Somehow Hajime had been adapting to Sano’s shields even as Sano had been learning to erect them. They’d been growing together, specifically alongside each other.
Sano can usually deal with angry shades, but the one that’s currently haunting him is a little different. And though he and the exorcist he’s been referred to manage to solve the problem by the end of Spring Break, it’s a week that may lead to difficult choices.
The things Hajime had discovered so far that could distract Sano from his rage were humor, food, and this new excitement over the possibility of geological pursuits. Of course the rage still needed to be released, but Hajime thought it was easier on Sano to insinuate outlets for it during more pleasant interactions. So, since they were essentially killing time again right now, he attempted to make use of at least two of the aforementioned three. And the restaurant across the street had a patio with a few outdoor tables, ideal for both a man with a ghost orbiting him and a man that wanted to keep an eye on the park nearby.
Sano presented an amusingly contradictory attitude inside when a small internal war seemed to arise between his protest that Korean food was too similar to Chinese food for his tastes (a point Hajime would have to debate with him sometime) and his pleasure at being bought any kind of food by anybody. But eventually they were seated and waiting for any number of things, and Sano looked as if he might return to fuming. To head this off, Hajime had been planning on introducing immediately the topic that had so engrossed them this morning, but Sano beat him in starting the conversation abruptly on another subject:
“Hey, did you think she was pretty?”
Though convinced Sano’s reasons for asking this were serious and mostly not frivolous, Hajime had to reply, “Hmm… for a second there I thought you had something rational to say.”
“I am being rational!” Sano insisted. “And I really want to know — did you find her attractive?”
“No,” said Hajime bluntly, not bothering to add that he didn’t really find anyone attractive.
Somewhat to his surprise, Sano grumbled, “You probably don’t find anyone attractive. So take it from me — I’d call her a five. Maybe a six at best. Average, you know?”
Hajime just raised a brow at him, feeling no desire to comment.
“So why did Aoshi describe her as ‘beautiful?’ That’s a pretty strong word that I don’t think really fits her.”
“No accounting for tastes — yours or Aoshi’s.”
Sano snorted. “Well, if we’re talking about Aoshi’s taste…” He shrugged. “My gaydar could be off because he’s such a total weirdo, but I never thought he was the type of guy who’d overexaggerate a lady’s prettiness.”
Wondering how Aoshi’s sexual orientation had come into this, Hajime asked, “So?”
“So he was probably getting that impression from Kenshin.” Sano gestured to the drifting ghost. “Because Kenshin’s idea of his wife that Aoshi picked up on was that she’s so beautiful because he still loves her that much.”
Now Hajime saw his point, and glanced also toward the ghost, which floated at that moment in the orbital spot about the most convenient for this. Unexpectedly, much sooner than he’d anticipated, a server appeared with their food, stepping right into the space his gaze occupied and startling him a bit. Though friendly and obliging, both her demeanor and the extreme curiosity she suddenly projected evinced her wonder at all the evidence of recent vigorous activity between these two customers; for this reason and others, their interaction with her wasn’t entirely natural.
When she’d left and the slightly awkward scene had ended, Hajime said, “So you think Kenshin’s anger isn’t aimed at his wife.”
“Yeah, exactly.” Sano surveyed his plate with much more optimism than his earlier complaints could have predicted (probably because this was nothing like Chinese food). “If it was her he’s mad at, you’d think he wouldn’t be giving off this impression of her being so beautiful when she’s not.”
Hajime nodded slowly. “It’s not a bad assessment, but you can’t be sure.”
Pausing with chopsticks halfway to his mouth, Sano frowned. For a moment he remained still and silent, and finally shook his head. “No, I am sure. Don’t even start asking me how, but I’m sure. He’s not mad at her. He sure as hell is mad, but not at her.”
“You’re the one he’s haunting,” Hajime allowed. Actually he was inclined to believe Sano’s assertion without any more evidence than had been offered, but still felt the need to raise one more point. “But doesn’t his anger increase when he’s around her?”
Again Sano shook his head. “I thought so at first, but that’s not it. He gets more intense when she’s nearby… he wants to go to her and do whatever… so then I have to work harder to deal with him, so I soak up more of that shit… but I don’t think there’s actually any more of it just because she’s around.”
Hajime nodded again, accepting the explanation, and ate his lunch in silence. The idea that the dead man’s vicious anger might not be directed at his anchor was intriguing and probably important, but it didn’t advance them at the moment. The truth about Kenshin’s death remained the crucial information, and, while Hajime didn’t despair of getting at it, the slow proceedings were somewhat annoying.
Eventually, as even the nothing-like-Chinese food couldn’t keep Sano’s brow from darkening and his grip on his chopsticks from tightening detrimentally to his ability to use them, Hajime deemed the moment right to ask, “What will you need to do at school to get into geology?”
Sano seemed surprised, and once again to be considering this apparent sign of interest, rather than solely a distraction technique, a gesture of friendship… and maybe he wasn’t so far from the truth this time. And he didn’t hesitate answering. “Well, like I said, I’ve already been working on getting all my general stuff out of the way… and I’m actually already in the first chemistry pre-req I’ll need for the geology program. It’s seventy-five credit hours, and then I can look into getting my masters somewhere else; there’s some really good schools for it…”
The topic wasn’t interesting — school plans never could be, except perhaps among relatives (and, Hajime thought, not frequently even then) — and yet he found himself interested. An unignorable difference came over Sano’s demeanor when he discussed this subject: the directionlessness, the waste of energy, the carelessness and frustrated frame of existence Hajime had begun to consider characteristic of him seemed entirely to disappear, to be replaced by a vigorous and unvarying determination.
