Return From Hell

I’m here again. In this godforsaken place. In hell. In my hell. In the hell in which I died and was reborn again. Reborn without memories, without a past. In the hell where I grew up, where I became a man. Where I learned everything I know, where I became what I am. A killer. I learned to survive here, in this hell. In this jungle.

Jungle. The one word that still fills me with dread. Dread and a strange feeling of detachedness. Of calm.

Now that I’m here again, in this thick, green foliage, in the oppressive humidity, in the middle of war, I don’t care about anything. Or at least that’s how it seems. Because deep inside, I know I’m not the same as all those years before, when I used to live in this jungle.

I’ve changed in the past years. Living among regular people, without hearing the constants rumble of bombs, barking of machine guns, and whimpering of dying men, has changed me.

Yet I’m still lying to myself. It wasn’t the living among normal people, away from here, that’s changed me. It was one person. Just one. A woman. A woman as beautiful inside as she is on the outside. An angel. It was an angel that’s made me change.

Kaori.

She’s the light that shines on my life, the sun that’s chased away the darkness in my soul, the sun that shines for me every single day. She, my best friend’s sister, has slowly crawled underneath my skin, became a part of me.

Kaori is my heart.

Even now, when I’m once again immersed in the pain, blood, and death caused by war, she’s always with me. Guiding me, comforting me, keeping me strong. And sane.

And I’ve finally realized what she truly means to me. What it means caring for someone. What it means loving someone. I’ve realized it now, that we’re separated. Now that I know I might never see her again. When I’m risking breaking the promise I’d made on her birthday.

Now I regret every nasty word I’ve ever said to her. I regret every insult, every mocking jibe. I regret making her miserable for so long. Making us both miserable because of my damned pride. Because of my fears.

She’ll suffer even more If I die. My heart shatters just thinking about her crying, of her beautiful face contorted in a mask of anguish.

I’d do anything to be with her now, instead of—


“Move, you fucking idiot!” Umibozu yelled, seeing cover in the dense foliage.

Ryo snapped out of his musing just in time to hear the whistle of a closing-in grenade, and jumped to the side, sliding in the mud.

The grenade landed right where he’d been standing, lost in his thought.

The explosion and the spurting of mud snapped him out of his stupor completely, and something deep inside him rebelled at the thought of never seeing Kaori again, watching her hazel eyes dance with laughter, hearing her say his name, watching her sleep...

Fuck! I don’t want to die. Not now. Not here! I don’t want to hurt her anymore. When I die, I want it to be of old age, with her by my side, holding her hand in mine. I want her face to be the last thing I see!

I want to live! I want to live for her! For us!

I’ll survive for you, Kaori. I’ll survive to be with you. And this time, I’ll tell you everything. I promise to tell you how I truly feel.

I swear to you, my little Sugar Boy, that when I come back, we’ll be together. I’ll never leave your side for the rest of my life, as long as that might be. I’ll never hurt you again. I’ll keep you safe from the life we’re living, but not by pretending to be indifferent, not pretending to feel nothing, but by loving you with everything I am.

I swear to you, Kaori, when I return, you’ll be mine!


X
Y
Z

“Are you sure you’re okay, Kaori?”

Miki was getting worried about her friend. With dark circles under her red and puffy eyes, hair that has lost its shine, and thinner than ever before, Kaori looked terrible.

Kaori forced a smile, holding the cup with both hands, hoping some of the heat from the coffee would seep into her. She was constantly cold.

Miki put her arm around Kaori’s shoulders, sighing softly. She knew how her friend felt. It’s been three months since Falcon and Saeba have returned to the jungle to fight yet another futile war. Three months without news, without a single word. Three months of living in terror, fearing the two men wouldn’t come back.

“Miki?” The word was but a shaky whisper.

“What is it?”

“Are there any news?”

Miki closed her eyes, hugging her friend. Kaori posed the same question every day. And every day, Miki had to give the same answer, “Not yet.”

“I see,” Kaori murmured, crying silently.

Fighting her own tears, Miki looked through the window. It was already dark. “It’s late. Do you want to stay? You can sleep here.”

Kaori shook her head, stood, and cracked a sad smile. “I’m fine, don’t worry about me. I’ll go home, get my beauty sleep, and tomorrow I’ll be as new.”

Miki’s eyes were sad as she watched her friend leave. “Good night, Kaori.”

X
Y
Z

Kaori slept in her partner’s bed, holding on to a pillow for dear life, her cheeks still wet, when the front door to their apartment opened quietly. Soft footsteps sounded in the hallway as the late-night visitor took the well-known route.

