It wasn’t the flawless red of Anna’s fresh Sword of Damocles that stuck out in Fushimi’s mind hours later, though the lingering memory of fire blazing up through the scar at his collar hadn’t quite faded despite everything. He lifted his fingers from the keyboard of his laptop and reached up to slide them under the edge of his shirt reflexively, giving the mark a half-hearted scratch as his thoughts wandered.
It was early in the afternoon, sunlight pouring in through the large windows, but the working office space at Scepter 4 was conspicuously empty. In point of fact, Fushimi was the only one who had ignored Awashima’s instruction to sleep while there was opportunity, leaving any non-emergency tasks to those outside of the Special Operations Squad.
Even with Homra on the verge of piecing themselves back into an active clan, things were likely to stay busy. If he didn’t take the opportunity to catch up with the reports that had been piling up, he’d be annoyed with himself later.
Besides that, it was unlikely that he’d be able to sleep right then.
Fushimi’s fingers stilled, though he didn’t pull them back. His mind kept taking him back to the same point in time. The moment when Misaki had looked at him without bitterness – without anger, without desperation – but with an uncharacteristic hesitance and uncertainty, as if he didn’t know where the twisted remains of their relationship stood either. Not the sparkling eyes of their early days, not the blend of fury and bitterness he’d gotten used to in those years of separation, and certainly not the dull weariness from recently. The feeling this look had stirred up was a lot like the restlessness that had been plaguing Fushimi since he’d started on this path, but far more compelling – as if all of his instincts were calling out for some action, but his brain couldn’t – or wouldn’t – comprehend what it was. The whole thing was unnerving. He didn’t want to acknowledge it.
Misaki had been lively again – maybe not quite as carefree as before, but he’d still greeted his comrades with unrestrained enthusiasm, and rather than being annoyed by that, Fushimi felt as if some huge uneasiness he’d been carrying unknowingly had settled.
Honestly, he wasn’t sure what to make of that. It was baffling, and that was making him agitated. Unconsciously, his fingers dug in a little deeper, drawing out a sharp sting.
“Fushimi.” Awashima’s crisp voice intruded on that moment of inner reflection. Fushimi looked up as she stepped across the room toward him, pulling his hand back. She raised an eyebrow at him when their eyes met. “Didn’t I tell you earlier that we’re off duty for the rest of the day?”
He clicked his tongue. “I can’t sleep when it’s this light out.”
“I see.” She crossed her arms, studying him critically. “You realize that the purpose of a break doesn’t necessarily need to be sleep?” Without waiting for an answer, she added, “Have you eaten?”
Fushimi narrowed his eyes at her, frowning back. “Have you?”
He expected a weary sigh and a reprimand of some sort, so he was surprised when her face softened into a rueful smile instead. “I suppose that’s a fair point.”
The unexpected honesty robbed him of a proper response. Fushimi hesitated for a moment, eyeing her warily. He’d worked closely with Awashima on a number of occasions, but they’d rarely spoken on a personal level. Not that he went out of his way to speak on a personal level with anyone – he hadn’t come to Scepter 4 to make friends – but Awashima was not the prying type in the first place, unlike certain others he could name. She was more than competent at what she did, possessing the ability to efficiently draw out the strengths of any given unit when the situation called for it. That fact alone made her tolerable to work with and for, despite the occasional annoyance.
At that moment, she was addressing him casually.
Somehow it put him at ease, though he wasn’t sure why. Fushimi tapped his finger on the side of his laptop, uncertain what to make of this conversation. “Did you come here for a reason or are you just checking to see if you could catch someone who snuck in to get work done?”
She raised an eyebrow at him but didn’t comment on the mild swipe he’d taken. “As a matter of fact, I came here looking for a few overdue reports.” Another wry smile. “Considering how things have been, it’s possible they were finished and not submitted.”
That was convenient, considering what he was working on – and it provided an easy way to bring this back into comfortable territory. Fushimi faced forward again, reaching out to tap the stack beside him as he eyed his laptop screen. “Tell me which ones you want, and we’ll find out how lucky you are.”
There was a brief, startled pause, and then she dutifully recited a list.
“The first, I’ve already processed.” Fushimi indicated his ‘done’ pile. “The second isn’t written yet, as far as I know – check with Kamo when he’s back. The third and fourth are in here somewhere.” He tapped his stack again. “The fifth is too, but I wouldn’t count on it being ready, since Domyoji is the one in charge of that case. Odds are, it’ll need a lot of revisions.”
