He’s going to be fine, and we’ll get him soon enough.”
“Yeah,” she smiled feebly in return. Hope was a two-way street, after all. “We’ll get him back.”
They had beaten him up again.
Still–probably– no broken ribs, his hands were mostly ignored, but his legs had been receiving far too much affection than he would prefer.
The worst thing was still the nightmares though.
Dreams in which he was back at the village; dreams in which he was finally about to find peace. But Hyouga always appeared in the end, and inevitably, unequivocally subdued Senkuu. Breaking his legs, his chest, his spirit.
Senkuu-kun, he whispered, softly, softly. You don’t have to be in pain. You don’t have to suffer. Who’s waiting for you?
The village was empty.
The empty huts mocking, and teasing and silent as the grave.
Senkuu didn’t like the silence, but he didn’t his voice either. It made the pain flare.
Then Hyouga got mad, as he always did.
Senkuu was suddenly on the ground, being dragged away.
He couldn’t scream. He couldn’t break free.
The Ishigami villagers appeared out of nowhere, Senkuu stretched out a hand out to them, a silent plea for help– and the people all stared at him from the shadows, not moving a finger.
Senkuu called out for them anyway, even though deep down, he knew it was the logical thing for them to do.
“Wake up, Senkuu-kun,” Hyouga said. “I don’t like to see you cry.”
Senkuu breathed in suddenly, choking on his tears, his blood, his confusion. Where-?
A soft hand to his cheek, drying the tears he still couldn’t reel in, that slipped under his hot, burning blindfold. “It breaks my heart to see you like this, Senkuu-kun. Won’t you even consider being by my side?”
Senkuu found himself leaning into the warmth, his hands were warm.
He smirked, and without strength to get his face away, he just looked up at him. “’M’fraid I’m already taken.”
Hyouga chuckled. “But Senkuu-kun, can’t you see?
“Nobody’s here to get you.”
When Senkuu next woke up, he was only partly sure that the man he could see between flashes of light, was a product of his imagination.
Had that creepy meet-cute 3,600 seconds ago been real or a product of his imagination?
It was that damn blindfold of his, uncomfortable, hot and burning and making it easier for his mind to play tricks on him. Senkuu should be more vigilant. It was just yet another way Hyouga wanted to break him.
He would not give him that pleasure.
It had been roughly 824,800 seconds. 229.11 hours, give or take a couple seconds. A little less than 10 days.
Why were they taking so long?
(It couldn’t be…?)
How the hell did an entire settlement of people on the move not leave hints behind?
Gen gritted his teeth together as he looked out at the lightening woods around them.
Every capable man and woman the village had been able to spare had deployed in search of the elusive Hyouga, and Gen still couldn’t understand how the fuck they couldn’t find them yet.
But they would find them, Gen swore.
And no matter what anyone said, Gen would cut his fucking head off.
“You should sleep.” Chrome said the second he spotted Gen’s tense frame scouting out the darkness, exiting the tent behind him. “I know you’re angry, but you need to have energy in the morning.”
Gen sneered without turning around.
Soft, soft, they were so soft, this is why Hyouga had managed to-!
He turned around, and saw his own anger reflected in his eyes.
Anger strong enough to level the world.
“I don’t care what you feel, okay?” Chrome began with a choked off voice. “Everyone’s angry. But Senkuu is our priority, and we need to be able to function if we want to help him, do you understand me?”
Gen cursed at the floor as he stalked back inside.
He wouldn’t sleep.
Neither could, not with this much anger coursing through their veins.
But he would meditate.
Battery Saving Mode, Senkuu would have said.
Would say, because they were getting him back.
He had gotten very good at being able to think and count, and calculate and count. But freeing his mind from the labor of counting had its setbacks.
For one it made him hyper-aware of the darkness around him.
He hated being in the dark.
It reminded him too much of the crushing void, the empty 3700 years he had spent on his own.
They kept his blindfold on, even if there was no humanely way Senkuu could escape with a shattered ankle and a dislocated knee.
(He was trapped now, with nobody to get him out. It was only logical.)
Somehow his sprained wrist was still what hurt the most.
Maybe it was the fact it had been such a mundane thing. He had just fallen on it. The ribs, the legs, had been on purpose.