Of course he couldn’t be certain how long it would last — this whole resurgence of geological fixation might be no more than a flash in the pan — but at the moment Hajime had to rethink or at least put on hold his earlier idea that Sano would probably eventually change his mind about this. And certainly this new sense of purpose Sano radiated was engaging.
So too was the rapidity with which he’d gathered such thorough information Of course an ability to look things up online set no records for effectiveness — though Hajime knew both the lack of internet conversance of a large portion of the population and the frustratingly unintuitive nature of college websites — but listening to Sano’s description of what he’d wondered and how he’d found out, Hajime was irresistibly reminded of the question-and-answer pattern of divination.
As engrossed as Hajime wouldn’t deny he was, this entire leisurely process of lunch and conversation had a purpose other than distracting Sano from his anger for a while or even proving to Hajime that his companion might not be as much a waste of space as he’d previously thought. And when Sano abruptly stiffened and scowled, simultaneously reminded of his anger by some sudden movement of the ghost and dismayed because he’d believed himself finished with the higher levels for the day, Hajime had to struggle not to smile. He enjoyed giving Sano hell, but had no reason (at the moment) to be grinning in the face of his misfortune… yet he did like knowing he’d been right about something.
Suspicious and angry, Sano scanned for the reason behind the ghost’s change in motion and attitude, but that reason had already moved from his line of sight. And by the time he’d stopped craning his neck and turned back to a proper position in his chair, Mrs. Himura had come through the restaurant and stood before them on the patio.
In a funny mixture of hesitation and bravado, Kaoru pulled out one of the vacant chairs, took a seat, and looked back and forth between the two men. She hadn’t said a word yet, but Sano thought he could feel her eyes on his facial bruises as palpably as if she’d been using her fingers. A glance at Hajime showed him studying Kaoru as intently as she was studying them, and it would have made sense to assume the exorcist was trying to determine whether the woman felt ready to tell the mysterious truth he was so sure she was withholding… but for some reason Sano had the impression Hajime was actually examining her features trying to decide on her level of attractiveness. Sano stood by his five.
Kenshin, meanwhile, was attempting to approach his wife again, which meant that all the effort Hajime had expended to get Sano back down to a manageable level of anger was going to be undone as Sano had to restrain the guy all over again.
The deep breath Kaoru eventually drew in preparation for speech partook of the same mixture of boldness and uncertainty as had her motions sitting down, but her voice was steady as she said, “I may be ready to believe you.”
“Oh?” was all Hajime replied. He seemed to have been expecting this; jerk could have mentioned that.
“I followed you when you walked away. I saw you fighting. I think it’s pretty obvious that either what you’re saying is true, or at least you believe it is.”
“Or we’re thorough con artists,” Hajime added.
“Or that,” she agreed, evidently rendered a little easier by the suggestion.
“Yeah…” Sano looked at her askance. “Not to argue against ourselves or anything, but seeing us fighting… doesn’t really prove anything.”
She sighed. “No, I guess not. But I already wanted to believe you. No, that’s not what I mean. I don’t want to believe my husband is haunting you and can’t pass on, or that he’s so mad he’s making you try to beat up your friend… but I think I do believe you. Because what you were saying before?” She turned to Hajime. “About the usual effects of having an angry ghost around? That happened to me.
“I don’t know why it didn’t start until December — late December, almost January — when he died in November, but it was just like you described. I had non-stop migraines, and I was just so angry all the time… I had to send Kenji, my son, to my parents’ house practically every day because I was afraid I was going to take it out on him. Sometimes I took it out on people I met — people at stores, and friends, and even my own parents sometimes — and on things, like the furniture and my car, and…” She was starting to look distraught again. “I thought I was just angry about what had happened, but now that you’ve mentioned what ghosts do to you…”
Sano had actually opened his mouth to repair her conflation of ghosts with red shades, but decided that being pedantic at this point might do more harm than good. Besides, his anger was swiftly growing again, and he probably wouldn’t be able to say it without sounding inordinately unkind.
So after a moment or two she went on uninterrupted. “Eventually I noticed it starting to fade, but it’s only about a week and a half ago that I’ve really started to feel like myself again. But I realized it was probably about three weeks ago that it started fading. Because that was when he left and went to you, wasn’t it?”
Sano nodded as she looked at him again.
“Probably because he couldn’t get through to you,” Hajime mused, “and got tired of trying. Why he went to Sano, specifically, we still have no idea, but it seems logical for him to have gone to someone else when he found he wasn’t getting anywhere with you, who can’t see ghosts.”
“Is this something that happens a lot?” Kaoru wondered next. “Do lots of people get haunted by other people’s husbands?” Sano considered this question a sign that her stated readiness to believe was genuine.
Hajime shook his head. “What I usually deal with are shades, which are just leftover emotions, not people. Real ghosts are very rare. If you were wondering what my part in all of this is,” he added in much the same tone he’d used for the earlier con artist comment, “I’m essentially just waiting around to talk to your husband in order to get some more information about ghosts.”
