Oiran

Chapter 1

His neatly tied long light brown hair, which now reached the small of his back, tickling his kidneys, waved to the rhythm of his slow steps as Yukimura walked down the long dim lit corridor. His fingers tightened on the tray he held between his hands when he saw the doors, painted with landscapes, that enclosed the large room where he received his guests. The young man had always preferred to receive his guests in a room other than his own bedroom; it was his way of forgetting, to forget even for a short time the way he was repaying a debt that wasn't even his. It had been like that for nearly ten years now….

Before opening the door, he gave a quick glance at his silent follower and the other's his brown eyes flecked with gold grew compassionate. The young man reached out to Yukimura, pretending to want to give him something discretely. Yukimura shook his head negatively.

"Not tonight, Sasuke. It's a new client... and we have to spare the few we have..." He murmured darkly, touching the necklace he had worn it since his childhood with his fingertips.

Sasuke lowered his head painfully, putting the little relief that he wanted to offer his master back in his pocket. He tucked the few strands of autumn coloured hair falling into his eyes back into his green headband.

"As you wish, master Yuki. I planned an expedition to town to buy new ingredients soon."

Yukimura stiffened slightly after hearing the statement. It meant he would be alone for at least several days.

"Anyway, if you need me, I'm not far. Let me know if this client doesn't suit you."

Yukimura nodded; he soon found a semblance of a smile. His follower was the most precious friend he had, it was nice to know that he was always there for him.

Sasuke was older than Yukimura, but only by a few years. He was thinner and less naturally muscular than the brown-haired Oiran, yet more flexible and agile. His eyes were more piercing and his bushy hair stopping at his nape had the colour of maple leaves in autumn. His often-mocking face was decorated with three green lines: one painted on each cheek and one barring his nose; nobody had ever seen him without his paintings and, with time, even Yukimura stopped asking what it was for.

Together they faced the harshness of the world of the night, the world of those who were forced to became objects. It was because of Sasuke that Yukimura had somehow been able to keep his pride as a person until then, he didn't fear to say it; because he knew that Sasuke, he at least, regarded him as a human being and didn't care about the rest. It was only with Sasuke that he found a little bit of the childhood that he had been deprived of.

Sasuke hid in the shadows when Yukimura decided it was time to slide the doors open. He always took his time: opening enough to pass, but not looking at his guest when he put the tray in front of him and knelt down, bowing respectfully.

"My name is Yuki, I'll be your host for this evening." he said mechanically as he had been taught. "I hope to meet your expectations." He added, finally rising his head to look at his guest.

Yukimura was taken aback and did not manage to hide his astonished expression when he saw his client.

For all the evenings he spent gazing at the moon, it seemed like the man who stood before him could have been her child. He was young, younger than Yukimura anyway. Customers younger than him were rare enough to notice. His translucent skin was not marred by age, while his hair was the colour of an ermine's fur in winter. His short hair were styled in a single lock joining on his nose, giving his face a shape resembling somewhat of an eagle. He wore a purple kimono over another light one of a white layer, decorated with a crest that Yukimura had never seen before.

The olive-green eyes he had landed on himfor a moment before the man suddenly looked away to turn his gaze on a calligraphy adorning the wall. The kanji painted there meant 'serenity'.

Yukimura was alarmed at first to have been caught staring at the young man, but he could have sworn he saw him blush. This gave him an amused smile that he had to hide in his sleeve as best he could when he approached, this time putting the tray on the small, round, varnished wood table before which the young man was sitting. Yukimura thought that this evening could be one of the few that differed from all the others.

"Forgive me if I offended you." He said, turning his gaze on the young man, once again noticing that he now preferred watching his hands resting on his knees .

For some reason, that made Yukimura curious. His host was nervous, it was up to Yukimura to do his 'work' and ensure that he has a pleasant evening. Seeing the way the man clenched and relaxed his hands, Yukimura determined this wouldn't be an easy task.

"Do you prefer that I serve you tea, or maybe Sake? Since this is our first meeting, I don't know your preferences yet." Yukimura asked to start a necessary icebreaker conversation.

"Tea." replied the young man after a few long seconds.