Time continued to tick.
“Hey, Hyou’a?” Senkuu had asked, bordering on delirious and trying to fight down the fear in his body as he was dragged back to his daily torture session. “I have t’say, I am… confused.”
Hyouga did not stop dragging him along. Even if curiosity made him look. “…What about?”
“Yer not… a wasteful man. I’ve already ‘fused you plenty… so why keep insisting? …Why bring me along, instead of just killing me off?”
There was a beat of silence, in which Senkuu ’s hysterical mind thought that he had given him the idea and now he was (finally) going to die.
“Senkuu-kun,” Hyouga began softly, almost caressing his name. “You’ve said it yourself, I am not wasteful. I have the time to turn you to my side, you who are the brightest mind in this stone world. And if breaking you won’t do, then I can simply kill you.”
Senkuu had a reply on the tip of his tongue, but he couldn’t get enough air in his lungs.
“How do you… ’spect to be able to work with… someone if you forced them to your side? What …makes you think that I won’t just blow us all up at the smallest chance?” Senkuu’s voice was feeble, broken. Even if Hyouga had stopped punching his face, his lungs could no longer supply enough oxygen for him to speak properly.
“Are you familiar with the theory of Pavlov’s dogs?”
Senkuu wished he had kept his mouth shut.
“I’ll take your silence as a yes.” Hyouga said, drawing closer again. “But you are right in one thing. I can’t have you breaking beyond repair.”
He laid a soft hand on his leg and Senkuu flinched so violently, he saw stars of pain in his hazy eyes.
“The ankle shouldn’t stop you from being able to stand.” He surmised, as if he was evaluating a faulty construction and not another human being. “The knee is definitively a problem. Here, I’ll help you.”
Without a care in the world, he pressed a hand against his thigh, as he grabbed his leg and reset his knee in one quick gesture.
Senkuu opened his mouth to scream.
They had all gotten excited when Kinrou had finally found a lead. They followed the trail of burnt wood and thrashed greenery, but Gen already knew it was a red herring before they reached the settlement.
Of course Hyouga wouldn’t be this careless.
But the settlement was of the Kingdom of Might.
Senkuu was not there, but surely someone in this god-forsaken shitstain would know something about it. All of the present villagers thought as much, given by their equally bloodthirsty looks.
Kohaku leapt out with a war cry– leading the attack.
The third time he had started to count, had been an automatic reaction.
Before Senkuu had finished processing the fact that he wasn’t on his bed, wasn’t anywhere he should be, his mind had already begun to count.
At first, for no other reason than the numbers soothed him, allowed him to think.
Then he kept counting, so he would have an idea of how long they had been walking – making a rough estimate of their current velocity, then of how far they were from Ishigami village.
But Hyouga hadn’t allowed him to escape. Had made sure, Senkuu ’s first day would be airtight.
He was ten billion percent sure, he and Hyouga had thought of the exact same thing.
The first day had been crucial.
So now it had been 1,229,600 seconds, and Senkuu didn’t even know what direction they were walking in. Or if they were even walking anymore.
He knew very little, nowadays.
Besides the fact that he had gone 1,229,613 seconds without eating.
At least he wasn’t hungry.
He couldn’t escape.
He had to wait for them.
And he wouldn’t break.
He would wait.
(But would they come?)
The seconds continued to tick.
Hyouga had headed for the caves, they had said.
Yuzuriha, Magma and Taiju had long since regrouped with the main group as they made their way to the mentioned location.
Kohaku was the scout, far more used to the ways of the forest, but at this point all Yuzuriha wanted to do was raze the fucking forest to the ground.
They weren’t finding him fast enough.
Why can't he stop breathing?
What's the point?
They're not coming.
It is only logical
He should have seen the facts, long ago.
He should stop breathing already.
There's no point in breathing.
They're not coming.
Why can't he stop?
They're not coming so what's the point?
Something was off.
Hyouga loved to be on time.
He was late.
Maybe he should try sleeping.
Maybe he would go through the entire session while unconscious.
Maybe it would just work to make time pass by faster.
As if that was possible.
Someone screamed his name.