Kaoru gave a confused half smile. “I wasn’t wondering; I assumed he was paying you.” She glanced from one of the men to the other and back. There was a new interest in her face, but Sano thought she was forcing it in order to avoid thinking about something else. And when she asked, “Are there a lot of exorcists?” it sounded somewhat like someone making polite conversation. If this was a needed strengthening routine that would allow her to move on to a more difficult subject, Sano didn’t want to discourage her… but he was once again becoming angrier with every moment he spent near her as Kenshin strained against his hold, and her delays could only worsen the situation.
Hajime seemed all patience, however. “I’m currently the only professional exorcist in this city, which is why I moved here. For this population, one tends to be enough — though there are certain types of cases I have to use a specialist for.”
Though she was listening, Kaoru still seemed caught up in something else she would rather not think about. “So the leftover emotion things keep you busy enough,” she asked somewhat hastily, “to make a living?”
Sano rearranged his sore body in his chair. He’d picked up his cloth napkin for something to do with his hands, and now realized that he was pulling it badly askew. It didn’t seem in danger of tearing — yet — but there were long stretch-marks where he’d been tugging at it.
“More or less,” Hajime was answering with a glance at the younger man. “But listen, Mrs. Himura: you need to understand what it does to Sano to have you sitting here.”
She too glanced at Sano, with dark eyes and a frown, then searched the air around him for a moment before returning her gaze to his angry face. Her brows contracted and she swallowed. Softly she said, “I’m just trying not to think about the idea that he’s really here when he shouldn’t be.” It was clear that by ‘he’ she did not mean Sano, though she kept looking at him as she spoke. “Ghosts are really rare, you say… so I guess only a very unusual situation can turn someone into one.” Her voice sank even farther. “No wonder he’s so angry.”
Seeing the tears welling again in her eyes, Sano wanted to share with her his theory that she wasn’t the object of Kenshin’s wrath, but he couldn’t without making her the object of his. He wished Hajime would bring it up, but he obviously thought that doing so would destroy the progress they’d made toward getting at what they needed to know.
“Why should he be angry at you?” the exorcist asked quietly.
Kaoru shook her head rapidly as if trying to rid herself of some clinging aura (and probably failing). Again she looked from one man to the other. After a deep breath she said, “You were right. I wasn’t telling the truth before.”
Hajime’s gaze intensified, but he said nothing.
Kaoru’s hands on the table clenched as she looked down at them as she had earlier. “If I believe you, I have to tell you. I don’t want to believe you and I don’t want to tell you… but I feel like I have to believe you, and I do want to tell someone. I’m so tired of this…” As she looked up again, her expression confirmed this last statement, and the breath she drew in sounded much the same. “I will tell you… but you have to promise not to go to the police.”
She really did kill him, Sano sent to Hajime. He wasn’t so sure he was joking this time.
Hajime nodded slowly, and Sano was fairly certain it was in response to the thought, but his expression did not change. “I can’t promise you that,” he told Kaoru gravely. “We want and need to hear your story, but if there’s been a crime I feel I have to report, I will report it.”
She gave him a long look, then eventually turned to Sano. “And you?”
Sano forced himself to answer, though he wasn’t too pleased with the growl in which his words emerged. “I could promise, but it wouldn’t matter: this bastard reads my mind, so he’d get at it anyway.”
She seemed taken aback, though whether at the roughness of the statement or the revelation that she was seated next to a mind-reader Sano couldn’t guess. Her eyes dropped, and for several moments she sat in tense silence staring at her hands. Finally she reached a decision, as evinced by the determined hardening of her expression and the set of her shoulders. “All right,” she said. “I’m probably crazy, but I’m going to trust you. I’ll tell you everything.”
It was with the type of resolution that feels it might as well get a necessary evil over with as quickly as possible that Mrs. Himura stood from the table and announced, “But not here. Come sit in my car where people can’t hear me.”
Her car, Hajime reflected, was probably the safest of any relatively private place she could have chosen for a couple of strange men to accompany her to, but that they really weren’t psychopaths or con artists was also fortunate. Perhaps personal safety didn’t mean much to her anymore.
Though Sano hadn’t eaten anything since the woman had appeared at their table and necessitated he start holding onto the ghost again, still he cast a disappointedly annoyed glance at what remained on his plate as he stood. But there was nothing to be done for it; the service here seemed very quick, but Hajime didn’t want to wait for to-go boxes; he was already planning to force payment for the meal on whichever employee he ran across first inside.
Once that was finished, they started back toward the park in tense silence. More than one of them was looking around in some discomfort: Kaoru was probably concerned that her father would see what she was doing and make very understandable trouble; while Hajime worried that, after the fisticuffs earlier, he and Sano might be personae non gratae in this location at least for a while (or perhaps a little too gratae among the former spectating kids). Sano himself, evidently, was too busy keeping a firm hold on both the ghost and his own rising temper to think much about either issue. And his lack of attention eventually proved justified when they reached and entered the Himura car without event.
Gripping the steering wheel behind which she’d seated herself as if wishing to have something to cling to, Kaoru let out a sigh that was both defeated and preparatory. Then, for a second time that day, she began speaking at a rapid pace as if she feared she wouldn’t be able to make the confession if she didn’t talk fast.