Yukimura genuinely smiled. He didn't know why, but hearing the sound of his voice had made him happy; it was as if succeeding in making him speak was a small victory in itself. Busily preparing tea, Yukimura rose to go get the ingredients. The room in which he received his guests was the largest, most furnished and decorated that this small brothel housed. The biggest advantage was that it opened to a small terrace overlooking the garden and not the street. No matter how Yukimura and other the Oiran had brought money to the old man- as they like to call the owner- he hadn't moved to a more modern and larger facility just to keep the Japanese garden that his wife had put so much love into to create. It was one of the rare things Yukimura appreciated in that man.

He pushed a screen painted with bamboo motifs to access a small cabinet of the same wood as the table. He pulled a ceramic, a brush and a box of tea leaves out from a drawer, suddenly feeling the man stare at him he performed the tea ceremony with precise and careful movements that proved his ability to serve guests of the highest ranks, even under the man's intense look of disbelief. He had been made aware of the beauty and the talent of the Oiran, but nobody had bothered to let him know that Yukimura would be so cultivated; the man could only be amazed. Yukimura smiled inwardly.

"This is your first visit to a red light district, is not it?" Yukimura said, placing the finished tea on the table.

The young man glared at him, but Yukimura wasn't perturbed because the young man's reaction had only confirmed his first impression. He sat down next to him, confident that his lack of experience would prevent him from throwing himself at Yukimura like an animal.

"This is all so stupid." said the young man spat abruptly, rising from his sitting position. He headed straight for the door.

Yukimura hadn't expected this, not when he had only begun to work his charms, but he was determined not to let go of a possibly friendly company. There was so little of that kind. Moreover, if his client were to go out this fast, he could be punished and that was the last thing he wanted; the sole idea of this gave him an unpleasant shudder.

"Why are you leaving so soon? I don't even know your name or the reason that brings you here. Stay at least to drink your tea?" Yukimura said, trying to pin the other man's interest, determined to make him stay. He adjusted his kimono. It was obvious now that the young man hadn't come just because he was interested in "doing it", so no more reason to embarrass him more.

The man paused, then sighed. "Ishida Mitsunari." He spoke, returning with slow steps towards Yukimura. Mitsunari almost resented becoming weak against the puppy dog eyes Yukimura had made at him... Yukimura reminded him more and more of him... but he also found himself intrigued by those big brown eyes. Anyway, a little conversation couldn't hurt.

Yukimura was increasingly surprised with this interesting young man. It was the first time a client gave him his true full name, yet he preferred not to scare him by noting it. Many lords wanting to be known as virtuous didn't like it to be common knowledge that they attended this kind of establishment; it was customary to use an assumed name, same for the courtiers. Only Sasuke, the old tenant, and himself knew Yukimura's real name.

"Ishida-dono, you know, my role is also to lend you an ear if you wish. All which is delivered within these walls will not leave them." and Yukimura truly knew many secrets, men liked to confide on the pillow more than they liked to let on.

Mitsunari tasted the tea. He had returned to sit because he was too much of a man to give up halfway, yet he also had to admit that he was curious about what he had seen since he walked through the doors of the red light district. It made sense that he had, before him, someone worthy to answer his questions.

"Why are you so different from all other courtesans who practically flow over you when you enter the grounds of the neighborhood?" If he had had his sword in hand, he would without doubt have sliced a few of these brazen women to teach them a lesson if it wasn't that he had been offended by seeing them exposing themselves behind bars.

Yukimura hadn't expected a question about his person first, but then he realized that Mitsunari was just trying to avoid the real issue. One doesn't need to be sharp to understand that he was trying to gauge if he could trust Yukimura.

"Were you ever informed of the code that apply here? There are eight different Oiran classes; those who run the streets are of the lower class. I am fortunate to have attained the rank of Tayu, the highest possible rank in the world of the night. We get the best educations, I can write, read, play music, dance, sing... singing isn't really my strong point though. Only Tayu are able to entertain the most hard to please gentlemen, we are the few that don't go out on the streets. You are lucky, in a way, because I usually meet my clients alone only on the third appointment, but my owner heavily insisted that I see you and-"

Mitsunari coughed, suddenly choking on his tea, shocked by the incessant flow of words that seemed to have wanted out of Yukimura mouth. Fortunately, Yukimura had stopped to help him by lightly tapping on his back. Taking a breath, Mitsunari stiffened at the contact. That boy... he couldn't believe that such a person could exist here.

"Easy. There, there, take a breath."