And a second later, Hyouga’s hurtling for him– he could feel the displaced air, the heavy steps and despite his best intentions, his body betrayed him as he curled up in to a ball.
Hyouga wasn’t trying to go for his organs in the first place.
He’s screaming a lot.
“…ku? Senkuu? Can you hear me? I’m going to cut you free, but I need you to stay awake with me, okay?”
Was this another tactic of his?
As if Senkuu would fall for that.
The rope on his wrists was severed, as was the one around his legs.
“Senkuu how long have you worn the blindfold?”
1,555,363 seconds long.
But he couldn’t tell that to him.
“Not long enough.” He hashed out, merely a croak. Honestly, Hyouga must have super hearing, if he could hear whatever he managed to bleat from a swollen throat. Attempted asphyxiation did nothing for his voice, honestly.
“Wha-?” Scuffling. “Shit, Senkuu, I’ll worry about that later. Can you stand?”
“S-Senkuu?” He cleared his throat. “Okay, I’m going to carry you, but I need you to cooperate with me I’m not Kohaku.”
(They hadn’t come.)
“Yes, yes, she’s here. I-I’m, shit Senkuu it’s Chrome. We got you, you’re safe.”
But he was in far too much pain to complain. And it wasn’t like he could do anything else but obey Hyouga’s demands.
That was the path to the least pain.
So he let him pull him up to a sitting position, wrapped his arms around his neck as instructed.
Could he choke him?
Would that work?
It wasn’t like he had anything else to lose.
At worst, Hyouga would finally put him out of his misery.
Before he can finish thinking that, the entire world shifted as he was lifted clean off the ground.
Senkuu screamed in pain– his jaw unhinging in his surprise.
“S-Sen-?! Do you-? shit, should I put you down? Senkuu can you hear me?”
“You’re… a fucking idiot…” Senkuu whispered hoarsely, trying to ride out this new bout of pain with his never ending anger. He bared his teeth, he dared to laugh. “You said you wouldn’t b-reak my ribs. Well-!”
“I’m not Hyouga…” He replied in a broken voice. That was odd. Not part of the script. “Senkuu, can’t you recognize my voice? Senkuu? Senkuu, I need to take you to the outside, and-and then Kohaku can help me carry you without- without hurting you- Senkuu I’m so- I’m so sorry, I…”
But Senkuu wasn’t there anymore.
He drifted in and out, and Chrome barely had time to shift their bodies around so he wouldn’t fall off his back.
He was confused.
That was a long stretch of time.
Had he really allowed to sleep through it?
“Senkuu, you’re awake.”
Of course he was awake.
That was a stupid observation.
“I’m- I’m going to take the blindfold off, okay? It should be dark enough outside not to hurt you.”
Senkuu began protesting, falling on his back and struggling away from the voice– his eyes, his eyes, his eyes.
He needed his eyes for science.
Hyouga couldn’t- He couldn’t-
His eyes. His eyes, his eyes, don’t touch his eyes, don’t please, please-
“I’ll behave, I’ll do whatever you want, don’t touch my eyes, please, if you take my eyes I’m worthless, please, Hyouga, I’ll do whatever you want, just don’t…” He vomited the words, raising numb arms to his face in a knee-jerk reaction.
He ended up slapping himself on the face.
A hand was placed on top of his. It was cold.
Hyouga’s hands were never cold.
“Senkuu-chan?” Someone whispered soothingly, softly. Familiarly. “Senkuu-chan, do you know where you are?”
But that voice…
It couldn’t be…
Not after they had abandoned him.
“Okay, well. I-um, I’m Asagiri Gen. You’re in Ishigami village. And… you have a blindfold on your eyes. Can we take it off?”
His heart did a stupid jump in his throat.
No, there was no way he was free.
“Senkuu-chan, we won’t force you. But I think it would help you a great deal if you could only open your eyes.”
No, he couldn’t be weak, not right now. Not ever.
Senkuu bared his teeth, hiding his crippling fear under the fakest bravado. “Touch my eyes and I will kill you myself.”
“Alright.” He said, much too quickly. “Alright. Do you want me to bring you Hyouga’s corpse? Do you want to stab him as well? would that help you?”