“I killed my husband,” was how she started. “And I don’t mean that the way people do when they’re trying to find some way to blame themselves for something they didn’t want to happen, no matter what I said before about keeping the car that day. I mean I shot him twice in the head with a Taurus .38 Special.”
She fell abruptly silent at this point, and Hajime didn’t need to be able to read her mind to know she was waiting for their reactions. And perhaps she needed those reactions — the surprise and the horror she expected — to contribute to the order she was trying to set up for herself to regulate her emotions and situation… but unfortunately, Hajime and Sano, already having guessed at what she’d just confessed, could not provide. Hajime just nodded, and Sano’s scowl did not alter.
“It started in October,” she finally went on, perhaps taking revenge for their lack of interested response by not specifying what ‘it’ was. “I don’t remember the exact date, but I know it was late in October because we’d just bought Kenji a Halloween costume when we were out shopping one night, and the next morning he was asking me questions about Halloween. Somehow he had it confused with Christmas, and he thought if he dressed up that meant he needed to give away presents. He was deciding who was going to have which of his toys, and I thought it was so sweet… just like his dad…”
It seemed she was rambling again; Hajime thought there was a point being progressed toward, but Sano obviously couldn’t tell and was shifting even more than before in the back seat, which he had occupied without a word when Hajime had taken the front.
“Then later that same day,” Kaoru went on, “a note appeared out of nowhere on my refrigerator. It said something like, ‘You have a very generous son. If you want him to live long enough to give away his toys for Halloween, follow these instructions exactly: burn this note and cut up an apple for him to dip in peanut butter.'”
Now she got the reaction she’d previously been anticipating. Sano gave a surprised growl or grunt, and Hajime’s brows went down over narrowed eyes. This news was unexpected, and the eventual outcome of the story after such a beginning seemed unpleasantly guessable.
“Apples in peanut butter is one of Kenji’s favorite snacks, and anyone could have known that. But the conversation about his toys on Halloween I hadn’t told anyone about yet. But at first I thought the note must be a joke, even if it wasn’t very funny, because you just don’t think about that kind of crime-drama thing actually happening in real life. I looked around for someone maybe hiding in the house, but it wasn’t a big house… Kenji thought it was a game and helped me look; I was so shaken up that I couldn’t get him to sit still in the kitchen and wait for me.
“Then I thought I’d call Kenshin and see if he had something to do with it, even though it obviously wasn’t the kind of thing he would do… but when I reached for the phone, the doorbell rang. I thought whoever it was at the door would probably have the explanation, but when I got there there was no one there, just another note. These were typed notes, by the way. This one said something like, ‘It’s a better idea not to tell anyone about this. No one will answer the phone anyway.’ And then it went on telling me about exactly what Kenshin was doing — it even mentioned the specific breed of dog he was working with right then — and the exact movie my parents had just walked into.
“My first thought was to lock myself and Kenji in the bathroom — because it had no windows — and call the police, but there were too many problems with that idea. What if I couldn’t grab the phone and get in there in time? What if they really were watching Kenshin and my parents at the same time, and weren’t just bluffing to scare me? How could I convince the police I really was in danger? And what if, by the time the police got there, whoever was leaving these notes had just disappeared?”
Hajime might have expected, in the telling of such a tale, even more tears and incomprehensibly choked diction than before, but found it was not so. Though there was in her voice a faint echo of the terror and desperation she must have felt on that first day, the full course of events she was detailing must eventually have inflicted upon her a sense of helplessness that had been beyond activity and bordering on numbness, and it was this last that was most prominent in her dull pronouncement, “So I burned the notes and cut up an apple for Kenji.”
Another silence fell, a heaviness and reluctance for this tale to progress any further toward its inevitable conclusion… but in glancing at Sano, Hajime guessed they had only a few more minutes before another intervention would need to take place. “And then?” he prompted.
More, apparently, out of weariness than anything else, Kaoru sighed. “There were several notes during November, mostly to make sure I knew whoever they were really were watching me and my family and that I really would do whatever they asked. I don’t know what kind of ninja was putting these things in the places I found them, but they must have been pretty amazing, because I never saw anyone, and the notes kept appearing in places like on the refrigerator or the bathroom counter, and once in my jewelry box on my dresser. And they never asked me to do anything unusual — nothing that wouldn’t be completely natural for me to do, but that I might not necessarily have done just then if they hadn’t told me to.
“And I don’t know what kind of network they had watching my husband and my parents, but they kept giving me little hints about what they were doing — things I always found out later were true, just like my parents really were at that Amelia Earhart movie that first day and Kenshin really was assisting on a min pin spay. It was… it was so freaky… I got so scared whenever I found out that something one of the notes told me was true, and each time was worse than before.
“They were conditioning me — I could see even then that that was what was happening — but I didn’t know what for. They were getting me ready for something by making sure I was good and scared and ready to do whatever they asked. You can’t know what that’s like…” Her voice sank to a murmur that was almost contemplative; the horror, presumably, had either passed or taken such deep hold that it had been assimilated into normalcy, and only this dullness remained.
“Not knowing who’s watching you when or where, or when you might do something wrong or what they might do then. Or how to protect the people you love, or even if that was even possible… And imagining all sorts of horrible things and not knowing whether I was exaggerating or what. I got so paranoid I had no idea what was realistic and what was me overreacting.