Awashima made a slightly impatient noise. “I’m not sure if that boy will ever grow up,” she observed in a murmur. “Well, no matter.” Striding around the table, she pulled out the chair on the other side, opening the work laptop in front of her. “Since you’ve gathered the reports, I might as well assist you with the processing.”
Fushimi blinked at her, once again taken aback. Awashima rarely sat with them in the work room, usually busy supervising the various operations of Scepter 4 or serving as Munakata’s second under an official capacity. When he worked with her, she was more often in command of an operation for which she’d chosen to utilize his particular skillset. Processing the completed reports of the Special Operations Squad had generally been his task when he wasn’t in the field.
She raised another eyebrow at him. “I also have a vested interest in making sure this work is done, Fushimi. With two people, we’ll finish sooner.” Her other eyebrow joined the first. “Unless, of course, you have some complaint about the quality of my work?”
What kind of question is that? He clicked his tongue. “I hope you’re not expecting me to answer that.”
Her expression softened again into a smile. “I’ll let it pass this once. Here.” She lifted about half of his stack and set them beside her instead. “Let’s get started.”
The atmosphere was still and peaceful as they worked. Awashima, as it turned out, was quiet and focused, unlike several others who seemed to feel the need to fill the silence with inane chatter. The soft, rapid patter of their mingled typing kept the air from growing awkwardly stilted, and their respective stacks began to lower with an efficient speed.
He was in the process of reaching for the final report in his stack when the sound of a PDA buzzing made him pause. In the split second that it took him to confirm that it wasn't his, Awashima had pulled the device from her coat. "Sorry," she said to him, rising from her seat and moving toward the back of the room before answering. "Awashima."
There was a brief pause, and then he heard her sigh. "You could have said something earlier." Another break, and then, "So I understood. But still..." The words trailed off, and then she made a small, amused sound. "There's nothing to thank me for. Scepter 4 was protecting its own interests." Another pause, and he could hear the smile in her voice when she responded. "I intend to. Is that all?" After only a short moment, she added, "Then please give my regards to your new King. Goodbye."
Ah. Not that he couldn't have guessed who it was based on the tone, but that last bit confirmed it. "You're still trading intel even now?" he commented when she returned to her seat.
"Nothing has changed in that respect," she confirmed, without batting an eye.
Nothing, huh? Fushimi frowned at her, hesitating for just a moment before going ahead with the question that had come immediately to mind. "You and Kusanagi-san aren't soulmates, are you?"
She stared at him, obviously taken aback by his directness, and then sighed. "That's a bold question." Her voice was dry. "Well, I suppose it’s natural that something like this would come up. As a matter of fact, we don't have that kind of relationship." A corner of her mouth turned up. "Not that the possibility hasn't occurred to me."
The candid admission had him furrowing his brows. "You two have talked about it?"
"That's not necessary." Awashima shook her head, crossing her arms and leaning back in her seat. "We share something of an understanding as the second in command of two traditionally opposed clans. It would be pointless to even discuss such a thing as long as that reality remains." She offered him a small, rueful smile. "I'm sure he's as aware as I am that our compatibility may be high enough, but we have responsibilities that won't allow for it."
The simple, pragmatic explanation was strangely unsatisfying. Fushimi felt his frown deepen without knowing what it was that unsettled him. Was it that easy a decision to make, to not pursue a soulmate connection with someone who seemed like a likely match? And... traditionally opposed clans? The intricate sword mark at the back of Munakata's neck came immediately to mind as he considered that response. He wondered if she knew about it.
If it signified what he thought it did, what would her thoughts be about that connection?
As soon as that particular thought occurred to him, an insidious whisper slid up into his brain with another question: what would her thoughts have been if he'd come to Scepter 4 wearing a matching mark to Misaki's?
It was impossible, of course, but Fushimi felt his fingers twitch against the keyboard in front of him, the urge to reach up and scratch at his burned Homra mark rising, along with the same baseless urgency from before. The idea of a soulmate match with Misaki didn't bring quite the same feeling of sinking dread that it had in the past, but it came with several uncomfortable memories all the same.
Memories that weren't even necessarily uncomfortable in the same way they had been.
