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One Step Closer

Vignette following "The Phantom of the School" (episode 8)

Haji leans forward, watching the disappearing figure for as long as he can. Show yourself, pathetic creature. Phantom is no longer visible in the pale light of a crescent moon. I will find you and then... He growls in frustration, eyes glittering, adrenaline still amping his blood as he imagines what he will do to the beast that threatened Saya.

His head pivots at the sough of breath that emerges from the recesses of the campanile. Saya. She's backed into a corner between the arches, seeking refuge in the shadows. She is unharmed but frightened. He goes to her and stands with his back as a shield against the wind that whips around them. "Are you alright?" he asks, concerned.

She nods. Too quick. He notes her hesitation, then capitulation as she leans into him, one hand at his waist. I know you too well. Every fiber of his being longs to cradle her, but he stands firm, the anchor that she needs. You must be strong, Saya, if you are to succeed. He sighs. And I must remember my place. Still, he savors her trust. It is a beginning.

She pulls away and leans back against the wall, closing her eyes. What is it you hold? A dagger and a rose - a blue rose? Diva. He takes the bloody dagger from her without resistance, its allure non-existent. Time and self-discipline have sublimated the Chiropteran sex drive to taking only blood from feral animals.

He wipes the blade clean with a crimson cloth and tucks them inside his jacket. "Saya, show me," he says as he takes her other hand within his own. Her fingers grip the rose stem tightly, a large thorn pressing into her thumb, wounding her. The drop of blood that appears at the puncture site forms slowly only to reabsorb, appear, reabsorb, appear. He plies her fingers open with his thumb and the bloom falls to the ground. "Saya," he calls again, more firmly.

Her lids flutter open and she looks up at him, eyes haunted. "That was the Phantom, wasn't it? I wasn't prepared for him to be so…evil."

"There are many things about Chiropterans you do not know yet." How will you handle the truth?

Her eyes search his, her fingers wrapping around his. "I need to know more, Haji - about them, about why I'm the only one who can destroy them. You told me you would tell me about my past, but you haven't."

"Forgive my indiscretion. It is better if you come to remember things on your own." They fear your rage but it wasn't learning of your past, but my inaction that drove you mad. His shoulders droop, guilt weighing heavy on them as he allows Red Shield to bear the blame.

She presses, "I don't understand. What will happen if you tell me? It's my life."

Sweet Saya. Do not ask. Please. If she demands it, he must tell her and risk Red Shield's operation. And so he is reticent, enduring her troubled stare.

Saya sighs and bends down to pick up the rose from the wooden floorboards, its outermost petals unhinging and falling away to expose the mid-petals; the smaller, tighter bud still concealing the stamen and pistils within. She returns to the edge of the tower where she nearly fell. Phantom's arrival had startled and frightened her. It was only her quicksilver agility that saved her when she stumbled. She doesn't look at Haji when she says, "I wasn't very good with the dagger, was I?"

I am already absolved. "You will improve," he replies with surety.

"I didn't even remember to slice open my hand. If you hadn't come when you did..."

"We will train with the daggers as well as your sword." I will make amends and prepare you.

"Yes," she replies as if from a distance.

"It is more responsibility but it cannot be helped."

"I know," she agrees although she sounds less than certain.

"It is late, Saya. You have classes in the morning and need sleep."

"In a minute, Haji. I need to clear my head first."

He is taken aback but demurs, "If that is what you wish."

It is, she realizes though she says nothing.

Haji moves to stand inside the arch where he entered. Phantom should not return tonight. We are alone. It is the first time since they have met in this incarnation. He leans against the wall, arms crossed and eyes half lidded as he indulges in the guilty pleasure of watching her in close proximity.

Saya gazes at the serene countryside that harbors violent secrets from another time and, perhaps, for her. She's glad Haji is with her. She feels safer when he's around, as if nothing too terrible can happen as long as he is with her. They are comrades in arms and becoming friends.

But is that all? Min's teasing tonight triggered a vivid memory of Haji's kiss. She feels the heat rise in her face knowing that he is nearby. She isn't experienced in such things, but she felt the change in him as his arms tightened around her and she succumbed to the way he made her feel just before her anger… Or did she only imagine it? A sigh hums at the back of her throat.

Moonlight glistens off her jet hair as the wind skitters through and ruffles it. He yearns to caress it with the fingers that twitch against his arm. Her profile is in shadow but he knows her face as well as his own. So beautiful. A kirlian effect shimmers around her and her nightgown becomes translucent, her silhouette cast in sharp relief beneath. He draws in breath and tamps down the sudden flush that suffuses him. I must cease. In profile he discerns the contours of her breasts, the curve of her abdomen, the small of her back and the shape of her legs. His pulse quickens as illicit images leap to mind. The tug in his groin increases his guilt, but he aches for her. You do not know what you do to me... He inhales deeply and captures her scent, fresh from her evening shower along with the darker traces of her fear, her exertion and the musk that is uniquely Saya. He exhales on a shuddered breath, everything about her calling to his primal senses, setting him alight. …Or what I would do with you, were I worthy.

He forces himself to turn away, taking in deep breaths and focusing on a single point on the horizon. Were he capable of sleep, his dreams would provide wish fulfillment, but he doesn't sleep. Do nothing which is of no use. Were he a god, he could act with impunity. A warrior seeks impeccability in his own eyes and calls that humbleness. It is a rare night when human desire ultimately demolishes self-control and he brings himself to climax with Saya's name on his parched lips. Today is victory over yourself of yesterday.

Saya alternates her gaze from the darkened hills surrounding the lycee to the now limp rose in her hand. She's tired and the strain of the evening has taken its toll on her. Min would be disappointed to learn that the Phantom wasn't the romantic figure she imagined and was, instead, a cold and hateful beast whose dark thoughts radiated at Saya from his eyes. What did he want from her? Her honor, her death or both? The thought ravages her and she shudders, casting the flower out and watching it as it tumbles into the shadows below. She listens for it to hit the ground, but there is no sound.

"Haji," she calls and he is there, cool and composed. He saw her toss the rose and has not heard it land either. He picks Saya up in his arms and descends the multiple staircases to the ground in short order. He sets her down at once and she runs to the place where she believes the rose should lay. Nothing is there. Saya rubs her arms against the early morning chill and her nerves.

"I will continue to search for him," Haji tells her coming to stand beside her. "Please, Saya. You must not get sick. You need to rest. "

She looks up at him and in her gaze are questions he cannot answer. I would tell you everything if I could, ease your worries, make sense of it all. His concurrent life span makes him the obvious choice for the role. That, and the fact that he loves her beyond reason. I am your humble servant.

She nods and takes a step towards the dormitory. Then she turns and looks at him, pressing one hand against his chest. It is unexpected and sends a subtle thrill through him. "Thanks for looking out for me," she says with a small smile. She hurries back to the building and pauses to raise a hand in farewell before she disappears from view.

His response is nothing but breath. "Always."

END ~ One Step Closer