"I... was expecting a simple answer! Not a whole lesson!" Mitsunari growled out, regaining his breath.

Yukimura walked away from him, ashamed. "I must apologize again," he said, bowing, "I let myself go. I don't have the pleasure being allowed to talk about myself often." Yukimura had always struggled to curb his enthusiasm once it was launched, that's why he was limited to small talk with others customers.

Mitsunari nodded, the corners of his lips subtly turning up for a fraction of a second. "It's nothing. Just try to keep your answers specific and short for now on." he said that with no real threat in his voice. That helped Yukimura find the relaxation that he had again.

He opened the round box made of bamboo that was on the tray and presented some smoldering manjus to Mitsunari. "There's pork and beef." he asserted, but even though the youngest glanced at the dish with interest, he didn't touch it, preferring to look back at the calligraphy adorning the room.

Tilting head to the side, Yukimura could only wonder why the other was quiet again. He had an idea. "So, I replied to your questions, now it's your turn to answer one of mine."

This had to work. The lunar boy turned his attention back toward him, his hand briefly passing over a manju before going for the ceramic containing his tea. "Ask me a question then." he replied without the young Oiran seemed more than happy, his beaming face confused Mitsunari who had some difficulty staying expressionless.

The older of the two took a while to think; he didn't really know what kind of questions he could ask the other without taking the risk of offending him. This young man had appeared to kind of susceptible until then. Maybe if Yukimura impelled him to talk to about himself, it would make him more confident. "I would like to know your occupation. Are you a trader? A samurai maybe?" Yukimura particularly appreciated epic stories, as overrated the ones he had heard were.

Mitsunari raised an eyebrow at the question, wasn't it obvious? "I am a humble samurai at the service of Lord Hideyoshi, one of the generals he can count among his most faithful servants." This time it was Mitsunari who added details to his answer, but he realized it soon enough to stop himself from prattling on as much as he could have.

"Tell me about him." Yukimura said, showing interest by getting closer .

Not paying attention to the fact that he had forgotten that it was his turn to ask a question, the young samurai went on with a nascent smile on his lips. "He is the greatest of all the lords. He's powerful, just and right, exactly what this country needs, and it is my honor to serve and accompany him on the battlefield and very soon by the throne. I wouldn't hesitate to kill all his enemies for that, I believe in his cause. Now he is surrounded by the best, but beware he who is plotting behind his back as I watch."

"There's nothing I hate more than traitors." Yukimura let escape, realizing long after he had spoken at the same time as Mitsunari. His words had brought up bad childhood memories.

He straightened up, expecting a new reprimand seeing Mitsunari rise once more. "Ishida-dono..." he began, not knowing what to do anymore.

This time Mitsunari turned to him, smirking, "It's getting late, Yuki. It was a pleasant evening, I would visit you again soon."

Yukimura was quick to recover and accompany him to the door. "It'll be with pleasure Ishida-dono. When can I expect to see you again?" he tacitly implied by his words that he accepted Mitsunari as a regular customer. It was both a privilege for him and Mitsunari.

"Tomorrow night." Mitsunari replied directly. He still needed some time to address the real issue that had led him to Yukimura, but he must do it quickly even if it was somewhat embarrassing for him.

The older of the two welcomed this perspective; having Mitsunari as host meant that for once he could be himself with a client. He bowed and smiled while a servant and a worker of the teahouse came to accompany Mitsunari toward the exit.

"Yare, yare, it seemed he was an important someone..." Sasuke said coming out of the shadows.

"He seems even weirder than you… that's probably why I enjoy is company." Yukimura joked voluntarily.

Sasuke rolled his eyes.


The next morning, while the red light district was still numb with sleep after another night of debauchery, the sun of promising day beginning to warm the air. Yukimura, as always, was the first Oiran of the house to be up. Not only was he morning person and too energetic to remain still, he was in a particularly good mood today. He was dressed in kimono darker than the one he wore at night. A discreet maple leaf pattern was unfolded itself on the left sleeve and above, he wore a hakama of coal color. His hair was as always tied in a loose ponytail and he always tried his best to make his pendant visible by everyone.

He descended the stairs four at a time. He left the floor where the rooms were and entered the lobby that hadn't changed in ten years save for the colors of the institution that now indicated that it housed a Tayu and both male and female prostitutes. Obviously, Yukimura's higher rank forbade him to mix with other residents of the facility too much; it was simply prohibited by the laws of the red light district. The things that were the heart of his teaching were like treasures that are passed from master to student.