“Hyouga’s dead, Senkuu -chan. Gen killed him. I killed him.”
“Can’t be,” Senkuu repeated, suddenly too tired to stay awake. “Gen wouldn’t… you wouldn’t…”
A hand touched his. He flinched, his entire body being set aflame again, but the hand remained on his.
It was cold.
“I would, Senkuu -chan. I would over, and over again if it meant saving you.”
Was he safe?
He was not safe.
Because, why else would the numbers not stop?
A hand was still on his.
“Take it off yourself, Senkuu-chan. Your hands are free. You can do it yourself.”
He clenched his fists– the movement hindered by his broken pinkies. The hand over his moved alongside him.
Senkuu grabbed his hand.
Tracing it with his fingers.
He let go, raising clumsy hands to his own head.
He missed. Somehow.
But he could finally grasp the leather blindfold and drag it away from his eyes.
God, that stung.
The leather had really rubbed his skin raw.
He needed antibiotics.
He sorely needed…
He slowly opened his eyes and felt tears gathering in them. Everything was so fuzzy, his eyes hurt so much.
No wonder, it had been 1,595,439 seconds since he last could open his eyes.
“Ah, Senkuu -chan.” A voice said, heartbroken. “Can you look at me?”
Senkuu squinted against the pain, slowly blinking the irritation tears away.
He looked at the man in front of him.
It hurt to see, fuck, it hurt.
Everything was so fuzzy.
Like when he looked through someone else’s glasses.
He could faintly see the outline of someone. Two different hair tones.
A coat that kind of wanted to be purple.
He closed his eyes.
It’s been 1,595,468 seconds.
There’s no way he’s…
“It’s okay, Senkuu -chan. I’m here. I’ll wait for you.”
Senkuu kept his eyes closed against the deception. “No… Gen never came. Nobody did. It’s only logical.”
“W-e couldn’t- we couldn’t find you, Senkuu-chan. I’m- I’m sorry.”
Senkuu didn’t reply.
He just moved his head away. “I need antibiotics. There’s probably an infection on my eyelids.”
Gen’s voice was feeble, like the disturbed surface of a pond. “We have- I mean; we have that herbal ointment. I’ll get someone to fetch it for you. But you’ll have to apply it yourself.”
“Hey,” he asked, hugging his bony ribs, as tight as he dared. Silence fell upon them. “Is this real?”
“I-yes. It is.”
“Can I believe in it, then?”
“What if it’s not?”
“But it is.”
Senkuu bared his teeth again, terrified and angry at equal measures. “If it’s not, I swear I will take my own life alongside yours.”
“Okay. Okay. But it’s real, Senkuu-chan. You won’t ever have to- I mean…” Silence. “I’m- I’m going to get your antibiotics. You also need to-to eat.”
Senkuu tried opening his eyes again, squinting against the random flashes of light that were nowhere else but in his brain.
He saw a figure get up, and walk to the entrance of the tent.
“Gen?” He said against his better judgment.
The figure stopped moving, turned to him. “Yes, Senkuu-chan?”
“Are you crying?”
“It’s been 1,595,505 seconds, Gen. Am I really safe?”
He wasn’t safe.
“You’re still… counting?”
Somehow the question made Senkuu hunch in on himself, as if he could cradle his mountain of numbers, of seconds close to his chest, protecting them from outside judgment.
“What else could I do?” He said. He wasn’t too sure what emotion made his voice break.
“I… don’t know. I’m- I mean- do you want me to stay?”
Senkuu ’s eyes watered again, for entirely different reasons.
Senkuu’s hand hurt, his back hurt, everything ached.
But he couldn’t move.
He refused to move.
Because Gen’s cold hands were between his. Warming up.
Because he was clutching Gen– at long last.
Because if he let go, if he so much as relaxed, he feared his illusion would fade, like mist under the sun.
So even if it hurt, he would not let go.
Was he safe?
He wasn’t safe.
The seconds continued to pass.
They get him his ointment. Another point for this being real.
His eyesight has been getting better too.
His circadian cycle was beyond fucked, but that was the least of his concerns.
He was finally given something for his swollen knee. For his shattered ankle.
He didn’t let them see under his clothes.
It drove them up the wall.