“I tried not to show it, but that was completely impossible almost right from the beginning, because it was like I became a totally different person.” She gave a faint, frustrated huffing noise. “Between that month and the trauma after and all the anger in January and February, I’m surprised anyone even recognizes me anymore.
“I got into the habit of trying to stay between Kenji and the window, no matter what room we were in, even though I didn’t really think that would do any good. And I didn’t see any way we were going to survive this, even with me doing every little thing they told me. We were hostages, was really what we were, and do you know what hostage survival rates are like?
“I didn’t dare do anything that might even look like I was trying to find out who these people were or trying to do anything about them; no matter where I went, I assumed they were watching through crosshairs. I didn’t want to…” She cleared her throat. “I wouldn’t sleep with my husband. Of course he was desperate to know what was wrong with me — not just because of that, I mean, but because of the entire way I was acting. He tried everything… he tried asking in every way he could, and guessing even the craziest ideas, and bringing me presents because he thought I was upset with him… god, his last month alive, and he thought I was upset with him…” This tangent brought on the tears that the main story hadn’t been able to prompt, and Mrs. Himura was for a few moments overcome.
Assuming the tale really was going the direction Hajime believed it must be, this behavior was more than understandable — in fact, he thought, it bordered on miraculous that she was able to talk about this at all, that she was able to function in general. She was a tougher person than he’d believed; he should have realized it from the mere presence of natural mental shields strong enough to keep him out apparently indefinitely.
He didn’t have time to ponder this, however, or to attempt in his inexpert way to offer some kind of consoling statement that might be able to draw out the remainder of what she had to relate. For it was time to see to Sano again.
Sano wasn’t aware of the motions he used to get out of the car, didn’t feel the handle under his fingers or hear the sound of the door closing, was barely even conscious of the parking lot around him. All he knew was the huge, hot, overwhelming certainty of where Kaoru’s story was going. He was so angry he couldn’t think; he was so angry he practically couldn’t breathe. He couldn’t quite say it was worse than before, because it was different than before, but he couldn’t quite say anything, really, because all that was likely to come out was an inarticulate roar.
Sure, it was no surprise, after all the speculation (serious or otherwise), that Kenshin’s wife had been his killer… but Sano had expected that to have been caused by a concealed callousness, or a moment of lost control during an argument, or some kind of infidelity or other marital intrigue… If he’d had any idea that threat and coercion had been involved… He raged at himself for ever having joked about it.
The sight of Hajime’s bright red figure emerging from the passenger side of the unfamiliar red car was the first event or part of his surroundings to register coherently (relatively) in Sano’s head, and he felt his hands clench immediately into tingling fists. Of course he was still angry at Hajime, for all the same reasons as before — the aloofness and evident disinterest, the blame Sano laid on him (unfair; even now he knew it was unfair) for the slowness of proceedings and the fact that he still had a maddening ghost attached to him — but this time he also recognized, somewhere deep in the maelstrom that was his thoughts and emotions under Kenshin’s influence, that Hajime was trying to help him, that Hajime was willing to do what was necessary. This time, as Sano staggered toward him with intentions every bit as violent as earlier, he did so with nearly as much needy hopefulness as anger.
It was as before: Hajime encouraged him off behind one of the other cars in the parking lot — a big old SUV, Sano vaguely recognized, which could provide at least a little privacy — and essentially beat him up until Sano was in a more propitious frame of mind. And this time, when yet another hard-knuckled blow from the exorcist opened the return doorway to rationality, when Sano staggered backward to stumble (not for the first time in the last couple of minutes) over the curb that bordered the lot on this side and sit down heavily in the small strip of grass between that and a tall fence, he ran a hand across his face and let out a frustrated sigh. His statement that he hoped they wouldn’t have to go through this again today lacked about half its intended words.
Hajime snorted but said nothing. Both shoulders of his shirt, Sano noted, were now split open, and at least one of the buttons across his chest had torn through its hole; his jacket he must have left in Kaoru’s car, since it wasn’t visible anywhere around. The newest bruise on his face induced simultaneous guilt and satisfaction in Sano.
Calming his panting breaths and trying in vain to smooth away his scowl, Sano growled, “Thank you.”
Returning to their interviewee after not too long, Sano in some weary dismay at the feeling of the anger still growing as he continually had to restrain Kenshin, they found Kaoru staring at the steering wheel with a dry face but despairing eyes. These she turned only briefly on Sano as he resumed his place in the back seat; then she returned quickly, with a wince, to what she’d been regarding before.
“He’s mad at me,” she whispered. “Kenshin. He wants revenge. He isn’t — wasn’t — isn’t that kind of person, but… but I think anyone would react like that. I killed him… me, the person he should have been able to trust most… I took everything from him… and now his son is being raised by a murderer. Of course he would have to do something about that. Anyone would.”
“Then he’s a fucking dick,” Sano growled, “and he can damn well just stop haunting me right now, because fuck that.”
Neither of the others responded directly to this largely incoherent statement. Instead, Hajime said in what Sano was fairly sure he intended as a kind tone, “What’s the rest of the story?”
After the same preparations for unpleasant speech they’d seen her make a couple of times already today, Kaoru continued. “These notes had me so tense and miserable and worried that I didn’t even blink when they told me they needed me to kill someone. The note said I’d never hear from them again if I did it, and I was so relieved at that thought that at first even murder didn’t seem like too much. That’s how far they’d pushed me.