Yukimura smiled even more after finding out that the old owner wasn't behind the counter, but instead his wife: a little old lady with very sharp eyes even in her old age. Her braided white hair fell on her shoulder. She was taller than her husband, but she walked hunched over a cane, much softer as well, so Yukimura liked her well enough. She never failed to slip him a treat or some sweets when her husband's back was turned. Some time ago, when she could, she sometimes came up to the first floor to see how he felt after receiving a client. Yukimura knew she was doing that with all the others too, as if they were her own children.

Of course, the old couple had a real son who was helping to keep the 'shop', but the two elders didn't seem ready to give it up.

"Hi Grandma!" the young man said, leaning over the counter to greet her.

"Hello, Yuki. You're up early today, even for you this is unusual." she said, patting him on the head.

"Sasuke and I have an appointment at the tailor, he's going to make me a new kimono."

"Oooh, this is why you're so excited; you'll finally get your colors, hm? It's about time, it's been a while since you've been made Tayu." affirmed the granny's perky voice.

"I was finally able to save enough so the boss didn't have to pay." he stated, proud of himself, holding back calling him 'the old man' in front of her the way he always called the owner. He was so proud. "Is Sasuke already up?" he finally asked.

The grandmother nodded. "He went to feed the koi." Sasuke was a good hard-working man; she had never regretted how she insisted that her husband used the boy as a handyman. After receiving a quick thank you, she looked up as Yukimura disappeared in the garden. "Ahh, youth."

"Sasuke!" Yukimura called after seeing him at the other end of the garden. The young man barely had time to shake his head as the other already rushed to meet him.

"Don't cry so loudly, the other are still sleeping." he claimed, throwing a handful of pellets at the colorful fish that were moving in the basin.

But Yukimura ignored his remark, his gaze fixated on a large cork oak that hid the walls bounding the property. "You remember," he finished by saying, "This is where we met for the first time."

Sasuke could only make a smile full of sadness. This memory was both painful and happy for Yukimura and Sasuke alike. it happened on a full moon. He tried his best to hide from a client who was too violent, but he had reached the bottom of the garden and with it the end of hope, for he could hear the calls of those who were after him. He was startled when he heard heavy breathing and was about to run again when he saw, leaning painfully against the tree trunk, a teenager with hands covered in blood as he oscillated between consciousness and unconsciousness.

Yukimura had controlled his fear at that time and determined, judging from what he wore, that this boy was an assassin, a ninja. The injuries he had indicated that he probably was returning from a mission. Yukimura had talked to him to keep him awake until the tenant and the workers that were after Yukimura found him.

It would have been customary for the ninja to be handed over to the guards who would probably have left him to die in a cell. Instead of letting that happen, Yukimura had begged and pleaded so much and so strongly for the young adolescent to be taken care of here, he even promised that he would return without making a fuss with the customer who had beaten him. His pleas even reached the heart of the old tenant who had already shunned away the unwanted customer after seeing Yukimura swollen face, even he didn't want his establishment to be 'one of those'.

And Sasuke had been saved because of Yukimura. Although it was long ago, when he saw him for the first time in the darkness, he had known. He had known that Yukimura was the right one. This child was the master he sought-the first search of all ninja. Since he cared for the boy as if he was his own flesh and blood, he had repeatedly offered Yukimura a way out of this nightmare. Even today Yukimura refused to go away with him for whatever reason he didn't know of, as if he was waiting for something else... but at least he offered the respite and the rest he could for the young man.

"How long has it been already? Five, six years?" Sasuke eventually answered.

Yukimura just shrugged, he hadn't really counted, and counting the days and years going by merely reinforced his despair. "I think we should go, I want to take my time to choose my kimono."

"Yare, yare." Sasuke groaned seeing Yukimura run in the other direction as eagerly as when he had came toward him.


They laughed and joked about the pattern Yukimura chose and the time he had taken to choose a color just to finally pick the usual red as the two young men left from the appointed tailor of Oiran from this red light district. The fabric was ordered and the measurements were taken. It was already noon and because of the sun, the shadows were reduced to a minimum, making the neighborhood almost seem friendly.

Their conversation was abruptly interrupted by a gurgling sound from Yukimura belly that he tried to hide with nonchalance, as if nothing happened. Sasuke smirked.