But was he safe?
He didn’t let Gen out of his sight.
He wasn’t too sure why.
It just scared him.
Chrome came to visit.
Meters upon meters of white bandages covered his arms, but he only grinned at him. “It’s good to have you back, Senkuu.”
His hands were fidgety. His eyes kept skittering to his many injuries, looking guilty.
Senkuu felt a little like scum, when that realization only brought him grim satisfaction.
Ruri came each night, and told him one of the Hundred Stories. As silly and outrageous as they were, somehow they managed to soothe him.
He did not sleep if there was anyone in the room, however.
Kohaku also came by, nearly every day. She brought in warm water for him. Which was useful for his many wounds. But he couldn’t always be bothered.
She brought it anyway.
Yuzuriha and Taiju also came.
With their loud sobs, and seething anger, they apologized to him for not getting him back sooner.
He could forgive them.
He had been the one to send them to Tsukasa’s Empire that first time. They had listened to him. And they had suffered for it.
Even if they had sold him out, Senkuu thought it was only fair.
“It’s alright,” he told them, when Taiju wouldn’t stop crying. “It is as they say, an eye for an eye, right? We’re even now.”
They had left after that.
Yuzuriha’s cries of anguish haunted him for the following nights.
Some days, when the rising numbers in his head became too loud, when they cluttered in his mind, Senkuu would turn away from them. Refusing to speak.
What did he need them for, anyway?
They hadn’t come after all.
Not on time.
Was he safe?
It’s been 2,592,000 seconds since he woke up on someone’s shoulder.
“Why aren’t you safe?”
Senkuu looked around himself, blinking owlishly. That didn’t sound like his own voice. His eyes fell on Gen.
“Because Hyouga- “
“Hyouga’s been dead for more than a week.”
Senkuu looked off to the side. “Oh.”
“Why don’t you feel safe?”
His shoulders slumped. “I don’t know.”
Gen’s lips became a thin line. “Yeah. But we’ll get to the bottom of it, lright-ay?”
“Has he eaten anything?” Yuzu asked Gen, as he came out from Senkuu ’s tent with an untouched plate of food.
The mentalist glanced at her, looking annoyed and exhausted beyond his years. “Anything? Yes. Has he been able to keep it down? ‘Fraid not. If you want more, you should talk to him yourself.”
“I-I would, but I’m worried he wouldn’t…” Yuzu looked back into the tent, heartbroken. “I didn’t know he felt responsible for what happened at the Tsukasa Empire… I don’t want him to think we- we- wanted this to happen to him.”
“Tough luck, honey.” Gen smiled sweetly, as he handed her the plate. “He’s threatened me with committing double suicide, but I keep going back because I know he needs the reassurance, more than we deserve the guilt.”
She looked away. “Does he listen to you, when you… explain?”
“Not really. Not enough to carry a full conversation. Explanations can come later. Right now, he just needs to know he’s been rescued. That he’s not alone. And he has to learn to eat again.”
Yuzu frowned at the rancid meat in her hands. “Okay,” she said with a frown and teary eyes. “Okay,” she repeated. “I’ll make sure he eats.”
Gen just waved a dismissive hand at her as he left, but Yuzu could see the weight lifting off his shoulders, as little as it was.
He trusted her with it.
And she would make true to her words.
“Good morning, Senkuu-kun. I brought you some ramen.” She said, trying to be soothing and calm and positive. Everything she was not feeling.
Senkuu’s red, hazy eyes flittered about her, trying to focus on her. He looked tense. He was always tense, and so skinny. It was almost as painful to see as his swollen ankle, or his beaten face.
“I will leave it with you. Please eat at least a noodle or two.”
Senkuu kept staring at her, vision unfocused as he accepted the bowl, and swirled the meager contents of it around. “You know,” he said with his rough voice. “This is odd.”
“Odd?” Yuzu echoed, her heart on her throat. “What is?”
“This entire plot. Come on, Hyouga, you really going to try the whole false security before ripping everything away? You’re better than that.”
Yuzuriha very nearly tripped. “Wha-? Who are you talking to, Senkuu -kun, it’s just me-“
“Senkuu-kun this, Senkuu-kun that, honestly you give me the creeps, Hyouga.”