That’s the problem, isn’t it?
More often lately, he couldn’t keep away the thoughts he’d always been able to overwrite in the past with the memory of Misaki’s furious face. The sharp bark of Misaki’s laugh felt as real in his mind’s ear as it had been in person. He could see the inward curve of Misaki’s shoulders and back as he rubbed at the back of his neck, grinning sheepishly. The way the longer strands of his hair curled around the line of taut skin there had always made Fushimi’s fingers itch to brush it, and the play of muscle beneath Misaki’s clothing as his body moved had fascinated him more than he would’ve liked to admit. Misaki could never sit still; he was always in motion, gaze sharp and smile bright. Even when he wasn’t smiling, Fushimi could feel the energy radiating from him, and the passion lurking in the warm color of his eyes.
Even in those days, his eyes had sometimes traced the slope of Misaki’s jaw, the outline of his lips. He wanted to feel those places under his mouth and run his hands along the parts of Misaki’s body that were hidden normally.
The desire was more or less understandable, though. It was just a physical reaction, after all. It had led to more than one careless mistake, which was irritating, but at least it made sense. It was the restless feeling that accompanied it that he still couldn’t comprehend – the insistent urging that had become worse when Misaki’s energy had dimmed, gnawing at Fushimi with ferocity during the moments when he’d seen or encountered him.
There was no energy, no passion within Misaki during that time, and yet he still felt that draw of his presence. It had been easier to turn his back and walk away than to deal with it or try to sort out what it meant, but it had left with that hollow, unsatisfied feeling every single time.
Even now, he didn’t feel any urge to rile Misaki as he had before. Something had changed irrevocably, and he couldn’t put his finger on what – or how, for that matter. His only real clue – and one he would’ve liked to ignore – was that single encounter in the middle of it all when he’d been unable to still the flow of desire within himself.
It had drawn a response, he couldn’t deny that.
Fushimi clicked his tongue automatically against the pleasant shiver that overtook his body with the memory. He hadn’t wanted to stop – probably wouldn’t have if the interruption hadn’t come – and it wasn’t purely for physical reasons. It wasn’t anything to do with soulmates, either, although he suspected that was a large part of Misaki’s motivation.
As if it would’ve even gone that way in the first place…
In that moment, Misaki had seemed like he was drowning and had clung to Fushimi as if he were a lifeline. And something within him had wanted – needed – to respond to that desperation.
He wasn’t sure what that said about him. It was disturbing.
Across from him, Awashima cleared her throat; when his gaze focused on her again, she tilted her head to the side questioningly. “If you do need a break, there’s no reason to push,” she reminded him, and uncrossed her arms to indicate their two nearly-completed piles. “We’ve already made a considerable amount of progress.”
Once again, Fushimi had to appreciate her habit of not prying. “There’s no point leaving it with only this much to go,” he mumbled, attempting to shove back the confusing blend of emotions in his mind as he reached for the final report in his stack. “You can go if you want.”
“I wasn’t asking for my sake.” Even without looking, he could hear the smile in her voice again. “Let’s continue, then.”
It was strange, but somehow as the sound of typing filled the silence between them again, the afternoon sun gradually darkening into twilight as it poured in through the tall windows, Fushimi felt a comfortable feeling spreading across his entire body. For the first time in a long while, that restless urging at the back of his thoughts had stilled, and he had a sense of peace.
He didn’t really know what to make of that either, so he pushed it from his thoughts and bent his attention to the work at hand.
The sound of Anna’s soft footsteps as she went up to her room for the night was the only noise in Bar Homra during that moment, but Yata found he didn’t mind the silence that much. In the bar they’d just reopened, with the light buzz of his first taste of alcohol warming his body, he felt comfortable.
It was enough to make the smile on his face widen, eyes shutting with contentment.
Homra was back together, and he wasn’t alone anymore. That alone was enough for him, but he didn’t think he’d ever shake the weight of what had happened. His initial thought when their clan had reformed was that the empty feeling from before would be gone and he’d never have to worry about it again, but that hadn’t exactly been the case. There was a lot to think about. Anna had given them all hope – and a place to belong once again – but it didn’t erase the heavy sense of something irreplaceable being gone. He still felt the grief pulsing strongly at the back of his mind, and couldn’t quite rid himself of the guilt for all the things he hadn’t done.