“Obviously after a while I was horrified by what they were asking me to do, but even then I couldn’t see any way out of it, and I think I accepted the idea and how helpless I was a lot more easily than I should have. It’s something to remember, I guess… how easy it is to make someone a murderer. It’s not a certain type of person; it’s any type of person in the right situation. You’d never look at me and think, ‘She seems like someone who’d shoot a man twice in the head,’ but here I am a murderer.
“Kenshin and I had agreed I wouldn’t have any guns in the house until Kenji was old enough that we could count on him not hurting himself by accident. Obviously whoever they were knew that, because they told me where to go to find a gun to use for the job they wanted me to do: they left it in a box behind a dumpster in one of the streets on the way to where they wanted me to go. It was — I told you — it was a Taurus .38 special, snub-nosed, hammerless, with a — god, what does that matter? I’ll remember every little detail of that gun for the rest of my life, but you guys probably don’t need to know.”
“I’ll admit,” said Hajime, looking at her with slightly raised brows, “that description didn’t actually mean anything to me.”
“Sorry.” It was half a laugh and half a sob. “Not everyone’s a fan of guns. Including me, now. But I’ve been shooting since I was little… actually, I’ve always wanted to be a policeman. Not much chance of that now, is there?”
As Kaoru took a moment to get hold of herself as she admitted to a lifelong dream thus shattered, Hajime filled the near-silence with the query, “Is that why they chose you for this? Because you’ve had the practice and are familiar with guns?”
She shook her head slowly. “I’ve had a lot of time to think about all of this — god knows I’ve had a lot of time to think about all of this, even if I wasn’t thinking very clearly some of that time — and I think that was only the reason they had me do it the way they did. If I wasn’t a good shot and familiar with guns, they’d’ve had me poison him or something. And if they just… if they just wanted him dead and not cared who did it, they already had whoever it was who was sneaking notes into my house, who I’m sure would have… would have done it better than I did anyway.”
“So you think this was a deliberate form of torture or revenge?” Although Hajime seemed to be interjecting at this point to allow Kaoru another moment to calm her misery, his tone also had the steel-cool determination of someone that loathes what he’s heard and has plans for doing something about it.
With a nod, a deep breath, and an obvious effort, she elaborated. “They wanted me to do it because — I’m just sure of this — they thought it would be the best way to hurt us both. They didn’t care whether I got caught or what happened afterwards… they were completely anonymous the entire time, so even if I did get caught and I told everything, the police wouldn’t be able to get at them and I’d probably still be charged with accessory to murder or something.
“I think I did better than they thought I would, though,” she added with the hint of a bitter smile. “I followed their instructions about the route to take and the best position to be in to wait for the victim, and I wore what they suggested, and I got rid of the gun exactly how they told me. They promised to provide cover fire in the street, and they even did that. It went so smoothly, it was just like I’d practiced it, like I’d been doing this forever.”
“They had probably been doing this forever,” said Hajime.
“Did you…” Sano could barely get the words out. “Did you know who…”
“No,” Kaoru whispered. “Do you think I would have — do you think I could have done it if I’d known? Even to protect my son, even to save my own life, do you think I would have been capable of…”
“And it was a dark little back street and he had his hood up,” Sano finished for her in a tone as low as hers but far more rough. “I bet you never even saw his face.”
“I didn’t even know until the phone call came. But… but even not knowing who it was… from the moment I pulled the trigger for the first shot, I felt sick… and cold… and just… terrible like I can’t even describe… and when I saw him fall on his face, I knew I’d done something I could never take back. And even thinking about how I’d done it to save Kenji didn’t help, because I knew I’d turned into something I…” Whatever she said next was completely unintelligible in a storm of body-wracking sobs.
Sano didn’t know how much more of this he could take. He was exhausted and aching all over, and wasn’t sure if he could handle another fist fight today… and yet the anger was growing even more quickly than before as he watched the suffering of this poor woman and thought of whoever it was that had put her through this torment. He wanted to find them and do to them the most horrible things he could come up with, force them to endure what Kaoru had endured. His heart hurt even more than his body, and the horror of the circumstance she described was overwhelming.
Eventually, as her sobbing diminished, Hajime asked, “And did you get any more notes?” When she shook her head, he nodded. Even from the back seat, Sano could clearly see the set of his jaw and his brow, and he realized with an odd sense of clarity and certainty that Hajime was having much the same thoughts and vindictive desires he was. On the topic of what should be done about Kaoru’s abusers, evidently, they were in complete accord.
There was a long period of brooding wordlessness during which Sano was trying to decide how much longer he could stay in this car and how he could comprehensibly express, through this rage, his resolution and pity. Finally, though, Kaoru spoke again, apparently determined to finish what she had started even if her story had rather fallen apart halfway through.
“So you see why it makes perfect sense for Kenshin to be so angry. I’ll do whatever he wants me to, whatever he needs to see happen so he can move on. I’ll shoot myself in the head if he wants. If it weren’t for Kenji, I probably would have done it already.”
Finally, Sano managed to say what Hajime knew he’d wanted to for some time: “He’s not mad at you. I swear to fucking god on whatever you want me to swear on that it’s not you he’s mad at.” Of course with the way he said it, it sounded as if Sano was mad at Kaoru, but Hajime was sure that by now she must understand.