In a pitiful echo of a throw, Senkuu tossed his bowl of ramen at her, as he stood up on wobbly feet. The noodles spilled on the floor, nowhere near either of them.
“Stop it, you’re not Yuzuriha. This ploy is ridiculous. I already told you I wouldn’t join you, and they’re not coming back for me. So drop this fucking charade and kill me already-!”
Yuzuriha covered her mouth with her hands, but the sob forced its way out her throat anyway.
“I’m not-“ She began, feeling tears in her eyes. Feeling fear in her heart. “I’m not Hyouga, Senkuu -k- Senkuu.”
Her friend stood in his same spot, standing on his broken ankle, and glaring unseeingly at her.
She wanted to leave, she wanted to stop hurting Senkuu.
It had been easier before, when her anger had carried her though the fears. But what could she do now, facing a broken man?
Explanations can come later. Right now he just needs to know he’s been rescued.
She swallowed through the knot in her throat. “Do you think Hyouga would trick you into acting as me? Would he know what I am like? Would you know?”
Senkuu remained silent, motionless.
“What you just threw on the ground was foxtail ramen. It’s good, we’re getting used to the new tastes. But it is still too bitter, for me to not miss the modern ramen.”
Senkuu frowned. She carried through.
“In the modern day, we used to go eat ramen, remember? After school let out, Byakuya-san would invite us out to eat. We loved it. You were so happy then.” She paused, blinking away the tears. “I know it’s not the same, but do you want… do you want to eat ramen?”
Senkuu looked down.
Yuzuriha brought him a new bowl, and cleaned up the mess.
When he had finally laid down again, half of the ramen was littered with tiny bites.
Yuzuriha stuck around, a pail of water and a cup of tea in her hands, Taiju hovering nervously outside the hut.
He did not throw up.
She counted it as a win.
When Senkuu finally relaxed, the pain he had been holding at bay finally returned to him, nearly crippling him in its intensity.
But the pain was impossible to fake.
It centered him to reality.
At night, however, everything was fair game.
Ah, Senkuu-kun, I thought you were smarter than this. Did you really think they would come for you?
Was he safe?
Of course he was not.
What do you want now, Hyouga? I’m not joining you.
Then will you remain alone?
I’m not alone.
They didn’t come for you because they want you here, Senkuu.
They sold you to me, how else do you think I could have sneaked my way inside?
Isn’t it logical?
You are valuable, Senkuu. When they realized they couldn’t do science without you, they finally decided to get you back.
You don’t need me to tell you this, you’ve known all along, haven’t you…?
“SHUT UP!” Senkuu screamed sitting up from his bed, heart racing a mile per second. He’s panting, breathing hard– and he’s so wound up he can’t even feel his injuries.
“Senkuu-chan?” A voice said, far too familiar for it not to hurt.
Was he safe?
He squinted, seeing a worried Gen make his way to him. Hands outstretched, moving slowly but surely. Like he was a wild animal.
“Senkuu-chan, you were having a nightmare.”
Or was this the nightmare?
2,630,002 seconds had passed since he had been taken.
“Am I safe?”
“Yes, you are, Senkuu-chan.” Gen was kneeling by his side, hands hovering over his knee, before letting them reach up for his hands. “You’re home, with us. You’re here with me.”
“Can’t what, Senkuu-chan?”
Senkuu ’s eyes were distant, gazing at nothing– or maybe at the mountain of numbers ahead.
“Can’t stop counting.”
Was he safe?
Gen didn’t reply immediately. He just stared at him, worriedly. Clutching his hand, softly.
His little finger was in a cast. Had been for a while. It should hurt. But all he could feel was the cool press of his hands.
All he could feel was the oppressive weight of the never ending numbers.
“Senkuu-chan.” Gen spoke up again after a pause– after 2,592,103 seconds after he woke up. “When morning comes, do you feel up to taking a small walk with me?”
“Are…” Are you finally going to kill me, Hyouga? Took you long enough.
It wasn’t Hyouga.
“Senkuu-chan, I want to show you a tree. Do you want to take a walk with me there?”
Senkuu managed to tear his mind away from the spiraling numbers for a second. “…Tree?”