That emptiness was a faded threat in his soul, a scar that wouldn’t quite heal.
Yata figured it was his reminder that there was more to be feared in life than enemies. That period in his life when he thought he’d lost everything wasn’t something he was about to forget. He was going to do his best this time not to have any regrets. If he at least tried to understand the important people around him better, there wouldn’t be so much disconnect between him and them.
A recent memory flared up behind his closed eyelids – Saruhiko, with his impassive frown, turning his face away as Yata fumbled for words to express his gratitude. It came with the distant throb of an old ache, different from before.
That guy’s kind of a special case, huh?
“Something on your mind, Yata-chan?” Kusanagi’s voice cut into his thoughts; when he opened his eyes again, the older man was giving him a small smile. “You can go if you want. Not that I mind the company.” There was a bit of a wistful edge in his gaze. “Tell you the truth, it feels a bit different in here now.”
Without Mikoto and Totsuka around, Yata’s mind instantly supplied, and he felt something clench a little within him. It wasn’t the all-encompassing grief from before, but… Hell, he didn’t think it’d ever be entirely gone. Looking up at Kusanagi’s face, he was pretty sure he wasn’t alone in that respect.
Trying to understand the important people… It didn’t have to be just Anna.
Swallowing against the remains of that ache, Yata leaned forward on the bar counter, elbows resting on the surface. “Kusanagi-san,” he started, feeling a bit awkward about it but determined to press onward. “Y’know, there’s something I’ve been kinda meaning to say – or, uh, I mean apologize for…” He shifted his weight to reach up with one hand and scratch at the back of his head. “How should I put this…?”
“Ah.” Kusanagi’s smile became more of a grimace. “Yata-chan, there’s no need to apologize – ”
“No, I gotta say this!” Lowering his hand, Yata leaned forward, meeting Kusanagi’s mildly startled gaze squarely. “Just hear me out, okay? Please!”
The grimace relaxed into a more serious expression. “All right.” Kusanagi leaned against the bar on his side, his gaze intent. “I’m listening.”
“About… that time…” Despite his resolve, it still felt awkward. Yata resisted the urge to lower his face, determined to face this head on. “When you told us you were closing the bar... I lost it. Those – those things I said, back then… I didn’t mean it. I was upset. But that’s not an excuse!” On the counter, he balled his hands into loose fists. “Kusanagi-san… I’m sorry! Really, truly sorry!”
At that he did bow his head, residual shame flowing through his body in waves. “I expected you to be a certain way all the time, just for my own sake.” He swallowed down the lump that had risen at the back of his throat, forcing himself to continue. “When you weren't what I wanted, I lashed out. It was selfish of me. I... really, I'm sorry."
There was a significant pause. Yata found himself trembling with emotion, tense as he waited for a reaction to his words.
Finally, Kusanagi heaved a sigh. “When you say things like that, you really sound like an adult now, Yata-chan,” he remarked. There was something weary in his tone. “Still… you don’t need to bow your head. After all, you weren’t the only one making mistakes that day.”
He hadn’t expected that. Yata jerked his head up, surprised, and found himself the subject of a rueful, slightly pained look. “I have an apology of my own to make,” Kusanagi admitted, once their eyes met. “Truth is, I lashed out at you too. I could write it off by saying I was grieving just like you were, but I’m the one who’s supposed to be the adult here.” He shut his eyes briefly. “I’ve had time to think it over, and it wasn’t fair of me. How pathetic, huh?” That came with a slight scoff, but when he opened his eyes again, his gaze was still serious. “I’m sorry for it, Yata. Sometimes I forget… we were both there, after all.”
The unexpectedly subdued tone had that aching lump rising at the back of Yata’s throat again. “Kusanagi-san…” Even as he felt something tense within him start to give with the return apology, the fresh reminder of their shared experience had him swallowing hard. In that moment of raw honesty, he felt open enough to offer a low, pained, “I still dream about it sometimes.”
“Yeah.” Kusanagi sighed again, straightening. His eyes were distant. “So do I.”
It didn’t feel like there was anything else to be said. The moment of silence that stretched out following that affirmation felt thick with remembrance and grief.
Somehow, there was something freeing in that shared understanding, too. Yata reached up to rub the moisture from the corners of his eyes roughly, managing a soft huff of a laugh. “Things got weird, huh? My bad.”
