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He doesn't have to wonder when it had become like this. It isn't something he needs to question. Whether it will weigh them down until they can no longer live heedless of the consequences, it isn't going to relent for a moment in the rest of their brief lives.

They had known each other since infancy. Each connected to the Eight Branch families in some way—more importantly, close in age to the young master of the first among them—more importantly, he was fond of them.

It didn't take much to be fond of Taki-sama. He naturally drew men around him, the symbol of their hopes, their values. But they knew, more than that, a very good friend. Even at such a young, foolish age they swore a pact to protect him, that they'd stay together forever loyal, forever united, the trinity that would safeguard their precious Shinka.

They didn't know that battlefields awaited them at that time. Giant roaring machines that could take out entire platoons in a few rounds, a war so unlike the one fought not five years before their birth. They didn't know that they would be the ones behind the armoured engine, firing at enemies they would never know the faces of, but they understood the obligation that they undertook when they made that pact. They acknowledged the duty that must be fulfilled throughout the rest of their lives, personal feelings be damned.

Childhood friendships can be funny things. But sometimes they are nothing more than the start of a long road, footsteps guided inexorably by an unknown power. And from those wisteria-strewn days in the Prefecture they began to grow up.

He was fifteen when he knew. In the orchard, at the foot of the tree, there he was— sunlight upon fair hair, pale lips curved in honest smile, eyes unguarded, kind, and he knew that fate was guiding her hand. That wherever he turned, this was the road he would walk down. He could suppress his desire, his longing, try to forget altogether, and he did, of course, but even if he did, he knew this was the path he was coming back to. The last road.

They will all take wives eventually. His family favours the idea of one of the Reizen quadruplets, or a daughter of the Tachibana family, once they are old enough. Either prospect would raise the family's status and be a fitting match. His brother is already betrothed to the grand-niece of the head of the Katsuragis, but he might do even better. It is also this which makes him aware that the inevitable is not destiny.

Surrounded by only men, living on the brink of a former battlefield set to reopen any time now, other countries might quietly allow it, turn a blind eye to the indiscretions of soldiers deprived of other company, but here purity is everything. It happens, of course. He had always known it, because it will out and purity is everything. Another reminder a man keeps his feelings close, and his failings closer.

But then he grew older still, into his prime, and one day he risks it, knows every stolen moment he will risk, whatever corruption they might bring on themselves and their peers because this is the road he will follow unto death, the unseen hand joining his with the one he knows every crease of, every scar, every flaw.

It isn't something he is supposed to see, but then not every face is so masked as his own. A night mission—readying themselves in the barracks as the siren rings, pulled from their sleep, he slips off his bed clothes preparing to put on the uniform that marks his place, that gives credence to the promise they made so long ago, Lieutenant of the 15th armoured division, Rozen Maiden, crew: Murakumo. It's a glance over his shoulder, a brief moment as he reaches for the stiff, pressed shirt and he sees a look that is the mirror of his own. It vanishes. They go out into the night. There is no mistaking it for anything but it what it was. Longing.

He decides to act. To step foot-first into the mire, consequences be damned. He's known for long enough now it would come to this. It's not making a choice. Fate wouldn't let him get away without getting his feet wet, but now the inevitable has surfaced too and he acts. It's brief, the echoes of the bugle call fading, soldiers shuffling to the mess hall for dinner, the barracks emptied but for them, only for this short moment, but without regret he reaches his hand out in caress, brushes his lips against paler ones, and he is lost. The moment is perfect. Lips meet once, tentative, and again, deeper, and again, fervently, and it is only the knowledge that this is only a moment that makes him pull away. He gazes into those eyes, brushes his hands once more against the now-flushed cheeks, and whispers in a low voice, "Azusa."

It disappears as quickly as that, their time always so short, but now spare moments are filled with quick trysts in empty spaces, the dead of night or silent mid-days, wanting to connect as deeply, as intimately as possible, while trying to hide any sign of change. Date becomes a shield in yet another sense, will probably never notice and yet protects them with his passionate friendship. Their sacred three-in-one-ness, never to be parted. Date's blind earnestness is something they come to depend on, but there are others around them who are sharper and they must always be cautious. Suspicions can be tolerated. They are fine. Evidence is not.