"Maybe I can invite you to eat something? It's not wrong if the old man doesn't find out, what about some dango?"

Judging by the expression of want and the drool that threatened to escape Yukimura's lip corner, yes, dango sounded like a great idea. It wasn't every day that Yukimura received such an invitation, and it was probably the first time he would eat his favorite dish outside of the brothel.

"Okay for dangos then." Sasuke was contaminated by Yukimura's even in the red light district people needed to eat, there were few restaurants that offered real meals, unlike the teahouse that offered only snacks and finger food to accompany their services. Sasuke knew exactly which one would perfectly please Yukimura.

"Help me, somebody!"

Cries attracted their attention, followed by petty laughs. There was, more up the street, a group of men who had surrounded a girl and were bulling her. They shoved her violently by passing her from one to the other while she was crying for help. The passers continued their way, not even looking in their direction.

Sasuke did not fail to notice Yukimura's balled fists and tightened jaw when they saw that the men tried to attack the girl in a back alley, yet he held the Oiran's arm. "Let the guards take care of that, it isn't our business."

Yukimura turned to him with a look that was both cold and hot. Sasuke knew that look and he knew better than to do something to prevent his master from interfering.

"You know very well that the guards never care for the residents. It's this poor girl who would eventually be punished at the end," he replied, already striding toward the group. Sasuke rubbed his temples, but followed anyway.

"Hey you!" Yukimura called out. "With all the courtesans that live here, you take a girl who isn't even one of them? I rarely get to see jerks like you." he teased.

And it worked, because the one who was apparently the leader- a man with a disheveled kimono and his hair done in mage style- dropped the girl to come stand in front of Yukimura.

"Oh look, a kitten who draws his claws out for a whore! Ah, you aren't half bad either, maybe you want to take her place?" The five other guys laughed at what apparently was the joke of the century.

Sasuke helped the girl to stand up when Yukimura called out. "Bring her to her home Sasuke; this won't take a long time." Sasuke frowned, but still helped the girl to pick up the goods she had dropped. He saw the six men out of the corner of his eye had now encircled Yukimura ... it wouldn't be pretty. But for who, he was not sure. It was in moments like this he regretted ceding to Yukimura complaints and having taught him the basics of hand-to-hand fighting. He didn't want to leave, but an order was an order.

"Pathetic men as you can't expect to do anything other than goats." Yukimura continued, the ferocity of a tiger taking birth in his hazel eyes.

The man with the mage hairstyle spat on his feet and Yukimura broke. He had at first tried to get them to leave but now his blood was boiling too much in his veins. His forehead powerfully hit the man's nose. The man fell to one knee and growled, holding his bloodied nose.

"Asshole!"

"Hey!"

"Catch him!" the others let out.

They wasted no time and a first one sent his fist on Yukimura cheek, causing him to step back under the force of the impact. He wiped the blood that flowed from the corner of his lips. Now there was nothing that could restrain him. His knee came into contact with the stomach of the man who had struck him and he turned quickly to deal a blow to the one who tried to grab him. Another managed to grab his kimono and tear his sleeve when Yukimura sent him flying against a wall with a kick.

His movements, his blocking, his responses were marked by a kind of fluidity. It looked like he was dancing, fire in his eyes, as he left no respite for his opponents. For every blow he received, ten were given with strength and ferocity. The boss wasn't slow to crawl as far as away as possible while he watched his men continue to be slaughtered. It was a tiger he saw and not a young man, a red devil with fiery eyes. He didn't think twice when he pulled the knife he had hidden in his clothes, his hands trembling with fear. He had to do something before being devoured.

He waited for an opening. At the moment, Yukimura knocked out the last standing man with an elbow in the throat. The man was about to strike from behind with all his strength, but the knife ready to tear Yukimura back stopped dead and the man screamed in pain. The scream covered the sound of his arm breaking when the hand that had grabbed him twisted the limb in an abnormal direction. The knife fell to the ground with a clang and the man followed, his eyes up-turned and foam coming out of his mouth.

Someone cheered and gave a "Well done, Masamune!"