“Don’t worry about it.” Kusanagi eased back from the counter, offering a small sideways smile. “It’s not so bad to have moments like this once in a while.”
“Got that right!” Yata grinned back at him roughly, and then slumped forward with an exaggerated motion. “Man, I’m glad I got that off my chest! It’s something I really regretted, y’know?”
“I know how you feel,” Kusanagi agreed, with a bit of humor. “Though… one other thing I regret is not having a chance to be open with you – not just you, Yata-chan, but everyone else, too.” His smile turned rueful. “I had reasons – and it’s not that they weren’t valid, but given the way things turned out, it seems it just caused unnecessary grief in the end. Can’t promise I’ll break the habit, but I’ll try to trust you in the future.” Their eyes met again, and the smile widened a bit. “Try to keep your head if you can – I’ll be relying on you.”
Yata couldn’t help but perk up at that, straightening in his seat with pride. “Leave it to me!” He thumped his fist against his chest enthusiastically. “I’ve already pledged my life to Anna and Homra – I’ll give it my all! And I won’t let you down!”
If anything, he expected a smile and fond agreement, so it was a bit surprising when Kusanagi gave him a serious look instead. “Let me share something with you, Yata – one adult to another.” He leaned forward, bracing both hands on the counter so they were closer to being eye to eye. “Never pledge your entire life to anything. In Homra’s case, you’ll always be our Yatagarasu. But don’t forget that’s only a part of who you are as a whole. If you haven’t yet, you should start thinking about what kind of man you want to be – and what steps you can take to start getting there.”
Yata blinked at him, taken aback. “Only a part…?” It seemed unreal to look at it that way. The idea of thinking beyond Homra – beyond being Yatagarasu – wasn’t something he’d thought about. When Homra wasn’t in his life, there hadn’t been anything – just that endless, consuming emptiness. Didn’t that mean there really wasn’t anything else for him?
Somehow, that thought was… kinda scary.
Well, there was one thing… Not that he wanted to think about it, but he still kept coming back to it, as fixated as he had been from the start. That one stupid, painful, traitorous bit of hope he’d let himself fall back on – the retreat to his younger years, when all he’d wanted or needed was to be Saruhiko’s soulmate.
No point thinking about that. Yata curled his fingers into loose fists, trying not to scowl. It wasn’t like he could help it. All it took was looking into Saruhiko’s eyes, catching a hint of that mingled wariness and intensity, and he was lost. Even now, he shivered a little just thinking about it. Saruhiko’s mouth on his, warm and eager; Saruhiko’s hands on his body, mapping every crevice as if he wanted to commit them to memory. And then there was Saruhiko himself in the circle of Yata’s arms, the excitement of being able to feel the press and pliancy of that familiar thin frame against him as he held tight stirring to life within him and clouding any chance of reason. He’d thought about it a lot since. Couldn’t help it.
That guy’s not easy to forget. Even with so much reason to do so, Yata just couldn’t.
It kinda didn’t help that some time while everyone was apart, Kousuke and Eric had picked up a pair of deep brown, perfectly matched paw print marks on their opposing shoulders. He was happy for them of course, but still, sometimes…
Well, okay, he was jealous. That was normal, though. Right?
Pushing that thought – and the bitterness that came with it – down, Yata summoned up a sheepish grin in response to the conversation. “Not sure if I really get it, but…” He still had his resolve, and he wasn’t gonna back down from that. No room for doubts now. “Y’know, I wanna be someone who my important people can rely on.”
And if he was being selfish… also someone they wouldn’t want to leave behind. But he wasn’t gonna say it.
“That so?” Kusanagi smiled back, straightening again. “Well, maybe try to keep that thought at the back of your mind anyway. You might find other pieces of the answer coming to you here and there.”
“Uh, right. Got it.” Honestly, he still wasn’t sure if he totally got it, but he didn’t have to think about it right away. Yata frowned a bit. His earlier thoughts had kicked something else loose from the back of his mind. “By the way, Kusanagi-san… Can I ask you something? It’s about Mikoto-san.”
Kusanagi gave him a questioning look. “What’s on your mind?”
He’d been wondering about it for the longest time now – and he did want to try and understand his original King, as best he could despite everything. “Did he…? I mean, Totsuka-san wasn’t just teasing me way back then about the soulmate thing, right? Mikoto-san really did have one, didn’t he?”
