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"Of all sad words of tongue or pen,
The saddest are these: It might have been."
-- John Greenleaf Whittier

You're sixteen when you first meet him. He's everything that you could possibly want: tall, handsome, solicitous, perfect in every way. He welcomes you into his office, teaches you about animals and how to treat them with dignity. Your twin sister, whom you love dearly but sometimes want to strangle, calls him your boyfriend and dances around the two of you making kiss-kiss noises. You know better than to think of him as anything to you but mentor, but in your secret heart of hearts, you hope that someday he might look at you as something other than the annoying kid who drops in every day to help out in the clinic.

You graduate from high school -- not at the top of your class, but not at the bottom, either, despite all the class you have to miss for the other job that you don't ever talk to anyone about but your oneesan and your obaasan and your sempai. (Sometimes you think that you're too young to do what you do, but you ignore that little thought; it needs to be done, and you're one of the only people who can do it.) College is almost a relief, with its less regimented class structure and its subject matter that you're actually interested in. The four years pass in half a heartbeat, and by the time you stop to blink, you're standing on the stage tossing your cap in the air with the rest of your classmates. He's there in the audience, of course, beaming up at you with a proud smile on his face, waiting patiently to take you out to dinner afterwards.

You go to the same veterinary college that he went to, take most of the same classes. By the time you receive that piece of paper, the two of you have moved in together, and you can't imagine how you ever lived your life without him. Your sister makes jokes about how she's going to have to be the one to carry on the Sumeragi clan, because obviously you don't seem to be interested in ever settling down with a nice young woman. You just smile. You're happy. The two of you, together, are happy.



You're twenty-five when you first meet him. He's everything that you could possibly want: tall, handsome, solicitous, perfect in every way. You almost hadn't gone to the convention to begin with; your practice had exploded, recently, and you didn't want to take the days off to hang around with a bunch of other veterinarians and talk shop. But something told you that you wanted to go, and you'd long ago learned to listen to those little hunches.

When you meet him, you're glad that you took the time indeed. You meet up after one of the panel discussions; you'd been sitting next to each other in the audience, casting glances over at each other every now and then when the panelists got a little less than captivating. The two of you discuss the convention so far, bantering back and forth your opinions of the various techniques, the various theories. Eventually, you smile at him shyly and ask if he'd like to go to dinner with you. He looks startled for a moment and then smiles back just as shyly and agrees.

You find a nice restaurant a few blocks from the convention center and settle in for dinner. Both of you are dressed in expensive suits and unassuming ties; you fit in nicely, even though you can't see any of the other conventioneers at any of the other tables. The conversation is halting, but interesting; you catch yourself blushing more than once. You linger over dessert for longer than you can really justify (cheesecake, you've often thought, is one of the Americans' great gifts to the rest of the world) before stammering out an invitation to come back to the house you share with your sister and her husband for coffee.

You don't actually have any coffee, but he doesn't need to know that.

He seems uncertain for a moment, then smiles again and says that he'd love to. You wonder what he's thinking, and resist the urge to reach out with your other senses to check. You're in each others' arms before the door even really shuts, and he tastes even more perfect than you'd imagined -- like clove and tobacco and spring.

You almost laugh when in the morning he comes back to bed and announces, slightly puzzled, that he met your sister's husband in the kitchen and Kakyou said that there wasn't any coffee in the house.

No, stop.



You're sixteen when you first meet him. He's everything that you could possibly want: tall, handsome, solicitous, perfect in every way. It isn't until a year later that you learn the truth of it: that you weren't sixteen when you first met him, you were nine, and he marked you even then. You'd never really wondered about the presence of those stars; they simply seemed as if they'd always been there.

You'd come to the hospital at first to visit a friend of yours who was suffering from kidney failure. It had seemed the most natural thing in the world to offer to donate one of your own kidneys; that was simply what you did, part of what you were. And then there had been that horrible mess with Yuuya-kun's mother and the scalpel and you remember standing there in shock as he pushed you out of the way and the scalpel had bit into his eye and by the time the doctors had gotten there it had already been too late...

That was when you realized that you loved him. It had taken a blind man to point it out, but it was if your heart was soaring towards the clouds as you rushed back to the hospital to tell him, to finally open your mouth and tell him, tell him all the things that you hadn't realized until that moment, offer to stay by his side and be his eyes and his hands for as long as he needed.

Stepping in to greet him, with the words on your lips, you are struck dumb by silence as you step not into a sterile and anonymous hospital room but into a maboroshi, the illusion complete and far more powerful than you could ever hope to cast yourself. You feel as if your heart is dying as he carefully and dispassionately tells you: the tree. The bet. The stakes.

And you're ready to close your eyes and die -- because, after all, you were ready to live for him, why can't you be ready to die for him? -- when he, equally as carefully and dispassionately, tells you that you've won. That he loves you too --

Rewind, dammit. Rewind.

-- when he, equally as carefully and dispassionately, tells you that it was not he who marked you, but the Sakurazukamori, the spirit that was both his mother and not his mother, and that he would fight her for your life, that he didn't want to live without you, that in the past year (when he had been sent to watch over the Sakurazukamori's prey) he had grown to admire your spirit and your compassion. You've taught him what it means to be human, in that year. You've taught him how to feel.

And you stop and look down at your gloved hands and feel the laugh bubbling up in your throat, the laugh of hysteria mixed with relief, as the memories come rushing back and you can remember the touch of the tree that is not only a tree and the tiny, doll-like woman smiling at you. But he's here. He's here, and you'll trust that he can do what he says he can do and keep you safe even though you don't know who he really is anymore because you love him and he loves you and that's enough, that will always be enough, that's all you ever really wanted out of life, and with that much you can be content --

No. Stop.


Stop, dammit, please, no, I don't want to do this, not like this, not like this, this isn't how I wanted it to be. This isn't ever how I wanted it to be.

But he doesn't listen to you. He never does. And you turn your head so that your cheek presses against the pillow, and you close your eyes against the tears, and you wonder if maybe this time you can find some way for it not to hurt so damn much.

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