“A tree that will hopefully give you proof.”
Senkuu looked him in the eye.
He clutched the hand in his hold harder.
The seconds continued to pass.
Gen softly guided him away from his hut –hut? Was he in a hut? Whose was it? – letting Senkuu lean on him heavily, his injured ankle not really allowing him to walk on his own just yet.
No wonder, in this Stone World, it was a miracle he hadn’t gotten a bone infection. It would not heal properly, but Hyouga had been right.
He would still be able to walk. To do his research.
They hobbled on, Senkuu being acutely aware of the way his legs trembled. He still wasn’t exactly healthy. Eating made him better, at least he knew that.
Senkuu was clutching Gen’s arm so hard he was pretty sure he couldn’t feel it anymore. They moved slowly.
“You’re home, you’re safe.” He said over and over again, as he led him outside the village– village? What village? Hyouga didn’t…
“I’m… safe.” He echoed, focusing on the coolness of his hand, the soft floral smell on his body. On those dark eyes looking over him as if he was worth a damn. “I’m home.”
But the ticker didn’t stop.
Was he safe?
“Where… are you taking me?”
Gen just smiled at him, exuding serenity. “I want to take you to a special place. But it’s still a little far away. I want you to walk with me to the entrance. I’ll tell you how far I think it is.”
“To the first place you marked in this new world.”
Even laden with the incessant numbers, Senkuu’s mind was fast to understand.
Remembering that tree he had marked, all those years, months, seconds ago.
“It’s so far.” He mumbled, in a feeble voice.
“It is. I’m sorry.”
“Why do you want to go there?”
“Because you haven’t stopped counting, have you?”
Senkuu was silent.
In his mind, the numbers kept on increasing.
He counts and counts.
“You’re safe, Senkuu -chan. You’re with me.”
The numbers keep climbing.
Gen really did want him to go to that tree, Senkuu thought as he stared at the rustic palanquin he had had made for the occasion.
It was basically a chair crossed with horizontal poles to act as handholds for four people to lift it. It was simple, to the point, yet somehow elegant. The backrest was plush with feathers and slightly leaning back. There was a place to rest the feet, and they had gotten a small roof over it.
“What do you think?” Gen asked, something childish and excited in his voice. Senkuu wasn’t distracted enough by the contraption not to catch the spark of light in his eyes.
His chest felt warm.
Not hot, like when he was whipped.
Not burning with infection.
“We’re going to carry you there. Is this alright with you?”
“Who… is…?” Senkuu mumbled, still rubbing absently at his chest.
“Taiju-chan, of course, and the old grump Kaseki-chan. Magma-chan also volunteered. Kohaku-chan would have loved to take you all by herself, but she’s still not allowed to carry that much, so she might be a little sullen, but don’t mind her.”
The slight slant on the chair ended up being extremely useful as both Kohaku and Kaseki were noticeably shorter than the other two, and whoever had built this had either taken this fact into account, or had just gotten very, very lucky.
At least Senkuu wasn’t pitching forward every five seconds, so he wasn’t going to complain. He did feel extremely silly, as he was carried like some sort of King, or samurai of old times.
He wasn’t sure he liked it that much, because while not walking was good on his ankle, and legs, it was a little dizzying, and he cramped relatively fast.
He felt even sillier because Gen walked beside him at all times, eyes trained on his face, and would call in breaks at random whenever Senkuu so much as sighed.
It was silly because it didn’t make sense that the person being carried got tired faster than the bearers.
But he appreciated the breaks nonetheless.
They would put him down, slowly, carefully. And then Gen would step up, helping him to his feet and slowly meandering in a soft circle before sitting him down again and giving him food and water.
The four bearers sat by the palanquin, with Kinrou, Yuzuriha and Nikki acting as sentries and guards, their eyes trained on what lay outside their perimeter.
He hadn’t yet found the nerve to ask them about their injuries.
Magma sported several fading bruises on his exposed arms, and a slash across his face that very narrowly missed his eye. Kohaku’s entire chest was darkened with bruises– but he knew it had been for being hit by a shield, she had already explained. Taiju…
Taiju stared at him silently, as hesitant as Senkuu felt when he glanced at the new gashes on his arms.