“Ah…” At that, Kusanagi looked a bit pained. “Yeah,” he admitted, after a second’s hesitation. “He did.”
He did. Those words felt like they buzzed through Yata’s brain. He leaned forward, anxious to find out more. “So then, why…?” Suddenly unsure of how to word the confusion coursing through him, he stopped there, eyebrows bunching together.
Why wouldn’t he say anything? Why’d we never meet this person? Shouldn’t it have been awesome, finding a soulmate match?
Shouldn’t it have fixed things? Made it better, even… even when…
Kusanagi seemed to pick up on most of his uncertainty without the words coming out. “Why wasn’t it a celebration, you mean? Why didn’t that person intervene or magically fix things in the end?” He sighed heavily, looking away, and muttered almost to himself, “Well, in a way that person did intervene…”
Yata stared at him, more confused than ever. “Huh?”
“Never mind.” Kusanagi shook his head, not quite meeting Yata’s gaze. His expression was unreadable. “I don’t think it’d do you much good to know the person, but I will say this much…” When their eyes met again, his gaze was serious. “It wasn’t a match that could have worked in the long run, given the circumstances.”
The words didn’t sink in immediately. A match that couldn’t have worked… Yata frowned back, unable to reconcile that with what he’d always known. “But… if they were soulmates…”
“Yata-chan…” Kusanagi shot him a glance that was almost pitying. “That doesn’t really mean much, you know. It tells you something, sure, but it doesn’t change your relationships for you or fix any problems with them.” He shrugged. “In the end, they’re just a set of marks, after all.”
Yata jerked upright in his seat, shocked. “What are you saying, Kusanagi-san?” Just a set of marks? The words were a blow to one of his most closely held ideals. “Isn’t finding your soulmate the best thing that could happen to you? How could it be just a set of marks?” Carried away in his passion on the subject, he demanded, “What about Kousuke and Eric? You’re saying they’re nothing but a set of marks?”
That earned him a sigh, and Kusanagi briefly shut his eyes. “Don’t put words in my mouth, Yata. I never said it was a bad thing.” He looked wry when he opened his eyes again. “Let me ask you this, then: d’you think Kousuke and Eric treat each other different, now that they have those marks?”
It wasn’t a question he’d expected. Yata blinked, hastily scanning back through his memory. “Eh… well…”
Kusanagi didn’t wait for him to collect himself. “You think they didn’t care about each other as much as they do now, that it?”
“Ah…” The answer to that was obvious. “No, but – ”
“But,” Kusanagi continued relentlessly, “you’re okay with saying all that care and effort and consideration doesn’t make a difference, right? Just the fact that they’re soulmates?”
It was hard to argue when he put it like that. Yata frowned back, his mind working fast to try and process the contradictions. The words resonated, but it was hard to try and piece together why or what it meant for him. “That’s not,” he started, and then paused, frustrated. “I mean…”
Kusanagi gave him a second, then shook his head when nothing else came, a rueful smile forming. “I’m not trying to bully you here, Yata-chan. If anything, I’d like to see you think these things through on your own and see what you come up with – even if we end up disagreeing in the end. Just challenge yourself.” With that, his gaze took on a knowing look. “Maybe you’ll find some answers. Or closure.”
That hit uncomfortably close to home. Yata squirmed in his seat, warmth prickling across his face. “Y-yeah, well…” He reached up to rub at the back of his neck. “I-I’ll think about it. Thanks.”
Truthfully, he wasn’t sure any more if there would be an opportunity to find answers when it came to Saruhiko. Or closure, for that matter. He only knew that he wanted to, desperately, somewhere deep down that he didn’t like to acknowledge openly. There was still the burning hope within him that he was right, they really were soulmates, and once Saruhiko realized, he’d see what a mistake he’d made and explain everything. And then they could move on.
After everything, now he was finally starting to realize that he might have to work on accepting that he’d never find out for sure. And that moving on might mean doing it by himself.
Having gone through so much aching loneliness, the thought should’ve scared him. But somehow, despite everything, it really didn’t. Mostly, Yata was just confused. And maybe a bit lost. He didn’t know where to start with this crap yet.
Nothing else to do but move forward and try his best, really.
Kusanagi offered him a grin, as if guessing what was going through his head. “Any time.”