She remained utterly still for a long moment, body frozen, expression locked, apparently not even breathing. Then, finally, letting the air out of her lungs in another uneven sigh, she shook her head. “I don’t think I can believe that.”
“Mrs. Himura.” Even Hajime’s own voice sounded a little angry. The object of his wrath was distant and unfocused as yet, but that didn’t alter the emotion. “Whoever was sending you those notes was the murderer of your husband. There’s no specific word for what they did to you, but you were the victim, not the criminal. If your husband has the intelligence of a fly, he’s aware of that. He’s obviously angry not at you, but at the people who forced you into this situation.”
Again she shook her head, but this time said nothing; it was as if she had no ability to argue against a point of view she would greatly have preferred to espouse and yet was convinced, down to her bones, could not be true.
Though not the type to wish to be anything besides what he was, there were times Hajime couldn’t but be aware that other states of being, other states of mind he could never attain, would work more effectively toward certain ends.
Having been coerced, the woman was innocent; or at worst she was guilty only of prioritizing the life of the son for whom she was responsible over that of, as she believed, a total stranger. Perhaps a higher social consciousness would have dictated a complete refusal to commit murder under any circumstances, but, inasmuch as doing so might have been considered equally murderous — in that case of a dependent — he couldn’t consider that she’d made an immoral decision.
She hadn’t, as she believed, become evil; she’d had evil thrust upon her, and it was a shame she couldn’t feel more secure in her blamelessness. Not that it came as any surprise, human nature being what it was. If he’d been a different kind of person, he might have been able to reassure her; as it was, he just sat still and silent in her passenger seat while she wept.
A point of interest that vied with the misfortune of the situation for his attention was that her mental walls were as impenetrable as ever. It was often all or nothing with the untrained; she had probably spent the months since that first note fighting so hard against the idea of a discovery that would endanger the life of her son that even now, when she’d confessed all, she couldn’t relax her defenses. They’d become a default.
Sano, on the other hand, was like a beacon in the back seat: he projected pity and horror, in addition to the usual ever-expanding rage, so clearly that his radiating emotions were almost coloring the air; though he’d become capable of keeping Hajime from what he didn’t want detected under many normal circumstances, the emotional ups and downs of this day had rendered him perfectly easy to read. It was about time to get him out of this setting.
Somewhat abruptly Hajime said, “Reporting this to the police wouldn’t do anyone any good. We need to find out who might have had a reason to do something like this to you and your husband. Do you have any idea?”
“No,” said Kaoru. “No, not at all.”
Hajime had expected as much; with all the time she’d already mentioned she’d had to think about this, she would certainly have come up with an answer if one had been available.
“Everyone has people who don’t like them,” she went on helplessly, “but I can’t think of anyone who would hate me that much. And Kenshin… there were things about his past I know he never told me, but going through his legal documents and records hasn’t found anything.”
Sano, suddenly distracted slightly from his anger by wonder at the thought of a long-term relationship involving withheld information or even deceit, added curiosity and some disapproval to his lineup of noisy emotions.
Completely disinterested, for his own part, in how healthy Kaoru’s marriage had been, “I’m glad to hear that you’ve been looking, at least,” Hajime said.
“What else could I do? I haven’t heard from them since then, but I feel like if I leave town I might get their attention again… but if I had any idea who they were… I couldn’t investigate them in any way I could think of, but nobody would be suspicious of me looking at my husband’s records. But there’s nothing there that gives me any ideas.”
Hajime nodded. “If you find anything that might help…” From the pocket of the jacket that lay across his lap he withdrew a business card. As he handed it to her he added, “And we’ll use the resources we have to look for information as well.”
She also nodded, staring at the card with only the second or third smile he’d seen on her face. Like the previous, it was faint, and held no trace of happiness or entertainment. He thought it stemmed from bemusement at the circumstance of such a dryly professional business card for an exorcist.
“Thank you again for coming to talk to us today,” Hajime said formally. “We’ll keep you updated.”
As he slid slightly sideways and reached for the door, she looked over at him abruptly. Her movement and the expression on her face both seemed surprised, as if she hadn’t realized that her conversational companions were leaving so soon — or perhaps that they were leaving at all — and there was in her eyes the desperation of someone that, having just found a source even of slight relief from her pain, wasn’t quite ready to return to the latter yet or even sure that she could. It must have meant a lot to her to be able to unburden herself the way she had.
Hajime stilled. Little comfort as he knew she was likely to take from anything he could offer, he had to say something; Sano was in no state to do it, and something had to be said. Eventually he decided on, “Remember that you had no choice. Try to believe your husband isn’t mad at you. Hope that when we find out the truth it will help you both.”
The act of steeling herself to go on with business as usual was visible in the movement of her body, audible in the long, slow breath she drew. And her voice was perfectly steady as she said, “Thank you.”
Outside the car after that intense conversation, Hajime suddenly found himself wanting a cigarette, as he occasionally did when his emotions were aroused. But he pushed this urge firmly away and began crossing the parking lot toward his own vehicle. “I’ll drive you home,” he told Sano.
“It’s not far,” the young man growled. “I’ll just walk.”
“And harass everyone you meet on the way? Don’t be an idiot.”