They sat, red and vibrant against his skin– just like the torture scars had shone, so long ago.
Taiju noticed him staring and hurried to cover them up. He smiled at him nervously. “Hey, Senkuu -excited to see the tree?”
Was he safe?
Were they safe?
“I’m… sorry.” Senkuu began, lowering his eyes. “You got hurt again.” Because of me.
And then Taiju finally ran up to him, dropping to his knees, hands hovering over his still underfed friend. His eyebrows were knit together, as if in pain.
“It wasn’t your fault, Senkuu!” He exclaimed in a loud whisper. “It wasn’t your fault this time either! I was- we were-“ Tears sprung to his eyes. “I’m just glad we got you back.”
Had Taiju felt guilty?
He’d always been the softer of the three.
Senkuu stretched out a hand, rested it on his shoulder. “Sorry for… hurting you.”
“What? Senkuu, of course you didn’t-!”
“Hyouga said…” Senkuu continued, silencing their small congregation. He pursed his lips and began again. “Of course you two would never have wished me pain. I’m sorry… for what I said.”
Taiju began to cry.
Fat, heavy tears that he hurried to brush away. “We love you, Senkuu.” He sobbed softly. “We just… We just want you to be safe, and happy. And what happened back there… with Tsukasa. It wasn’t your fault. We-we knew what we were getting into. We never- we never blamed you. We never- would have wished for you to…”
“I get it Big Oaf,” Senkuu replied, gently placing his hand on his head. “Of course you wouldn’t have.”
Taiju then left him with Gen, leaning against the mentalist heavily as if somehow the emotional talk had drained him of energy.
Taiju went up to Yuzuriha, who hadn’t left her post and hugged her tight. They sat there, watching out for enemies together, while their break was over.
3,600 seconds later, Gen was helping Senkuu back to the palanquin– and somehow he felt lighter than before.
As if he was finally dropping some of that crushing weight behind them. The restless numbers, the guilt, the trauma.
He left them behind, as they made their way through the forest.
Was he safe?
A gentle tap on his shoulder.
Senkuu blearily opened his eyes and realized he had fallen asleep.
For five hours.
“Did I scream?”
Gen smiled, his face bathed in the near-sunset light. “You didn’t, Senkuu. We’re here, let’s get you up, shall we?”
His ankle screamed in pain, having gotten cold during his nap, and it was harder to walk, but they made it to the tree successfully.
He knew what he was expecting to see. But still, being here in the open, staring at the tree he had engraved himself was far beyond what he could handle.
He ran his hands over the inscription, marking the year– so long ago, already, so many hours, so many seconds– his eyes looking at how the tree had accepted the carvings, how it had grown around it, distorting but not erasing the calendar kanji.
“April first, 5738.” Gen mumbled by his side. “The beginning of an era. The day you woke up and decided nothing would bring you down.” He softly placed his hand on top of his, still resting against the bark of the tree. “The day you left me a message for the future. Where you told me there was hope with numbers and a sharp mind.”
Senkuu smiled at him.
But the numbers kept climbing.
They sat down, their backs against the tree, hands loosely intertwined.
He felt at peace, like he hadn’t felt for a very long time.
Why was he still counting?
Was he safe with Gen?
Yes, he was.
He was under his tree. Their tree, apparently.
He was safe.
He was safe with Gen.
What was he waiting for?
Why can't he stop counting?
Senkuu clenched his teeth, clutching at his head.
He hates this.
He hates this.
When will it stop?
Please god, let it stop.
Let it stop.
A cool hand on his, softly grasping it again.
He wants to stop counting.
Gen peels his hands away from his face.
He wants to stop.
“You don’t have to keep counting alone, Senkuu.”
He wants to stop, he wants to stop, he wants to stop.
Gen pressed their foreheads together.
“I’m with you now, and forever, my Senkuu.”
He wants to...
“You can stop counting now, Senkuu -chan. You’re home. The countdown is over. You are home, you are safe and I will never let someone hurt you again. Let us count with you, the days we spend together.”
Senkuu stared into his eyes, looking at the tears glittering in them, like the stars in the night sky.
“I believe you.” He said.
The numbers stopped.