He opened the door of Kaori’s bedroom, and his eyes widened at the sight of the empty, untouched bed. He closed the door on a muttered curse, and, hands fisted by his sides, walked toward his own bedroom, his heart beating wildly.

Where was she?

His eyes widened again, as he saw her in his bed, hugging his pillow, wearing one of his shirts. It was too big for her, yet offering him a tantalizing view of her long, bare legs.

Ryo walked slowly toward the bed, smiling, as his eyes ran over her. He leaned one knee onto the bed, leaned over her, and frowned when he saw her face. Her eyes were swollen, her cheeks shiny with tears...She’s lost weight. Has she been so worried about him?

She would never have to worry again.

He leaned closer, brushing his lips against her cheek.

Kaori whimpered in her sleep, “Ryo...”

Ryo took off his shirt, wincing at the sting in his shoulder, and lay down beside her, tunneling his fingers through her hair. “Kaori,” he whispered.

Her eyelashes fluttered, then her eyes opened wide. “Ryo? You...you’re really here?”

“Shhh.” He smiled tenderly. “I’m here. I’m real.”

Kaori threw her arms around him, burrowed her face against his neck, and burst into tears.

“Calm down, baby,” he murmured against her hair. “Don’t cry.”

She lifted her head to look at him, and brushed her fingertips down his cheek. “You’re really here. God, I was so worried! We haven’t heard a word. I didn’t know if you were alive or—” She finally noticed the bandage on his shoulder. “You’re hurt! What happened?! Is it bad?”

“I’m fine. The bullet went right through. I’ll live.” Ryo grabbed her wrists as she tried to see the wound. “Stop it, Kaori. I’m fine. We need to talk.”

She shook her head, sniffling. “Let me see. You could’ve died.” She narrowed her eyes. “You broke your promise! You promised to always be there for my birthday, that you’d never hurt me by dying!”

Ryo sighed. “I remember the promise, baby. But, see, I didn’t die. I’m here. And I have to tell you something.”

“You can tell me later. First, let me see your shoulder!”

“God damn it, woman!” Ryo snapped. “Calm down and shut up so I can tell you that I love you!”

“Fine!” Kaori jumped off the bed, and glared at him, as he watched her with his mouth gaping open. “This is what I get for worrying about you? You yell at me?! The nerve! Very well, Saeba-san. Patch yourself up!” She stomped toward the door. “From now on, I don’t give a shit what happens to you!”

“What the—” Ryo winced as she slammed the door shut. He just told her he loved her. He was there, naked from the waist up, ready to be ravished, and she gets mad?! Am I in the Twilight Zone?

His bedroom door opened again, and Kaori poked her head in, her eyes enormous. “What did you say?”

He was silent, simply watching her.

“Did you say that you love me?”

Ryo nodded and smiled.

“Oh,” Kaori whispered, playing with the hem of his shirt, feeling heat course throughout her body at the sight of that smile. “I thought I was hearing things.”

Ryo stood, and reached her in two strides. He cupped her face, caressed her cheeks with his thumbs. “You heard right,” he murmured hoarsely.

Kaori swallowed. “Are...are you sure?”

“Never been more sure in my life,” he replied with a smile. “I’m an idiot for not telling you sooner. Showing you sooner.”

“You could be wrong, you know,” she said, lifting her arms to touch his wrists. “You’ve just come back from the war. I could be just a survival—”

“Shut up,” he ordered softly.

Kaori’s mouth snapped shut.

“No, no,” he chuckled. “Open your mouth...Yeah, just like that. Perfect.”

And he kissed her. A long, drugging kiss that conveyed everything he felt for her. His admiration, his devotion, his respect...All of his love. He was finally home. He came back from hell, came back to his angel. He was home.

When he lifted his head, they were both panting, and he waited for her to open her eyes. “Do you believe me now?” he asked, when she looked at him.

Kaori nodded and he kissed her softly, just a gentle touch of lips. “Good.”

He brushed his palm down her arm, intertwined their fingers, and pulled her toward the bed, but she stood firm.

He smiled. “Don’t worry, baby. We won’t do anything you don’t want to do.”

Kaori shook her head, signing something with her free hand.

“What is it?”

She rolled her eyes, extricated her hand, and rushed out of the room.

“But—Kaori! Where are you going?” He turned to run after her, when she was back once more, smiling mischievously as she offered him a piece of paper. He frowned as he read it.

You told me to shut up.

The one time she did what he told her. He’d never understand women.

“You can speak, Kaori,” he muttered, his eyes narrowed.

“I love you, too.”

She stood on tiptoes, pulled his head down, and kissed him. Seeing stars, and knowing he’d probably never recover, Ryo lifted her in his arms, and carried her to bed.

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