Yukimura ignored it. At that moment, he could only see the man who had stopped the fatal blow, without realizing he was staring mouth agape. The man was beautiful (probably the same age as Yukimura though he looked older), he had dark brown hair that framed his face perfectly with high cheekbones and pale skin just in the right tone, square shoulders on which rested a simple dark blue haori. A black leather eye patch concealing his right eye made him look mysterious, but the left… his left eye completely captive Yukimura. It was a metallic blue-gray eye in which a storm seemed to have been trapped, Yukimura could see so much in this eye and so little at the same time.

"Over here!" Shouted a man, bringing three armed guards behind him.

"Shit!" Masamune growled out.

Suddenly clutching Yukimura's arm, he didn't give him the time to understand that he was running, dragging the young Oiran with him. Yukimura tried to get rid of his clutch, in vain, the iron grip the other exercised over him was terrible, yet there was a ghost of smile that Yukimura saw on the on the stranger lips. He really seemed to enjoy escaping the guards. Suddenly he pushed Yukimura in an alley, slammed him against a wall, and put a hand over his mouth. So close that Yukimura was intoxicated by the scent that emerged from this strange man, an oil and leather scent, but also very subtle jasmine scent like the incense used in most of the brothels.

It took a few minutes of seeing the guards whom were pursuing them passed their hideout and didn't notice it until they were certain that they weren't followed anymore. After they were sure, Masamune released Yukimura's mouth.

The young Oiran pushed away this young man who had been close to him for too long for his taste. "What was that for?" Yukimura was slightly angry, catching his breath.

"We couldn't have this discussion if they had taken us. You see?" Masamune replied with all the peacefulness of the world.

"We couldn't have this discussion if they had taken us. You see?" Masamune replied with all the peacefulness of the world.

"A discussion? Oh, maybe you want a thank you for earlier?" Yukimura tried.

Masamune didn't answer and again disconcerted Yukimura by hurriedly seizing his necklace pulling him against him. He felt warmth rising in him when their faces were mere inches from each other.

"This thing here isn't just for show, right?" Masamune asked.

"Uh?" Yukimura was confused and embarrassed by this strange man and by their sudden proximity.

"You know how to fight, don't say otherwise I saw you. What's your name?" he finally released Yukimura's six coins, glaring at him in wait of his answer.

"Sanada Yukimura." he couldn't help but to reveal, suddenly covering his traitor mouth with his hand. He didn't know why, but thinking about it, the idea of that the handsome young man knowing he was nothing more than a male prostitute displeased him greatly; it gave him a knot in the stomach. Maybe it wasn't for the worse that he gave him is real name.

"Very well, Sanada Yukimura. I am Date Masamune and you're going to duel against me tomorrow."

"Huh, what? That's impossible, I can't lea-"

"You have no choice, I'll be waiting at the entrance at the same hour tomorrow and if you don't show up, I'll personally find you even if I have reduce this place to ashes to do it. Understand?" the electric gaze that Masamune threw at him wasn't really giving room to argue. Still Yukimura answered with an uncertain nod of his head, intimidated, fascinated even. "Excellent, the terms of the duel will be settled there." Masamune took a step to the side, wanting Yukimura to understand that he had no reason to detain him anymore, well for now at least. For how long Masamune had been looking for someone worthwhile to fight, there was no way he was letting go of one he thought worthy of his time.

"Um," Yukimura was hesitant.

"Huh?" Masamune said, crossing his arms over his chest, the blue kimono he wore was only enlightening the soft pallor of his skin, Yukimura found.

"You don't want thanks?"

"I don't need anything else." Masamune frowned. Now that the tension had fallen, the situation was becoming embarrassing for them.

This time it was Yukimura crossing the space between them, he was slightly smaller than Masamune by four or five inches. It wasn't difficult for him, despite his obvious hesitation, to gently place his lips on Masamune's with a brief and gentle pressure.

"This is how we thank here." Not wanting the other to see him blushing like a virgin, Yukimura hastily left the alley without a backward glance.

A long minute passed before Masamune touched his lips casually. "Sanada Yukimura, I'll remember that name."

Yukimura didn't know how, but he managed to return to the teahouse that was his home. Sasuke was waiting outside the door, worried, he rushed to Yukimura before he stumbled and let himself fall on his knees to the ground. "Yuki? Are you okay? You're hurt."

The young man grabbed his kimono where the fabric covered his heart, his knuckles whitened under his squeezing, not raising his head to meet his incredulous friend gaze.

"My heart ... it beats ... it's beating so fast..."


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