Without any further protest Sano gave in — there’d been no reason to refuse in the first place besides his angry desire to be contrary — but as he got into Hajime’s car with the ghost firmly in tow, he was still scowling. Hajime thought he was at a level that could be dealt with verbally instead of through further violence, though, which was good since they were both by now a little ragged.
But before Hajime could start in on a calculated barrage of insults so as not to leave Sano in a worse state than when he’d found him, Sano had a comment of his own to make: “That was good.” With his crossed arms and his bruised and glowering face, the words sounded amusingly out of place. “It was good,” he went on very gruffly, “that you tried to make her feel better. I mean, it didn’t make her fucking feel better, but… it was good that you tried.”
Oddly, surprisingly, Hajime found himself… pleased… by this somewhat inarticulate expression of approbation. He wouldn’t have thought Sano’s opinion could mean much to him on this or any topic, and yet he was distinctly pleased. Therefore it was a little ironic that he replied with the most cutting insult he could come up with. And he wondered, possibly for the first time, to what extent Sano was aware that he did this mostly to deal with the anger rather than out of any real desire to tear him down.
It was not, indeed, very far to Sano’s apartment, though they would have reached the place quicker if its resident had been in any fit condition to give proper directions. Still, reach it they did, eventually, and Hajime was able to take his initial look at Sano’s ‘kinda shit’ home. It was about what he’d expected: old, disrepaired, undoubtedly cheap, creeping toward complete disrespectability. He circled the lot until he located Sano’s car (whose general appearance matched that of the apartment complex with entertaining precision), and pulled into the space next to it.
Several moments had passed since either of them had said anything, and now Hajime gave Sano an assessing look in continued silence. With a slight nod as he decided that Sano was probably back to or at least near his standard levels, he reached out and hit the voice command button next to the radio. “Call Chou,” he ordered.
Sano, who had been about to open the passenger door, subsided with a grunt to listen.
To the surprise of both men (and possibly of Chou himself), the police officer actually answered after only two rings. “You wouldn’t be shit without me on this case, would you?” was his somewhat taunting greeting. “I don’t remember the last time you called me this much. Or is this a new ghost today?”
Sano snorted, but Hajime lifted a hand to silence him. As funny as he thought it would be to see what happened if he let Sano voice his developing opinion of Chou, he couldn’t risk alienating his police contact just now. “No, still the same case,” was his calm response. “Listen. Kenshin Himura was probably just made to look like an innocent bystander during the gunfight that killed him; he might actually have been a deliberate victim. Do you have any more information about him? Anything that might have connected him to the gangs involved, or anyone involved with them?”
Chou made a reluctant noise like a verbal headshake, but promised to look into it. “I’ll get back to you probably in the morning,” he added, “since I still got shit to do.”
“Thank you,” Hajime replied.
With another noise, this one a sort of ‘Whatever,’ Chou hung up.
Sano shook his head, opened his mouth to speak, then shook his head again and said nothing.
“I’ll call you when I hear from him,” Hajime offered as Sano reached for the handle.
“Good.” Sano stood from the car, but caught the door halfway from the closure he’d jerked it toward. He bent and regarded Hajime through it as if for a proper goodbye, yet still had nothing to say. In fact his mind was in such turmoil that Hajime couldn’t even pick up a definitive parting thought; it had been quite a day for him so far, and probably wouldn’t get much better now that they were, yet again, waiting on a phone call.
And unexpectedly the thought drifted across Hajime’s mind that they didn’t necessarily have to wait separately for that call; they could just as easily return to his house, tease the cats, discuss the situation, drink some beer, order pizza again once dinner time rolled around…
But Chou wasn’t likely to call until tomorrow, and Hajime had better things to do than babysit an angry non-paying client until then.
Just as if Sano had been reading his mind — and Hajime would have to decide later to what degree that idea was unsettling — he nodded abruptly and, backing away, closed the door. And the exorcist was left to watch him stalk toward the building, dragging the apparently unresisting Kenshin behind him, in a mixture of emotions and a solitude he suddenly felt a little more keenly than he thought even the events of the day entirely accounted for.
His Own Humanity is an AU series set in modern-day America (plus magic) featuring characters from Rurouni Kenshin (primarily Saitou and Sano) and Gundam Wing (primarily Heero, Duo, Trowa, and Quatre). In chronological order (generally), the stories currently available are:
Sano enlists the help of exorcist Hajime in discovering the nature of the unusual angry shade that's haunting him.
Best friends Heero and Quatre have their work cut out for them assisting longtime curse victims Duo and Trowa.
During Plastic (part 80), Cairo thinks about thinking and other recent changes in his life.
A look at how Hajime and Sano are doing.
A look at how Trowa and Quatre are doing.
A look at how Heero and Duo are doing.
Couple analysis among Heero, Duo, Trowa, and Quatre.
Quatre undergoes an unpleasant magical change; Heero, Duo, and Trowa are forced to face unpleasant truths; and Hajime and Sano may get involved.
During La Confrérie de la Lune Révéré (parts 33-35), Sano's 178-day wait is over as what Hajime has been fearing comes to pass.
During Guest Room Soap Opera (part 3), Cathy learns a lot of interesting facts and Trowa is not happy.
A few days before the epilogue of La Confrérie de la Lune Révéré, Duo and Sano get together to watch football and discuss relationships and magical experiences; Heero listens in on multiple levels.