It's not always graceful. They don't have the luxury of time and place. But in the slick sliding of bodies against one another, the tangle of limbs, intertwined and clinging desperately as they reach ecstasy together, a touch he can no longer live without, there is a different kind of grace.

In the land of the pure, though, it is a contamination.

War breaks out again and their commander returns home, reuniting them in their promise sworn all those years ago, in the place of their ancestors. With him Taki-sama brings a Knight, another man among thousands who has fallen under Taki-sama's sway, but this one is different. This one has made a pact holding the weight theirs holds, and he is different from them. He will always be different from them. Despite his desire to comply with Taki-sama's wishes, he never truly lets go of his suspicion of the foreigner who so quickly becomes Captain, a presence acknowledged but guarded against.

They are now brought together with the Shinka, bound by oath and unrelenting duty, the "one-and-only" crew of the Murakumo. Knowing their lives and deaths rest together in the mechanical monster he drives into a war zone time and time again, he draws strength. He puts his trust in the slow tread of the Western tank, surrounded by the three people he would risk dishonour for, whom he will always protect.

When it comes, he can feel the mission isn't right. The brass playing at things they shouldn't dare. A sacred, dirty, ground that Azusa shouldn't be entering. If he goes, he will lose purity in the eyes of all of Taki-sama's subjects, will drag down anyone who touches him into the same mud. And in spite of the secret stain of their relationship this miasma is something he fears because it is so public, so unforgiving, and ingrained into their very sensibility. Purity is how they make sense of their world and even if he has long turned his back to it for the tantalizing pleasure it forbids, this one thing may not be absolvable.

But Date says it, clearer than he could, they are three, and they will never escape that, so Azusa must come back. They aren't bound by purity, they are bound by honour and it hasn't been fulfilled yet. Date clings to Azusa's hands, confesses his fears straight out, demands his return and he resents him for it even though he doesn't want to, when all he says is, "Be careful." Azusa may know that it means more, but he will never be able to say it, or show it, and he only has faith that Azusa is going to come back because it is too soon. They have further to walk, or so he tells himself.

He's shaken when he nearly doesn't. Resting Azusa's head in his lap, he cannot express how grateful he is that there is still breath, still warmth, unlike the immobile body Taki-sama is racing towards. His heart is clenched with fear and relief and fierce affection and he cannot show any of it, cannot do anything but gently stroke the hair beneath his fingers as the medics bark out orders at Date, carefully removing the sodden clothes that might be concealing greater wounds. Everything is in a blur. In the background he hears a voice he didn't expect to hear again, speaking of the coming storm, but he doesn't care at this moment. He is anchored to unholy ground; the trinity and the Shinka, earth, air and dark water.

He visits the sick bay whenever he can, keeping quiet company with his weakened partner, bandaged and confined to bed. The first time he holds his hand hidden under the covers, fingers gently stroking, but even that is noticed by one of the orderlies and he stops trying to touch him altogether. Of course there is no one stopping Date from being affectionate with Azusa, and again he feels bitter and conflicted because he cannot keep rebuking his friend for his faults. He is the one who does not show emotion or affection. His actions will always have a different weight. He has to compromise for their safety. He takes only a little pleasure when Azusa asks for his assistance.

Azusa's health improves and although he's still in the medical ward, he'll soon recover enough to be released, maybe even take leave to visit his family estate and rest there. For now together they watch an unnaturally troubled Taki-sama unleash his frustration on the men, including the still injured Date—that very injury received protecting Taki-sama. Azusa first, then Date...he wonders when it will be his turn to stand in the line of fire and uphold their promise. Watching the fight between the Captain and the Commander, he wonders if it will be on the front or the battlefield that he has felt closing in this past week.

The fight intensifies and he tries to ignore just how close their bodies are, how he could be pressing Azusa against the glass right now, kissing him blindly until his fears of their parting completely dissolved, no room to breathe but of the other. He is tormented knowing it's what Azusa wants too. How long before they can steal another moment, moments where things can be said, can be held, not left in the silence that smothers their promise with self-consciousness?

It comes in a sea of black coats, the moment he knows the war is changing and from here on out there is no promise of where the path ends. This is the time of choice. He leaves, as he must, and even as Azusa makes his hasty request all he thinks of is: for you. They are twice-damned, but they walk this path together. I will bear anything for you.